Banks are gatekeepers of sanctions — and they often miss the target
Originally published on Global Voices
Image by Alistair MacRobert Free to use under Unsplash License.
As of October 25 the Czech Republic joined the list of countries (Finland, Poland and Baltic States) barring citizens of Russia who are holders of valid Schengen visas from entering the country. In an interview with BBC on October 25, the deputy minister for Europe said there were security reasons, moral and symbolic reasons to move forward with the decision the Czech Republic announced on October 12. “When Ukrainians are dying and fighting to liberate their country, Russian tourists would enjoy non-essential travel,” said Jaroslav Kurfürst. The decision applies to Russian citizens fleeing mobilization as well, the deputy minister explained.
A gradual ban by EU member states on Russian citizens entering their borders has significantly increased the number of arrivals from Russia elsewhere in neighboring countries. On October 4, Forbes Russia put the total number of Russians who have left Russia at around 700,000 after September 21 — the date President Putin announced partial mobilization. How many have left since then is not clear.
The hunt for money transfer solutions
But, while it is one thing to purchase a ticket and flee, it is another to continue sustaining yourself while abroad. With Russia’s banking system facing extensive sanctions many Russian citizens have been resorting to alternative ways of transferring their savings outside of Russia since the invasion. According to Reuters, “Russian citizens withdrew 458 billion roubles ($7.5 billion) in cash from banks in September, with the bulk of the outflow recorded in the second half of the month when increased numbers of people were leaving the country.” Global Voices collected some of these stories from interviews. We have changed names and have redacted the details of precise money transfers for the safety of those involved.
One way these funds are transferred is through personal contacts. A person making the transaction from Russia must first find a contact willing to carry out the transfer in the country where the transfer is being sent to. Once there is a confirmation, the cash is hand transferred to a person in Russia while the contact abroad transfers cash to a trusted receiver designated by the sender, also in cash to avoid suspicion. In March, Slate reported how Russians were relying on a money transfer system similar to hawala — a money transfer system historically used by South Asian traders that avoids direct bank transfers. “For example, a Russian wants to transfer 1,000 euros to someone in Europe. They find a person with bank accounts in Russia and Europe and put 1,000 euros in rubles to this person’s Russian account. The latter sends 1,000 euros from their European account to the beneficiary in Europe,” reported Slate.
In Georgia, another country that has seen a large influx of Russians since the invasion in February and later after the call for partial mobilization, banks and money transfer services have sufficed. According to the reporting by Voice of America, “between April and September, Russians transferred more than $1 billion to Georgia via banks or money-transfer services.”
Even when money is legitimately acquired and needed for legitimate purposes in the EU, and moved through the correct channels, people often run up against the wall of banking sanctions.
“This has been a nightmare,” says Olga [name changed], who is a doctoral student in one of the European countries, and a single mom. In the spring of 2022 Olga managed to sell her little flat in Moscow, closing her mortgage and, with the little money she had left, she wanted to make a downpayment for the flat where she and her son might live in the EU country. Olga has been studying for six years in the EU, and bought her flat early on with her Moscow office worker salary, carrying the mortgage responsibility for years.
While in the EU, she has had to resort to cleaning jobs in order to support her son and herself, and pay the mortgage. However, when she attempted to transfer money from the flat she had just sold, the EU bank blocked the transaction, despite the proof of documents that the money was from the sale of her flat in Moscow.
“They noted that the people who bought my flat took a mortgage to do it in Sberbank. The money was later transferred to another bank but to the bank clerks in the EU it did not matter. They said that I used Sberbank in this deal, which was under sanctions, and thus, I can not bring the money in the EU.”
Sberbank was among the Russian banks added to the EU sanctions list in June 2022.
Olga had to turn to various ways of getting her money out of the country: in cash with friends who now rarely travel; through small transactions to family members (most were also blocked), even using the method described above through trusted contacts found online. And yet, she still cannot use the money from selling her only asset to improve her and her son’s living arrangements in Europe. All because banks, just as airlines do with visas, are the ones on whom the task of implementing sanctions falls, and they make conservative decisions to protect themselves. Quite often, these decisions have nothing to do with the real intentions or essence of the sanctions.
In Russian-language Telegram there are dozens of channels that advise people how to transfer their money abroad when European banks are refusing to accept them. Until the early November 2022, they agreed that one of the safest ways to do that is to buy cryptocurrency. However, after the news on the FTX crypto exchange filing for bankruptcy, the posts have become less optimistic.
Some Telegram channels offer ways to open credit cards in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan, which are also the two popular countries for people running from the military draft. Information is usually gossip-like and incomplete. For example, some channels claim that it is still possible to open an account in three private Turkish banks without a permanent residence permit, while other say it is not possible.
Information on Georgian banks differs as well. For many people, opening a foreign account becomes a necessity even if they stay in Russia: it is no longer possible to use Apple or Google app services without the card from abroad. Some channels claim that there are US online stores where even a card from Belarus will do the trick. There are also special channels where people discuss how their money was lost because of difficulties with Swift transactions, which in some cases are “lost” in corresponding banks for months in a row. Larisa [name changed] claims: “My husband is a sailor, and his employers sent him his salary on November 1st, and it still has not arrived… The destination bank says they do not have it, and the bank that sent it says that transaction is done…”
On November 16, the pay system Payoneer announced that it would no longer work with Russians. The system was used by many activists, artists and social media creators to transfer money from Patreon to the Russian banks not under sanctions where donations could be collected from abroad. Patreon was blocked by Russia in August 2022 for hosting the Feminist Anti-war Resistance’s poster statement, but continued working with Russians till this day.
There are fewer and fewer ways of continuing using global financial services for Russians, both at home and abroad. While it does create certain difficulties for the Russian government and oligarchs, it’s the ordinary people who take the hardest hit.
Written by Arzu Geybullayeva, Daria Dergacheva