Leonid Nevzlin: “Swiss banks have to choose – money or decency”

Russian businessman Leonid Nevzlin fled Putin’s regime to Israel. swissinfo.ch

Series How Putin’s opponents see Switzerland, episode 4:

How effective are Western sanctions against Russia? What role does Switzerland play in the war against Ukraine? We posed these questions to President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics. Our series continues with former energy tycoon Leonid Nevzlin.

This content was published on September 29, 2022 – 11:00

Elena Servettaz

Switzerland plays an important role as a traditional haven for Russian assets and a trading hub for Russian commodities. It must not hide behind its neutrality but must actively contribute to ensuring that the Russian war regime exhausts its resources. This is the consensus of all the opinion leaders of the Russian opposition to whom SWI swissinfo.ch spoke.

Series: The Russian opposition looks at Switzerland

For this series of interviews, we reached out to the most relevant voices currently speaking out against the Kremlin. Most of them had to leave the country because of their strong opposition. Putin’s opponent and former chess champion Garry Kasparov now lives in Croatia and the United States; entrepreneur Leonid Nevzlin fled to Israel; economist Sergei Guriev moved to France; and economist Sergey Aleksashenko lives in Washington. Opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has been detained in Russia since April this year.

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Born in Russia, Leonid Nevzlin was part of the senior management of the Menatep Group, one of the first private banks in post-Soviet Russia, and its subsidiary Yukos Oil Company. He fled to Israel after the Kremlin launched a crackdown on politically troublesome business elites in 2003. In 2003, the Russian state expropriated Yukos and went after its leaders, jailing the CEO of the company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had become a political threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin. , for fraud and tax evasion.

Nevzlin, a close associate of Khodorkovsky and a key player in Yukos, was also targeted by an arrest warrant at the time but managed to flee to Israel. In 2008, a Russian court sentenced him to life behind bars in absentia for murder. Nevzlin has always denied the charges, saying they were part of a plot to discredit Khodorkovsky. Russia’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in his favor six years later, concluding that Moscow had waged a “ruthless campaign to destroy him”. The arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled in July that the expropriation of Yukos was illegal and contrary to international law.

In Israel, Nevzlin established himself as an influential businessman and philanthropist. He was president of the Russian Jewish Congress and owns 25% of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Nevzlin renounced his Russian citizenship, declaring, “Everything Putin touches dies.”

SWI: Mr. Nevzlin, what leverage does Switzerland have against Russia in terms of international sanctions?

Leonid Nevzlin: The Swiss bank accounts belonging to Putin’s regime cronies are still open and functioning. As the Swiss government joins the European Union sanctions against Russia – which is the right thing to do – the banks are not doing enough to trace the accounts of those sanctioned. They do not take the measures that would be appropriate to the situation.

SWI: But it is said that Swiss banks avoid relations with Russia, if only for reputational reasons. Do you doubt it?

LN: I understand the temptation to “not notice” certain suspicious transactions when billions of euros are at stake, not to mention the reputation of a banking system known to be the most reliable for customers around the world. But it is important to understand there are more important things than money. People’s lives, European values ​​and the future of the whole continent are at stake. This is why even the banks, as contradictory as it may seem, have to choose between money and international solidarity, that is- ie decency.

SWI: Swiss banks have a legal obligation to report suspicious assets and movements. Isn’t that enough?

LN: I am convinced that it is necessary to study in detail the origin of the funds that Russian clients hold in Swiss banks. First freeze, second investigate, then unfreeze if nothing illegal was found. We were faced with a similar situation in 2007. That year, Switzerland released funds from Yukos, at the request of the Russian prosecutor’s office. It involved setting a legal precedent, but it solved the problem.

SWI: What do you expect from the Swiss authorities?

LN: As before, I would like to see further investigations and real consequences for the culprits.

I remember how, in 2015, the Swiss prosecutor refused to conduct any investigation after [jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny asked for one regarding the son of Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika. It was an outrageous decision. If in the past the authorities had not turned a blind eye to the massive flows of money, stemming from corruption schemes and criminal activities in Russia, perhaps Putin’s friends would not feel such impunity. .

+ Navalny on the Artyom Chaika case:

Swiss authorities also need to take a closer look at real estate transactions. This is because many buyers are acting on someone else’s behalf. In a situation where Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has created a threat to the whole world, it is better to do too much than not do enough under the guise of neutrality.

Michael Khodorkovsky on Switzerland’s neutrality

Michael Khodorkovsky is a Russian opposition politician in exile in London and former CEO of Russian oil giant Yukos. In a written response to a question from SWI swissinfo.ch, he shared his views on Swiss neutrality

“Thanks to its status of neutrality outside of any alliance, Switzerland offers the possibility of dealing safely on its territory,” Khodorkovsky said. “This includes consular activities, visa issues, confidential communications, including digital ones. [Switzerland also] restricts the activities of the intelligence services of other countries on its territory.

“At the same time, it is clear that it is politically, economically and culturally impossible to belong to Europe without sharing fundamental European values,” he added. “That’s why there was no alternative to developing the traditional Swiss concept of neutrality.”

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SWI: So you’re saying that neutrality serves as an excuse for Switzerland not to stick to the status quo?

LN: I respect this basic, fundamental principle of the Swiss state. But I also see that neutrality is a sacred cow that is incompatible with the situation in Europe when a large-scale war is underway. Switzerland has joined the European Union sanctions, which is an important decision for this country.


A Russian tank in Ukraine. Keystone / Stringer

I must say that Putin did not expect this. In March, his entourage was badly shaken. But as far as I know, Switzerland does not supply arms or ammunition to Ukraine. I think Switzerland, like Israel, should gather courage and decide faster. When war rages, the world becomes more black or white and there is less room for shades of gray.

SWI: How effective have the sanctions been so far? And what else is needed?

LN: The sanctions against the Putin regime have two main objectives. First, they aim to deprive Putin of the money he needs to finance the war in Ukraine. The most effective solution here is to introduce an embargo on Russian oil and stop buying Russian gas. These measures will be the most painful for Europe. That is why European governments delayed them as much as possible.

They haven’t really entered into force yet, which allows Russia to save face for now: the economy hasn’t collapsed, the ruble is even stronger than before, while the Kremlin continues even to blackmail EU countries by cutting gas supplies. But when Europe stops buying gas from Russia for good, Moscow will have a much harder time pretending that the sanctions aren’t working.

The second objective of the sanctions is to slow Russia’s technological development of Russia to such an extent that a new military invasion, whether in Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic countries, would be impossible within the next five or ten years. That is why a technology import ban has been imposed. The government cannot change and keep its ideology of hatred, fascism and imperial irredentism; but the regime will have a reduced ability to kill people and destroy cities.

SWI: What should the West do if it wants the war to end with Putin’s defeat?

LN: In recent news, we see that Ukraine has achieved many successes thanks to the courage of its soldiers and foreign military aid. The West must supply arms to Ukraine, in greater quantities and more quickly. We have to think about the coming winter and give ourselves the means to help the civilian populations in the cities where the infrastructures are destroyed.

The interview took place in writing.
Edited and adapted in German by Balz Rigendinger

Series How Putin’s Opponents View Switzerland

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