Those Who Are (and Are Not) Sheltered From the Panama Papers
Those Who Are (and Are Not) Sheltered From the Panama Papers
SummaryOn April 3, the Panama Papers hit media outlets around the world, and the fallout was swift. A prime minister lost his job, and other global leaders are under mounting pressure to account for their actions. But the effects of the leaks are not evenly spread; the documents contained far more information about the offshore activities of individuals in the developing world than in the developed world. Whatever the reasons for the imbalance, it will likely limit the papers' impact. In the developing world, long histories of corruption have dulled the public's sensitivity to scandal, and repressive governments leave little room for popular backlash.
So although less information was released on Western leaders, it is already doing more damage. Iceland's leader has left his post, and relatively minor revelations have had a disporportionately large impact in the United Kingdom and France. Meanwhile, in the developing world, the Panama Papers' effects have been most strongly felt in the former Soviet Union, a region in which political tensions were already high. The leaks' results have been more mixed in China, where they have provided new targets for the anti-corruption drive already underway but have also implicated figures close to the administration's upper ranks.
This is only the beginning. The Panama Papers are the largest information dump of their kind, and the information that has been released so far appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. They are also the latest in a string of public leaks that seem to be happening more and more frequently. As revelations continue to surface, calls for greater global transparency will only get louder.
- Former Soviet Union
- Latin America
- Middle East and North Africa
- Sub-Saharan Africa
- South Asia
AzerbaijanAs in Russia and Kazakhstan, corruption charges are a perennial feature of Azerbaijani politics. President Ilham Aliyev, the son of Azerbaijan's third president, and his wife, Mehriban, both come from influential families with extensive business connections at home and abroad. Several members of the president's family, including his wife, children and sister, have now been linked to secret offshore companies.
Nonetheless, little will come of the reports in Azerbaijan. The political opposition is too weak to challenge the Aliyevs, and the media have already begun to spin the accusations as Western propaganda. Given the country's poor economic conditions, the scandal could spark protests, which Baku can quickly quell.
GeorgiaFormer Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's foreign business dealings are also included in the Panama Papers. Allegations of corruption have plagued Ivanishvili ever since he threw his hat into the political arena in 2011. But until now, the accusations had centered on his activities in Russia.
Ivanishvili's power in Georgia has been steady for the past four years. In Tbilisi, he remains a kingmaker, planting his followers in all the country's top positions. His Georgian Dream coalition is fracturing, however, holding only a slight majority in the legislature. With parliamentary elections set for this fall, accusations are already flying between Georgia's various political parties. Although most of the country's population has ignored the news so far, the Panama Papers will fuel the opposition's politicking. Moreover, if it gains more traction among the people, the scandal could erode Ivanishvili's influence at a time when his ruling coalition is already falling apart.
KazakhstanAllegations of corruption, particularly concerning President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family and friends, are constant and widespread in Kazakhstan. But because the country is on the verge of both economic recession and a succession of power, the fresh accusations could have greater impact than usual.
Nazarbayev's grandson Nurali Aliyev is accused of ties to offshore accounts. Just two weeks ago, Aliyev stepped down as deputy mayor of Astana to return to business, inviting speculation within the Kazakh media over his motives. Aliyev has long been considered a possible eventual successor to the presidency, although he is still too young to take a top government position.
On the other hand, his mother, Dariga, is a viable successor and already one of the most powerful figures in Kazakh politics. Following the March 20 parliamentary elections, she unexpectedly did not take a position in the legislature. This has led to speculation that she is jockeying for a more influential position before the formal succession commences. As the power struggle in Kazakhstan begins in earnest, rival political elites could use corruption charges provided by the Panama Papers against Aliyev or his mother.
RussiaIn Russia, the loudest corruption allegations concern President Vladimir Putin. Although the president's name does not appear in any of the 11.5 million documents published, those of three of his closest friends — Sergei Roldugin, Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg — do.
