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RUSSIA: A Price for Everything PDF Print E-mail
Written by OCCRP   
Tuesday, 17 November 2009 13:46

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The doorway of The Central Telegraph, with the Soviet State symbol still hanging above it, opens into a world of visa possibilities. --by Julia Balashova, Novaya Gazeta
About 500 meters from the Kremlin and Red Square on Tverskaya Street squats the 52,200 square-meter grey building of The Central Telegraph. Granite steps lead to a central entrance and above the glass of the massive wooden front doors hangs an old Soviet State emblem with the prominent terrestrial globe and stylized hammer and sickle below it.

From this building, it is possible to get nearly anywhere in the world. With a tourist or business visa in a passport and without spending time in line or even in an embassy, travel is possible to Europe, Australia, South America, Asia and North America. There are few problems for anyone with enough money.

An investigation by reporters for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) shows that money and connections are enough to provide not only a passport and a visa, but all the necessary documents for unrestricted travel all over the world. They also can secure a second citizenship and a second passport and even a second passport under a different name.

Why any regular citizen might need to seek assistance with a visa is seen through the eyes of one woman who wanted only to travel legally.

She married a man who had come from Germany and while they live and work in Russia, they planned to spend their honeymoon traveling and also visiting his native country. The woman, who did not want her name used, is a Russian and has no desire to leave her country for good, so she asked the German Embassy for a Schengen multi-visa. The embassy rejected the application on suspicion she would not return to Russia, and stamped her passport with the black stamp, the symbol of rejection recognized by embassies and customs agents all over the world.

Later, she asked for a transit or limited visa, but was refused again—the black stamp made any visa virtually impossible to acquire.
“Several times, I left the German Embassy in tears,” said the woman, who is 28. “…my mother lives in Russia, I have a job that brings good money, and I like my job…But in the embassy, they don’t trust me at all.
She is a designer and never had problems with the law and still she could not travel for a year. After the year had passed and she had spent seven nervous visits to the embassy where she said she was treated coldly, she got a visa for three months, and it was to be her single opportunity to visit the country.

Suspected criminal leaders and those willing to break the law can avoid such obstacles, whether they want to travel or even decide to become citizens of other countries.

Take the case of Russian native Yuri Salikov, accused last year in Spain of being a member of the “Tambovsko-Malyshevskaya” organized crime group. When he went to Spain, he had managed to acquire German citizenship. When he was charged in Spain for tax fraud of more than €28 million, his friends posted a bond for him and he was released.

The indictment, signed by famous investigating judge Baltasar Garzon in 2008, recounted that, despite all his accounts being blocked, he had led a high life.

Connections to Petrov, Malyshev

Garzon noted Salikov’s connections with Gennadi Petrov and Alexander Malyshev, who also have been indicted in Spain as leaders of Russian “Tambovsko-Malyshevskaya” group, which has been identified by law enforcement as involved in money laundering, weapons trading, fraud, smuggling, drug trafficking and murder.

Petrov and Malyshev also had moved from Russia to Europe without problems. The two had been tracked by Russian and Spanish law enforcement, beginning in the early 1990s. Before that, Soviet law enforcement had indicted Malyshev twice for murder and Petrov for economic crime. Nevertheless, Petrov managed to get Greek citizenship, and Malyshev assumed a new identity as “Alexander Lagnas Gonzalez” and moved to Spain.
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Police officers walk by without noticing the flyers advertising visa assistance along Chistoprudniy Boulevard in Moscow. --Roman Shleynov, Novaya Gazeta

Petrov and another suspect in the case held “identity cards of EU member countries that sufficiently broaden their opportunities to move and act in Europe”. In Spain, the suspects had access to villas at the seaside, luxury cars with names including Jaguar and Bentley as well as yachts and motor boats. All were owned under company names. Then, according to case files, Petrov even made an unsuccessful attempt to have his name removed from Greek files, to eliminate the notation that Petrov was not allowed in the country whose citizenship he had acquired.

