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Why can’t Western governments tell us what they’re actually doing to sanction Russian kleptocrats?

We are still waiting to hear back from countries about the measures they have taken to locate and seize assets

Composite illustration showing a hand, coloured in blue, trying to reach for information on yachts, mansions and other assets, shown under a lock

Illustration: Transparency International

It’s International Right to Know Day, and a chance to remind governments of their responsibility to uphold the public’s right to information. This year, we are reflecting on challenges Transparency International and our partners are facing in obtaining critical information related to targeted sanctions imposed on Russian elites since the invasion of Ukraine.

Access to information allows us all to hold governments to account. It empowers journalists and civil society to investigate matters of public concern. It also enables us to make suggestions on how things can be done better.

When unleashing targeted sanctions, Western governments promised to go after Kremlin-connected individuals’ assets. Sanctions have remained an important part of public discourse. But more than a year and a half later, we still don’t have enough information to adequately assess the success of these measures. (Jump straight to the overall results.)

An information void on the progress to track down kleptocratic wealth

Transparency International has maintained that sanctions alone will not result in accountability and pressed decision-makers to take additional steps to increase the chances of locating potentially corrupt assets. One positive development was the creation of the Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs (REPO) Task Force: Because ownership of properties and other high-value assets often stretches across borders, multilateral cooperation is critical to track them down.

We have been encouraging governments to publicly share the measures they have taken – both individually and collectively – and what outcomes they have seen. However, they have released very little information on how these sanctions have been working in practice.

Earlier this year, as the anniversary of the war in Ukraine approached, together with our national chapters and partners we sent freedom of information requests to 20 jurisdictions that are implementing such sanctions. Our questions were related to the financial sanctions imposed, assets targeted, and investigations launched into potentially unexplained wealth or other wrongdoing. We thought our questions would be straightforward enough for all jurisdictions to answer, as we assumed they would be carefully tracking the measures they have put in place.

From the responses we received, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

What information did we request?

We approached the most relevant agencies of 19 countries and the European Commission with these questions:

  1. What is the total number of individuals who have been actually financially sanctioned by the authorities of your country since the start of the war?
  2. What is the total number of individuals who have been sanctioned by visa/entry restrictions by the authorities of your country since the start of the war?
  3. What is the total number of legal entities that have actually been financially sanctioned by the authorities of your country since the start of the war?
  4. What is the estimated total value of the frozen assets?
  5. What type of assets have been frozen (i.e., bank accounts, real estate, yachts, etc.)? What is the number and total value per asset type?
  6. How many court cases have been initiated to process the seizure and confiscation of frozen assets since the start of the war? To clarify, we wish to understand the number of cases that have been filed in relation to underlying criminal offences that would make the assets subject to potential confiscation.
  7. How many formal investigations have been started since the start of the war related to sanctioned individuals or professional enablers on sanctions evasion, money laundering, corruption or other criminal offences linked to any of the sanctions imposed by your country?

Most struggling to respond to freedom of information requests

Over eight months have passed since we sent our requests, and seven countries are yet to provide any information. Among them are Canada, Germany and the United States.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and Australia have rejected our requests:

  • The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs told us that they can provide documents but not information. We then rephrased our request and asked for the actual documents that contain information on assets frozen, individuals and entities financially sanctioned, and so on. However, this still wasn’t sufficient to warrant public disclosure – even partially. Instead, we were told that processing our request “would constitute a substantial and unreasonable diversion of the department’s resources”.
  • The UK’s Treasury estimated that searching their records and extracting our requested information “would exceed a set limit which is known as the appropriate limit”. They further noted that they are “unable to readily access the data […] without manual sifting, reviewing and extracting information from reports.”

Seven countries provided only partial information. For some questions, agencies in charge of sanctions coordination simply said that the matter fell under another authority – instead of endeavouring to obtain their responses, also for their own information. The Ministry of Economy and Finance of France was a positive exception: Not only did they get back to us very quickly, but also forwarded outstanding questions to two other authorities.

We were able to obtain sufficiently complete answers only in three countries – Estonia, Cyprus and Portugal. It wasn’t always a smooth process, however. Getting a full response was especially time-consuming in Estonia, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred Transparency International Estonia to three different authorities. Only by end of April had all authorities managed to respond.

Remarkably, we received wildly inconsistent responses from across EU member states. Some were truly puzzling.