Longtime intermediaries for Putin's business, the Rotenberg brothers are unsurprising inclusions in the Panama Papers. Among Russia's elite, the brothers are not decision-makers. Nonetheless, they are considered to be some of the country's highest-ranked loyalists, trusted to handle Putin's furtive financial and business affairs. Roldugin, a cellist, is also outside of Russian politics. But he, too, is a loyalist and one of Putin's trusted associates; in fact, he is godfather to Putin's eldest daughter. Following the Panama Papers leaks, Roldugin stands accused of moving more than $2 billion for the president.
The Kremlin's reaction to the Panama Papers actually anticipated their release. Nearly two weeks ago, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned journalists that a Western "information attack" on Putin was forthcoming but that it would not be factually accurate. On April 5, two days after the release, Peskov went a step further, denouncing the Panama Papers as a demonstration of "Putinphobia" and claiming that the journalists' allegations were nothing new. Indeed, corruption charges against Putin and his close friends predate the president's rise to power. By now, they have been assimilated into the Russian people's mindset.
Peskov also called the papers an attempt to undermine Russia before its elections in September. In this, too, there is a hint of truth. Putin's administration has been concerned about the possibility of protests after the elections, on a scale comparable to — or perhaps worse than — the mass demonstrations that followed the 2011 parliamentary elections. In the 2011 protests, corruption in the Kremlin was a central theme. Renewed corruption accusations could compound public resentment over the weak economy in Russia, fueling larger protests.
To reduce the risk of protest, the Kremlin is trying to turn the Panama Papers into a rallying point. Russian media and the government continually highlight this as another attack on the country and its president. After the West imposed sanctions on Russia, similar rhetoric was used successfully, reviving nationalism across the country.
UkraineOf all the former Soviet states, Ukraine will likely see the greatest fallout from the Panama Papers, which allege that President Petro Poroshenko holds accounts offshore. In response to the revelations, Ukrainian politicians are already calling for an investigation into Poroshenko's hidden funds. The head of the Radical Party has even pushed for the president's impeachment. But Ukraine's Office of the Prosecutor General said the papers contain no evidence that Poroshenko committed any crimes. For his part, Poroshenko has gone on the defensive. In a string of tweets, the president called himself the first of Ukraine's leaders to take corruption seriously. At the same time, he has skirted the issue of his culpability, claiming that he handed management of his assets over to a consulting firm upon taking office.
The papers' publication came at an inconvenient time for Poroshenko. Over the past week, the president had been close to a deal on a parliamentary coalition between his party, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's People's Front and a group of independent lawmakers. In light of the scandal, Poroshenko's faction now believes the deal may not come through after all. Poroshenko had been lobbying for the new government, a prerequisite for Ukraine to receive its next tranche of money from the International Monetary Fund and increased financial assistance from the United States. Poroshenko's mention in the Panama Papers could not only further destabilize the fragile government, but it may also weaken the president's rule.
FranceIn France, the fallout from the papers has landed mostly on the National Front, a right-wing party that has found some electoral success of late. They implicate former party adviser Frederic Chatillon, who was previously charged with electoral fraud related to the 2012 election. The National Front has already distanced itself from Chatillon. Evidence of offshore financing would be particularly detrimental if it was linked to party leaders, who have crafted an image of their party as honorable alternatives to their corrupt establishment counterparts.
IcelandThe Panama Papers have had the biggest impact in one of Europe's smallest countries: Iceland. The papers revealed that Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson made suspicious transactions of some bank shares before the global financial crisis of 2008. Icelanders took to the streets in protest, and the prime minister resigned. (He would later say he had merely "stepped aside for an unknown period.") His coalition in parliament now appears insecure. A snap election could bring to power the Pirate Party, an anti-establishment party that currently leads in polls and advocates a system of direct democracy.
