Aleksander Abramov's superyacht "Titan", currently in the Maldives but not yet sanctioned by New Zealand

Aleksander Aleksandr Abramov, the only known wealthy Russian oligarch currently with investments in New Zealand is not on the list of people to potentially be sanctioned published yesterday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (MFAT)

He owns a $50 million lodge at Helena Bay.

His name was on a 2018 US Treasury department  list which the US administration had been required by law to release and included 114 senior political figures and 96 oligarchs.

The department made clear that this was not a sanctions list.

“The inclusion of individuals or entities… does not and in no way should be interpreted to impose sanctions on those individuals or entities”, the Treasury said in an accompanying statement.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that he Mr Abramov was or may be the subject of US sanctions. Abramov is in fact not the subject of any US sanctions, nor was he included in the list of people to potentially be sanctioned published yesterday by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (MFAT).

An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that he was or may be the subject of US sanctions. Abramov is in fact not the subject of any US sanctions, nor was he included in the list of people to potentially be sanctioned published yesterday by the New Zealand Ministry of
Foreign Affairs and Trade. (MFAT).

The MFAT list was published along with the Prime Minister foreshadowing legislation to sanction Russian investors and investment in New Zealand.

The people and companies to be sanctioned will be listed by MFAT in a schedule to the legislation.

It was also unclear last night whether the sanctions would apply to Russian fishing vessels contracted to New Zealand companies.

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Sealord has previously contracted Russian fishing boats to catch Jack Mackerel.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared to indicate yesterday that the criteria to determine whether someone should be sanctioned would be tight.

“Once the bill has passed, which will focus aligning to the actions of our partners, such as expanding our travel ban list, immediate asset freezes and sanctions on Russian banks with a second tranche to follow focused on a more forensic analysis of Russian investment and New Zealand with ties to the invasion to further extend this sanctions regime,” she said.

“This Bill will be specific and targeted to those funding and supporting the war.

“It will not be blanket sanctions on any Russian person or Russian operation in New Zealand.”

There may be some debate over those definitions. Though both Opposition parties, National and ACT, will support the legislation and its passage under urgency, the National spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, Gerry Brownlee, last night offered a broader set of criteria as to who might be sanctioned.

He was briefed by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta on the legislation on Friday.

Brownlee said that anyone who might be sanctioned would have to demonstrate that there was no funding going into Russia to support the Russian economy “because anything that supports the Russian economy supports the war effort.”

What was clear yesterday was that Government officials have little idea of who the Russians are investing in New Zealand or where that investment has been placed.

They are up against years of Overseas Investment Office decisions, which appear to have paid little scrutiny to the background of Russians investing here.

For example, in 2008, oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and a business partner got approval to buy 100 per cent of Canterbury-based NZ Dairies, which had a  dairy factory at Studholme.

Malofeev, who began his business career in Moscow-based Renaissance Capital with New Zealand rich-lister Stephen Jennings, owned a pro-Putin publishing company, had close ties to the Kremlin and widespread connections with the Orthodox Church and the extreme right in Europe when the OIO approved his investment.

He exited his New Zealand investment in 2012 after a court case in London alleging fraud within his dairy company, Nutritek, and the company went bankrupt.

The dairy factory was subsequently bought by Fonterra.

Since then, Malofeev has participated in the organisation and sponsorship of illegal military operations in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Under existing New Zealand law, only limited sanctions can be imposed without a UN Security Council resolution.

The Government’s intention to introduce the sanctions legislation raises questions as to why it had not gone ahead with a proposal from the last National Government for an autonomous sanctions regime that would have allowed New Zealand to introduce its own sanctions without UN approval.

The Five Eyes partners and the European Union all have such legislation.

MFAT, in their Regulatory Impact Statement on National’s Bill, said the inability to impose sanctions without Security Council approval meant New Zealand was unable to participate fully in a wider network of countries applying sanctions “so as to contribute to their overall transparency and effectiveness.”

“Moreover, there is a growing risk of New Zealand being perceived as an easy target because of gaps in the range of sanction measures able to be imposed,” the statement said.

“For these reasons, New Zealand is increasingly regarded as being out of step with security partners such as Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States.”

The Bill was opposed by the Labour Opposition at the time, and National could not get support for it from its coalition partner, the Maori Party.

Labour did not go ahead with the Bill after it became Government in 2017.

“We had concerns that the bill, as it stood, didn’t cover cybersecurity issues, didn’t cover, for instance, human rights abuses,” Ardern said yesterday.

“So the minister started a process to work through what if we did have an autonomous sanctions regime, how would we make sure that it adequately covered those issues, but also acknowledged that New Zealand has always otherwise used our multilateral system.

“So it’s a big change, and we didn’t take that chance lightly.”

Government sources have told POLITIK that another reason the Government was reluctant to proceed with an autonomous sanctions regime was that it could see New Zealand pressured into sanctions that provoked retaliatory action against the country because it was the smallest in Five Eyes.

There are real concerns within the Government that this could undermine New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.

The most obvious would be a hawkish US-Australian call for sanctions on China over human rights issues. It was felt this could undermine the independent foreign policy, the soruce said.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta alluded to this yesterday.

“Parallel to the process of a targeted sanctions bill for Russia, I’ll be stewarding through with the consideration of cabinet, the approach to a broader autonomous sanctions Bill,” she said.

“But we stand by the approach that we took, which was you had a bill drafted in 2012, it languished for some time, it could have been put forward by the then Government but wasn’t so in 2017 we saw that it wasn’t fit for purpose.

“We undertook to take a broader approach with human rights at its core, but also favouring multilateralism and also ensuring that our independent foreign policy stance could be considered within the creation of an autonomous sanctions bill.

“And I’m hopeful that in the next few weeks, cabinet will be able to consider that approach.”

Brownlee has been promoting a re-consideration of the original National Bill.

But yesterday, he was cautiously optimistic that this week’s Russia sanctions Bill would do the job over the three years it will be in place.

“I think it all depends on how the regulation is now written,” he told POLITIK.

“But the way I read it, the way I think it will be applied, I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty in preventing people from using New Zealand to hide money, launder money. become a safe haven, whatever it is.”

Already the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced this legislation and, it would seem, an autonomous sanctions regime and may also force an examination of the performance of the Overseas Investment Office.

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