The Government’s eyes are now turning to see whether any Russian oligarchs with connections to Russian President, Vladimir Putin, have New Zealand connections.
Alexander Abramov, a Russian steel magnate,who owns a luxury lodge in the Bay of Islands, is one such obvious candidate.
Last night his private jet had touched down in San Francisco, leading to speculation that he might be headed to New Zealand and his beachside retreat.
He has long had a close association with Putin.
And his New Zealand lodge-owning company has had a relationship with NZ First leader, Winston Peters.
Abramov’s $50 million lodge in Helena Bay in the Bay of Islands is in the Northland electorate which Peters represented from 2015 – 2017.
In 2018 Abramov was named in a list of 96 Russian oligarchs by the U.S. Treasury, which was required to name the companies and individuals close to President Putin and consider whether to sanction them under legislation meant to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, as well as its human rights violations, the annexation of Crimea and previous military operations in eastern Ukraine.
he is a co-founder of Evraz, the second-largest steelmaker in Russia. He owns 19.3% of the company as well as 1.6% of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s biggest nickel producer. Other interests include 40% of London-based Truphone and 19.3% of Russia Forest Products Group, a Siberian timber and transport business.
The Helena Bay lodge was formally opened by Peters in 2016 when he was M.P. for Northland.
The lodge also formed a relationship with local iwi, Ngati Wai.
In 2017, Ngatiwai Trust Board chair Haydn Edmonds said Abramov was a businessman who had come into the area and made positive economic benefits available for local people in terms of jobs and was someone who is committed to contributing to the local community and whenua in a positive way.
“Some on Social Media have asked who are getting the “kickbacks” from this businessman,” he said.
“Well, let me say the only kickbacks are to the local community and the economic benefits of jobs being created that were once never there.”
Peters told POLITIK last night that he had never met or spoken to Abramov (who was not present at the opening).
But Peters and NZ First have been interested in Russia for some time.
Peters insisted on including the completion of a Free Trade Agreement with Russia and Belarus in the 2017 Coalition Agreement.
And when he was Foreign Minister in 2018, he said there was “no evidence” Russia was involved in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, with 298 fatalities.
A Dutch-led investigation determined a Russian-made missile fired from pro-Russian rebel territory was to blame.
“It was a former Russian missile, true – but who was responsible for setting it off?” Mr Peters said.
“They didn’t find… that the instigator of that atrocity was doing it at the behest of the Russian government.”
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would not confirm last night whether Abramov was on any New Zealand sanctions list but said that the Government was working closely with allies in compiling its list of people to be sanctioned.
That would indicate that Abramov is highly likely to be on any list because he has been sanctioned by the United States since 2018.
Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index says he is worth at least $NZ11 billion. He was named in last year’s Pandora Papers exposure of individuals with hefty secret bank accounts in Switzerland, Panama and the United Arab Emirates.
Furthermore, he is a business partner of Roman Abramovich, who has relinquished his “stewardship and care” of London’s Chelsea Football (soccer) Club because he is coming under intense scrutiny in Britain because of his ties to Putin.
On Thursday, Labour MP Chris Bryant told the House of Commons that Abramovich should have some of his assets seized and questioned whether he should be allowed to operate a football club in the U.K.
Bryant read out a leaked Home Office document which suggested the Chelsea Football Club owner should not be able to base himself in the U.K.
Applying sanctions to Abramov within New Zealand may be more problematic.
The Overseas Investment Office does apply a “good character” test to foreign investors seeking to invest in New Zealand, but in 2018, the Auditor General found that this was based largely on information supplied by the applicant and internet searches.
Currently, New Zealand law allows the country to implement sanctions imposed by the Security Council under the United Nations Act 1946.
Thus at present, New Zealand can only apply a limited range of sanctions and sanction-type measures in an ad hoc way within existing policy and legal frameworks.
These include the refusal of entry visas, diplomatic sanctions such as the expulsion of diplomats, the suspension of official visits and the suspension of aid and cooperation.
Beyond that, any sanctions would usually require their own act of Parliament.
The National Party has been promoting the idea of an Autonomous Sanctions Act, which would allow New Zealand to implement unilateral sanctions by regulation. It first pitched this idea when it was in Government in 2012, but there was little urgency applied to its passage into law.
This would allow the Government to list individuals or entities targeted by sanction measures; place restrictions on using or dealing with assets linked to those persons or entities; and to restrict the sale, procurement or transfer of goods and services.
Obviously, the ability to sanction individuals would be an important tool with Mr Abramov.
In Australia, which has an autonomous sanctions act, the Opposition Labour Party is proposing the country ban all traders with Russia.
Its Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said yesterday that Labor would offer support to further sanctions against the Kremlin, including severing all trade with Russia – provided such a drastic move could be justified.
“I’ve said we will give bipartisan support to the most comprehensive and heaviest sanctions that Australia can and should take,” she said.
New Zealand’s trade with Russia is small (less than $250 million of exports) and mostly dairy products. Imports are almost entirely oil.
The argument against autonomous sanctions is that for a small country like New Zealand, imposing sanctions without the protection of a major grouping such as the U.N. could easily see the country picked off in retaliatory action.
It is easy to see that any sanctions imposed on China might meet a disproportionate reaction.
But there is little else that New Zealand can do against Russia.
There may soon be questions about our willingness to admit refugees, particularly of Russians who may have family here and who want to leave Putin’s Russia.
The Rugby World Cup may decide to expel Russia, and there remains the question of whether the Government will expel the Ambassador.
But some action against Abramov would seem logical.