The lawyers of the arrested Russians maintain that Petrov and others are not guilty and that all their money has legal origins, because Gennadi Petrov is a successful businessman with good connections in Russian political circles.

How do they and others travel freely, avoiding long waits or multiple embassy visits?

To understand how virtually everything is available—at a price—in Russia, a good starting point is behind those doors at The Central Telegraph.

Everything seems quite legal, and in part it is, but a closer look reveals ways to overcome official regulations and laws.
Just past the main, wooden doors, sits an unremarkable steel door. Beyond it lies a maze of offices of different companies. A notice on the wall reads “personnel entrance,” but a uniformed guard sits behind a desk and registers visitors. Some of those whose names he notes are headed for Office 605, where “Majestic Tour” is located.

The company’s web page (www.myvisa.ru) says it is “the leader in the market of visa services in Moscow” and has worked “in passport and visa services for more than 7 years”. The web page also contains a price list for visa assistance: to Germany or Poland – from €70; USA – from €150; Spain – from €200; France, Switzerland or Greece – from €190; Great Britain – from €100; China – €60. Nearly all the globe is included.

Assistance for a Pr
ice

What does “assistance” in supplying the necessary documents mean? If someone wants a business visa to Europe but has not been invited, for an additional sum the company will provide the needed invitation.

A phone call to “Majestic Tour” was connected by a secretary to a woman who gave her name as Olesya and who seemed friendly.
Told that a business visa to Germany was needed, she replied, “We may try to get half a year business visa.”

Asked how this could be possible with no invitation, she responded: “We will add the invitation for you.” She explained that there would be an invitation from a business organization, a letter stipulating that the client is a representative of a Russian company that the business organization would like to cooperate with.

Olesya said, “You can get a multi visa only on those grounds.”

She then ran down the prices and the procedure. A 6-month business multi-visa for Germany costs €900. A client need not go anywhere except to “Majestic Tour” and bring a passport and some other necessary documents. The passport, with a visa stamped in it, would be ready in 10 to 12 days.

Just to compare: the official cost for a regular visa from the German Embassy is €35-60. The company charges €900 for “assistance” that includes procuring the invitation letter plus getting the documents to the embassy and back. The “assistance,” then, would bring the company at least €840—at least 14 times the regular visa cost.

Anyone interested in getting such “assistance” can type “visa assistance” into a computer in Russia and find nearly 459,000 links, mainly advertisements and websites of such companies. Some are tourist agencies; others advertise themselves as specialists at passport and visa services.

In Russia, this market, which includes legitimate offers to guide someone through the process, also offers different forms of “assistance” in obtaining visas, passports, citizenships, work and residence permits. Help is advertised for the visa process (or the procedure of getting a Russian passport for traveling abroad, or Russian citizenship) not only on the internet but on computer-generated signs on sheets of paper pasted on utility poles along Moscow’s boulevards.

Signs of Illegality

Most people, including police officers who pass by the signs, pay no heed, apparently used to the sight. It seems of little significance to people used to the idea that everything is available at a price, starting with the legal help of the lawyer who follows the rules for documents needed to get passport or citizenship.

But even those who follow the law know that there is a large market in illegal documents and forged passports.
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Competing advertisements offer visa help (in blue) and citizenship of Russia (in black) along Chistoprudniy Boulevard in Moscow. --Roman Shleynov, Novaya Gazeta

The size of even the market that just speeds up the process of obtaining a legal Russian passport for traveling abroad is impressive. According to the Federal Migration Service, companies that help to “speed up the process” earn $10 billion a year. That figure has led the government to plan to offer its own assistance soon, and not leave the market to entrepreneurs.

The “assistance” in getting visas appears legal, except for the procurement of invitation letters for a business trip, but there are plenty of illegal offers on the internet as well.

According to the EU Organized Crime Threat Assessment (OCTA 2009), “the internet, with its virtual stores selling all kinds of goods, is one of the main distribution channels for counterfeits”.