United KingdomIn the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has borne the brunt of the anger over the papers. His father was listed among those who held offshore accounts, and Cameron has now had to admit to owning a tax-efficient product before his premiership began. The media have begun to question actions he took in 2013 that appeared to hinder the process of increasing the transparency of offshore havens. Cameron's interference might have been in Britain's interest, since the United Kingdom could be said to have benefited from the global tax avoidance industry. Regardless of Cameron's intentions, the subject has added fire to an already heated atmosphere surrounding the Brexit referendum. Though the latest leaks are unlikely to unseat Cameron on their own, further revelations could, and any damage done to the British prime minister's reputation will hurt his campaign to remain in the European Union as well.
In Argentina, the Panama Papers linked President Mauricio Macri to an offshore company, although he has since denied being a shareholder in the company. An Argentine prosecutor has already requested the opening of an investigation into Macri's involvement with the company. The opposition Front for Victory, which has been dealing with internal divisions, is eager to keep the spotlight on the Macri offshore company scandal ahead of legislative elections in 2017, and the opposition would use the investigation against the Macri administration.
BrazilBrazil has enough political turmoil going on already that revelations in the Panama Papers will probably have minimal effect. The leaks have linked lower house leader Eduardo Cunha to an offshore company, but Cunha and other Brazilian politicians are already tied up in the graft scandal at state-owned energy firm Petrobras. Ongoing criminal investigations against members of the ruling Workers' Party, such as former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and the impeachment attempt against President Dilma Rousseff will probably have a more immediate political effect than the Panama Papers will.
In Guatemala, the release of information through the leaked documents will draw greater scrutiny from the government investigative commission known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The United Nations-sponsored body announced it would investigate the documents for evidence of wrongdoing. A CICIG investigation led to the indictment of former President Otto Perez Molina on corruption charges in 2015, and further evidence of Guatemalan officials' corruption, if found, could kick off additional investigations by CICIG in the country.
VenezuelaThe fallout from the Panama Papers leaks in Venezuela is likely to be minimal. None of the key individuals in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela are named in the leaks. The ongoing political standoff between the government and opposition, growing divisions in the ruling party, and the country's extreme inflation are all likely to more immediately influence the country's political future than corruption allegations.
ChinaBeijing imposed an almost total media blackout on the Panama Papers: The only state media coverage on the subject was a print edition of Global Times claiming that the Panama Papers were a way for the West to attack its enemies.
The papers uncovered at least eight cases of family members of current or serving Politburo members who have done business with Mossack Fonseca. These include President Xi Jinping's brother-in-law (though his accounts have been inactive since before Xi took power), family members of current Politburo Standing Committee members Liu Yunshan and Zhang Gaoli, the daughter of former Premier Li Peng, a granddaughter of former Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin, and a business partner of purged Politburo member Bo Xilai.
The papers are unlikely to affect the Politburo, whose members are all from the ruling class and are aware that other members of the same class tend to be wealthy (with some possessing ill-gotten gains). Given the pervasive anti-corruption campaign and the intense political struggle as Xi Jinping ascended to the presidency, there was incentive for factions to dig up any dirt on each other long ago. As a result, much of the political effect of any of the revelations is likely already tapped out. The revelations might, however, spotlight some lower-level or midlevel officials who have not yet become targets of anti-corruption investigations.
Chinese law enforcement and anti-graft authorities have shown a fair amount of skill in tracking down illegal capital flows abroad as part of fugitive hunting campaigns such as Operation Fox Hunt and Operation Skynet, uprooting Chinese underground banks that handled upward of $100 billion in transactions from April to November last year. These were domestic operations; whether Chinese law enforcement is good at tracing shell companies in offshore accounts remains unclear. Presumably, though, investigators have encountered the problem while handling the assets of fugitives — generally Party members and their families who flee China, bringing with them large amounts of embezzled or otherwise illegal wealth.
Chinese intelligence and anti-graft services will sift through the documents to identify potential new targets. To the extent that the papers shed light on how Chinese citizens like to hide their wealth, they may be able to seal off further escape options for fugitives and their assets. More interesting is the question of how much the Chinese already knew but never shared, both in terms of dirt on perpetrators and in understanding their tactics.