  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands told us they didn’t have information on financial sanctions because these are applied by banks. At the same time, they referenced foreign minister’s letter to the parliament which, in fact, acknowledges the government’s obligation to implement sanctions when it comes to assets such as vessels.
  • Authorities in the Czech Republic explained to our Czech chapter that they have no legal right to assess the value of frozen assets and provided us with a rough estimate of assets frozen in connection to Russian sanctions since 2014.
  • Spain’s Ministry of Interior told Transparency International Spain that the country hadn’t financially sanctioned anyone because sanctions are applied by the EU. Neither the ministry nor the Presidency of the Government appeared to have the data on asset freezes.

The European Commission, which coordinates member states’ sanctions implementation efforts, asked to extend the deadline for responding twice. When they finally got back to us in May – more than four months after Transparency International EU submitted the request – their response was very disappointing. For the question on the actual financial sanctions, they referred us to the annexes of relevant legal acts that include only the names of designated individuals and entities. The Commission also failed to provide high-level information on assets frozen and investigations started, citing limitations on information-sharing and confidentiality issues – even as some EU governments did provide answers to these very questions.

We learned that there is still much we don’t know

Disappointingly, most countries we wrote to appear unwilling or unable to report key information on their progress with sanctions implementation.

In the EU, we received some confused responses to questions on the actual financial sanctions applied. France, Luxembourg, Spain and even the European Commission appeared to misunderstand what we were after, and reported numbers of individuals and entities who have been added to EU’s targeted sanctions list.

While decisions to impose sanctions are indeed taken at the EU level, it is member states who are required to implement them. This includes freezing designated individuals’ assets within their jurisdictions, if any. Governments are also expected to regularly report on their progress to the EU, so should have no difficulty to provide this information to the public as well.

Number of individuals and entities financially sanctioned in surveyed countries

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*An authority in Portugal explained that 39 restrictive measures have been applied, but a distinction cannot be made between individuals and entities.

From the responses we did receive, it appears that freezing of bank accounts and financial assets are the predominant means of enforcing targeted sanctions. Even then, this information is not systematically available everywhere. Many countries also struggled to estimate the total value of what’s been frozen.

Estimated value of assets frozen in surveyed countries (million euros)

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*An authority in the Czech Republic provided an estimated value of assets frozen since 2014.

Going beyond sanctions, formal investigations into sanctioned individuals or professional enablers have been launched in Cyprus and Estonia – nine and 45, respectively. Several others declined to respond due to restrictions on sharing such information. This was the case in France, where prosecutors did in fact launch at least one investigation into suspect assets of several sanctioned individuals following a complaint from Transparency International France.

None of the surveyed countries reported court cases to process the seizure and confiscation of frozen assets. Some said there are none, while others explained that they are legally restricted from sharing such information.

Governments must enable an informed public debate

Our experience making freedom of information requests has illustrated continued obstacles that prevent civil society and the wider public to meaningfully scrutinise the effectiveness of targeted sanctions. More needs to be done to improve the way that information is managed internally, so that responsible government agencies have easy access to information that is subject to public disclosure. It’s also crucial that governments provide information in a timely manner and stick to the deadlines set by law. We have also seen that significant improvement is required across the EU, where governments and the Commission should be coordinating better so that all are able to provide equally comprehensive information.

The REPO Task Force has an important role in shedding light on this issue, too. That is why, at the beginning of the year we wrote to its several members, calling on them to publicly share information on the results of their joint efforts, along with the challenges hampering their progress.

In a welcome move, in March REPO issued a public statement. It came with a global advisory on sanctions evasion, which confirms the need to fix the systemic loopholes Transparency International had previously identified. However, the update on their work did little to alleviate our concern that multilateral efforts have focused too much on sanctions, as this alone will not address the underlying dirty money problems or bring real accountability.

From the information we did receive from governments, it’s clear that they are yet to advance from merely freezing to investigating potential wrongdoing and confiscating assets that are confirmed to be proceeds of corruption or connected to other criminality. They also need to do much more to hold financial intermediaries to account when they enable money laundering, corruption or sanctions evasion.

Transparency International continues to call on governments to proactively disclose information on how their implementation of sanctions is progressing. This will allow the public to evaluate their efforts, and enable a debate on policy and enforcement solutions that are still needed for actual accountability.

Most surveyed countries also need to improve their right-to-information frameworks and practices. While our requests were one-off, the outcome doesn't paint a favourable picture about public authorities’ information management practices and respect for freedom of information, which is a human right.

Transparency International would like to thank everyone who joined us in sending these freedom of information requests: our chapters in Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United States; Transparency International EU; and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

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