At the website of a Russian company that calls itself ”Vendor of Cards” (www.kreditkareal.com) there is a vast choice of the passports and citizenships of nearly all the countries in the world. The company states that it can provide any necessary document and that the procedure will take from two months to five years, depending on the other country involved.

Passports are not the only goods that “Vendor of Cards” offers. There are also drivers’ licenses of different countries, credit cards, debit cards and card readers. It is possible to reach the company only through e-mail. An e-mail inquiring about a Bulgarian passport got a reply in a day from an “administrator”, who wrote that it would take a month and cost €12,000, which could be transferred through an international payment system.

All that was required were copies of an individual’s documents and photos. The law prohibits any state agency from granting a legal passport if the only documents are copies and not originals. So it is unclear if the result of the money transferred would be a fraudulent passport--or nothing at all.

There are other offers. One former state official, who asked to remain anonymous because the practice he discloses is illegal and punishable, explained how it was possible to obtain the passport and citizenship of Italy, for example. The price starts from €15,000, he said, and the “client” gets a legal Italian passport. The supporting documents would show that the “client” had or still has relatives in Italy. Those who arrange such documents, the official said, ask only that the “client” avoid visiting the Italian village where the documents claim his relatives lived or still live.

Moscow jurist Oleg Lemeshko has worked to help assist people with immigration for more than 10 years. He acknowledges that such schemes exist, based on various programs in different countries, to speed up the process of getting citizenship for the descendants of their citizens. According to Lemeshko, stretches are possible in any search for ancestors, so he never deals with the process because it is an exercise in “adventurism”.

The Trade for Investment

Lemeshko’s specialty, instead, is help in programs that grant second citizenships to people who invest in the countries. A dozen countries will trade second citizenships for investments.

This is the way it works, and while it offers second citizenships and easy travel, it is very expensive to the investor but can benefit the country that grants second citizenship for an investment.
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The Central Telegraph, with the Soviet State symbol still hanging above it --by Julia Balashova, Novaya Gazeta

It is possible to get the citizenship of Dominica, Lemeshko said, by investing $70,000-$100,000. Citizenship in Saint Kitts and Nevis comes with an investment of $200,000-$250,000. Saint Kitts and Nevis citizenship and passports come with an added benefit—visa-free entrance to countries in the Schengen zone and also to Great Britain.

After investing €500,000 in Bulgaria, he said, a second citizenship and passport of that country can be obtained. In Austria and Slovakia the investments that qualify an individual for a second citizenship start from €2 million, but more than simple investment is required, Lemeshko said. In each of those countries, an individual applying for second citizenship must also render services to the country, for example, creating jobs for the country’s citizens, broadening export opportunities, or investing in culture or health care.

Then there is the Dominican Republic, whose citizenship and passport is one of the cheapest options – $25,000. Lemeshko explained that the figure is not even an investment but simply the amount needed to speed up the process to get residency and then citizenship. And Dominican Republic laws allow speeding up the two-year process so that it takes no longer than six months, Lemeshko said. He added that clients do not particularly care how local lawyers speed up the procedure; they just want it done.

Though the Dominican Republic passport and citizenship is less expensive, according to Lemeshko, it is not widely used because it does not offer entrance to Europe without a visa. It is used, he said, for real immigration to the Dominican Republic or to have an “alternative airfield” if something unpredictable happened in a client’s native country.

Lemeshko said it is also possible to get a residence permit by founding a company. But, he said, the time has long passed that someone could get a residence permit to the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland by simply founding a company and not doing any real business there. In the 1990s, he said, it used to cost the equivalent of €1,000 Euro. But everything has changed.

