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Yukos and SPIEF: Who was the target in “arrest” of Russian assets in Belgium and France?

As the Russian news headlines of June 18 and 19 2015 tell the audience about the “arrest” of the Russian assets in Belgium and then in France, the leading Western media pay little attention to the news, if any. Western media are quite moderate in their comments.

It is interesting to note that the Western public was prepared for such turn of events yet long ago, as Yukos Russian Oil Company has been mentioned in media in connection with the Khodorkovsky case and the prison life of the former Russian billionaire.

Conspicuous is the fact that the bailiffs in the two neighbor countries – France and Belgium – launched legal proceedings almost synchronously. What legal proceedings did result in the “arrest” of the Russian assets? There were several ones. The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) on June 18 disclaimed the reports that its judgment in the Yukos case is connected with the “arrest” of the Russian property in Belgium. The ECHR’s ruling that bound Russia to pay €1.86 billion came into effect in December 2014. Russia did not recognize the judgment. It became known that Russian organizations in Belgium were notified by bailiffs about the arrest of the Russian state property in conformity with the ruling of The Hague Arbitration dating back to July 18 2014. It was a €1.653 billion claim under Yukos Universal Limited case.  The Hague Arbitration ruled that Russia violated the Energy Charter Treaty and demanded the country to submit a plan of payments by March 2015. The formal duration of the Charter is 20 years after 2008 when Russia refused to ratify that document dating back to 1998.  Big Russian banks and all the Russian representations in Belgium (except the diplomatic ones) received letters of notifications from bailiffs and were required to declare Russian assets under their management within two weeks.

Reportedly, Russia Today TV channel’s accounts in Paris were arrested too. TASS agency news offices received court orders. It was Russia Today that aroused discontent of U.S. and its allies during the Ukrainian crisis.  The TV channel was specified as an efficient method of the Russian information war.

On June 18, the Belgian ambassador to Russia was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry over the arrest of Russian assets in Belgium.  The Russian ministry threatened with “adequate measures” against the Belgian property.

In fact, the “arrest” of the property means that the procedure of execution of the judgment is set in motion. At the given stage, the Russian companies and organizations that have received notifications are required to declare the funds they possess, the property of the Russian Federation, and the debts to Russia within two weeks.  Afterwards, the bailiffs will withdraw their claims against the companies and organizations having no state assets or funds. Perhaps, the Russian Orthodox Church Archbishopric of Brussels and Belgium that has also received notifications will be required to do the same.

It is not hard to achieve an “arrest.” It is much important to retain the judgment on the arrest at the following stages of the process. Formal “arrests” of the Russian assets is just the beginning of a long way, if Russia decides to get involved into the process and dispute the court orders under Yukos case at the courts of various instances.

At present, the bailiffs are verifying Russian assets. Such information is available in the local state registers. However, the judiciary is independent. If it turns out that Russian is not the owner, the arrest will be lifted. Only after the owner of the property is determined, the arrest will result in a specific trial. The arrest is imposed to prevent movement of assets. It will take years – a range of trials - before the claimant is granted the right to the property.  Reportedly, Russia has already hired lawyers to protect its interests in Europe.

The Yukos case has had political motives from the very beginning. Therefore, the process launched by The Hague Arbitration is politicized. It was not for nothing that it coincided with the opening of the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF). French newspaper Le Monde wrote that this year’s forum demonstrates a split in the attitudes of European countries toward the economic cooperation with Russia. According to Le Monde, the problem is no longer that Europe and the United States have different stands on the issue, the problem is that there is no agreement between the European countries.  The more EU extends sanctions against Russia, the more discrepancies there will be among European countries.

In Europe, they become more and more convinced that Europe’s sanctions are undesirable to the entire European Union.  A delegation of Italian parliamentarians, a group of prominent retired politicians from European countries attended the forum.  European business was represented at the SPIEF by Total (France), Shell and British Petroleum (Britain), and even by Coca-Cola transnational company (USA).  The forum has become a reason for reconsidering business relations with the Russian leadership despite the sanctions.  There are all indications that it will be more and more difficult for European countries to achieve a consensus over extension of the sanctions, not least because business seeks and finds the ways to overcome those sanctions without violating them formally. In 2014, the U.S. leadership urged the representatives of U.S. companies not to attend the SPIEF.  This year, there were no such calls.

Russia’s hostile encirclement showed their discontent in a different way i.e. by launching the “arrest” of Russian assets in the EU countries to show European businesses how insecure are the investments in the economy of Russia. It is evident that further developments in the arrest of Russian assets under the claims of the former shareholders of Yukos Company will be part of the economic and information war against Russia.

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