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Ukraine: Pro-Russian oligarchs flee to French Riviera

December 8, 2022

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians made a beeline for southern France. Others tried to smuggle suitcases full of cash across the Hungarian border.

The promenade in Nice, France
Nice has long been popular with rich Russians and UkrainiansImage: Michel Champouret/DW

Tetyana Sapyan had to repeatedly postpone her interview with DW because of Russian missile attacks on Kyiv. However, the spokeswoman for Ukraine's State Bureau of Investigation — equivalent to the FBI in the US or the Federal Criminal Police Office in Germany – insisted that she wanted to provide detailed information about certain ongoing investigations.

They have particularly explosive potential for Ukraine: While some people there are forced to huddle in shelters, the army incurs heavy losses on the frontlines, and tens of millions have been displaced in and outside of Ukraine, according to media reports, certain Ukrainian oligarchs and billionaires fled Ukraine with their families before the Russian invasion of February 24.

Some 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) away on the French Riviera, locals say that there are more luxury cars with Ukrainian license plates than before. This does not seem to tally with the news of suffering coming out of Ukraine.

Tetyana Sapyan
Tetyana Sapyan has been investigating corrupt politicians for monthsImage: Wolodomyr Senchenko/DW

Suitcases full of cash

One Ukrainian blogger has posted a picture of several suitcases full of cash — reportedly amounting to over $17 million (€16.1 million) and €1 million, which were found by Hungarian customs officials. The money was allegedly not declared by Ukrainians crossing the border into Hungary by car. The rules allow a maximum €10,000 in cash to be carried across the border.

Sapyan confirmed that her agency had been looking into the matter for several months. "Those the State Investigation Bureau has investigated include state representatives, businesspeople, former members of the judiciary, and even members of parliament." She added that the question was whether they had "crossed the border legally or whether they were involved in money laundering."

Over 80 people have been investigated since mid-September and a few dozen remain on the list. Sapyan said it was particularly painful to investigate corruption in Ukraine — which remained endemic even after the pro-European Maidan protests — in the middle of a war, and because one of the corrupt networks was comprised of people with very good contacts with Russia.

Ukrainians encounter pro-Russian oligarchs

International arrest warrants issued

Sapyan added that international arrest warrants had been issued for two super-rich Ukrainians but was doubtful that they would be extradited to Ukraine. "We know that if a person has a lot of money, they tend to spend some of it on influencing certain processes — not only in Ukraine, but also abroad." Six former or still serving members of parliament were also under investigation, she said.

This summer, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had the pro-Russian Opposition Platform – For Life banned, but some of its members went on to create a new parliamentary group called "Reconstruction of Ukraine," said Oleksandr Zaliskhenko of Chesno.

The Kyiv-based NGO, which receives funding from the West and says on its website that it "works to help the Ukrainian society shift from electoral to representative democracy," is particularly on the lookout for corruption in its analysis of the activities of politicians.

"This new group of deputies was formed from a distance," Zaliskhenko told DW. The politicians "were not in Ukraine or present in the plenary hall or the parliament building."

He said that it was the digital operations of the parliament, which have continued through the coronavirus pandemic and now the war, which had enabled the deputies, who for years had been openly pro-Russian, to provide "digital signatures" for "all the membership applications."

Seaside villas for the super-rich

One of them was Ihor Abramovych, who in the summer was filmed by Ukrainian journalists as he returned from a jog on the French Riviera, accompanied by a former high-ranking official of the Department of Economic Protection of the National Police.

Abramovych lives in the seaside resort of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, which is particularly popular with the super-rich. Russians and Ukrainians have long had luxury properties there. 

Corruption expert Zaliskhenko said that Abramovych and other lawmakers continued to try to exert influence from abroad. "Some of them are also involved with legislation from a distance," he said, adding that they had even tried to introduce bills digitally. The fact that they were not physically present in Ukraine was not grounds for losing a mandate, however deputies working remotely did not receive a salary, he said.

These absent lawmakers, who clearly have other resources, can currently not be reached for inquiries. It seems that their contact details were deleted from the website of the Ukrainian parliament when Russian invaded their country.

The peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
The peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is a magnet for the ultra-richImage: Michel Champouret/DW

Oligarchs share responsibility for the war

But it is not only rich and corrupt Ukrainians who have fled to the Riviera. Veronique Borre from the Nice municipality said that there were also "many women, mothers with their children or even grandmothers with their grandchildren." She explained that the city had had to accommodate some 500 refugees a day from the very beginning of the war. Most of the Ukrainians coming into Nice had arrived via Hungary and Italy.

Within a short period, Nice had set up the third-largest refugee center for Ukrainians in France after Strasbourg and Paris. The French-Ukrainian Association of the Cote d'Azur, whose president is Iryna Bourdelles, also got involved and started providing food, and psychological help for children.

Bourdelles was angry that corrupt Ukrainians had taken up residence in the vicinity, people "who sought refuge on the Cote d'Azur and drive big cars." But she was not surprised as certain things "were accepted and tolerated before the war," she said.

"These people were not only part of a corrupt elite, but these people — and we are sure of this — are also responsible for this war in Ukraine because they called on Russia to come to Ukraine."

She concluded by saying that the Ukrainian justice system would have to deal with this after the war.

This article was originally written in German.