He said that, in his experience, even if a person has real business, say in Spain, a residence permit is not automatically granted.
Dominica, which lies about 500 miles away from the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, advertises a second citizenship and passport on the web for possible clients from Russia, and mentions its offshore company opportunities. In Russian, the webpage of CCP Inc., registered in Dominica (www.goccp.com), reads, in part: “You definitely need a second citizenship and second passport if your present nationality causes you one of the following problems: …makes you a target for terrorists, allows your present government to control, limit and register your traveling, …forces you and your children to serve in the army …your state is politically unstable, you want to insure your family against unforeseeable misfortunes”.

The website also mentioned that after an individual gets a second citizenship and second passport of Dominica, he can change names there and get a second passport with the new name. The advantages are described this way: “an offshore company for business and investments – it is like a Lincoln car; a second citizenship and a second passport, together with an offshore company, plus one more citizenship and passport with another name – it is like a Rolls-Royce”.

Support from the Government?

CCP Inc. states that its activities are supported by the Dominica government. On the website is what is described as a letter of recommendation from the Minister of Economic Development, Julius C. Timothy. It reads, in part: “CCP Inc. is a company registered in Dominica…providing a link between international investors and Dominica....CCP Inc. provides a gamut of services to the international investors including formation of the IBCs and offshore banks, exempted insurances and trusts, economic citizenship and international ships' registration, licensing of internet casinos and sports books…”

A phone inquiry to CCP Inc. about its various services was answered by a secretary, who transferred the call to a “specialist”, an employee who gave his name as Kenny. He ran down a list of possibilities and mentioned the recommendation from the minister. He explained that, although the company is private, it got its license from the government.

He said the contribution needed for a second citizenship and a second passport was $75,000. The company service, including all necessary taxes and fees—another $ 15,000. But also needed was a payment for a due-diligence check. This would be conducted by another private company authorized by the government, Kenny said, and that fee should be paid directly to that company. He said the price might differ, but usually, because the company has experience working with quite a few Russians, about $4,500.

The entire time required to get the passport, the second citizenship and a second passport would be two to three months, he said. He added that it is quite easy to get a Schengen visa, and no need to get any visa at all to travel on a Dominica passport to Great Britain.

Asked if it were possible to change names in Dominica to get a second passport in another name, Kenny said it was. He explained that, although the government does not like anyone changing names in less than 6 months to a year after getting a second citizenship, it is not regulated in the law. So his company could help in that respect and could even suggest a local lawyer who could help—for $2,000.

The Whole Package

If what Kenny said is true, nearly anyone with $96,500 could get a second citizenship and second passport of Dominica—and a new identity and papers to support it, all legal documents that would make starting an offshore company or bank account, and traveling around the world, within grasp.

But who, in Russia, would want such a second citizenship?

Perhaps businessmen with controversial connections, those who managed to make politics a second career. Officially in Russia, no official can hold second citizenships--a 2007 law prohibited second citizenship for parliament members, senators, and top public officials. Has that stopped the practice?

An official representative of the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMC) said that second citizenships are a global problem. Western Europe has tried to figure out how to regulate it and there are negotiations within the agency on that topic.

He said the 2007 law prohibited the practice, but there is a problem of control even there. Russian citizenship can be confirmed by his agency. But to get information about foreign citizenship of a person, the request must be answered by the other country. And the country is not obliged to give out the information about citizenship of the person because it is considered private.

Lemeshko, the jurist who specializes in immigration assistance, residency permits and second citizenships, acknowledged that there is a kind of “regulation vacuum” in Russia concerning a second citizenship and a second passport.

Even among officials, the subject is a sensitive one. The vice speaker of Russian parliament, one of the leaders of “Fair Russia” political party, Alexander Babakov was a businessman before he became an official. Several years ago he owned and directed the Swiss company Iwenta SA, which owned a hotel in Ukraine. The Swiss register of commerce contains a document of that company saying that in 2001 Alexander Babakov was an Israeli citizen.

Asked directly if he had rejected his Israeli citizenship because an official is forbidden to hold a second citizenship, Babakov said only that he is a citizen of Russia.

--Roman Shleynov, Novaya Gazeta