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Russian oligarchs have found safe heaven for their yachts

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Moving into foreign seas, obscuring live locations, and turning off systems that allow authorities to track a ship’s whereabouts are all ways to keep yachts out of sight of the feds or police.

However, Interviews with a dozen people who were involved in internal talks about how to deal with U.S. and European financial sanctions say that in the Maldives, the chances of taking action against the property of sanctioned oligarchs are very low.

Because of the Maldives’ cautious approach to enforcing sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Indian Ocean island nation has emerged as a desirable destination for Russian oligarchs with yachts.

Andrey Melnichenko, a coal and fertilizer billionaire, owns one of six Russian-linked yachts that have sailed between the Maldives’ atolls, southwest of India, since Western nations imposed sanctions on several oligarchs in response to the Feb 24 invasion.

According to data provided by MarineTraffic, a marine analytics service, three of the yachts concealed their current locations, changed claimed destinations, or went into foreign seas.

The thought of seizing yachts is “far-fetched” since the Maldives’ judicial system is not robust enough, according to the country’s chief prosecutor, Hussain Shameem, who added that officials would be unable to readily seize visiting vessels unless a crime was committed under local law.

The situation in the Maldives highlights the difficulty Western powers face in choking off the wealth of oligarchs targeted by sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as several countries around the world continue to provide safe havens, according to Reuters sources in the Maldives.

In the aftermath of the invasion, which Moscow describes as a special military operation aimed at demilitarizing and denazifying Ukraine, the US, the UK, and the European Union imposed broad sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin, politicians, and corporate leaders.

Authorities in Europe have confiscated property such as houses and yachts, with at least six vessels allegedly belonging to some of the dozens of billionaires targeted by sanctions.

Non-EU members and non-aligned governments such as the Maldives are not bound by the sanctions, according to Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Commission, though he urged all countries to follow them.

The Maldives voted at the United Nations to condemn Russia’s incursion and has stated openly that it will support international actions against sanctioned Russians.

Officials claim that preventing rich Russian visitors will have a negative economic impact.

The Maldives is a favorite destination of the super-rich, with its powder-white beaches and 1,200 islands, the bulk of which are deserted.

Over the last three decades, tourism has transformed it from a backwater with few natural resources beyond tuna and coconuts to a middle-income country. It had a GDP per capita of more than $10,000 before the pandemic, the highest in South Asia.

The $5.6 billion tourism industry accounts for roughly a third of the whole GDP. Russians spend more than the average tourist and accounted for the vast majority of arrivals in January, the last month before the Ukraine invasion, according to tourism ministry data.

According to Tourism Minister Abdulla Mausoom, Russian arrivals have dropped by 70% since then. He wants it to be the other way around.

“Our entrance policy is very open. The Maldives is an open country,” he said.

Abdul Hannan is the owner of Seal Superyachts Maldives, which provides fuel and meals to boat owners, including Russians.

The yachts often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per week, according to Hannan, and almost half of his clientele are Russians. They generally winter in the Indian Ocean and spend the summer season in Europe, just like other superyacht owners, he said.

Since the sanctions were announced, Hannan has met some Russian owners aboard their superyachts, describing them as “humble, normal people” going through a terrible time. He did not specify if the individuals were under sanctions.

“For the time being, they are trying to keep the yachts in international waters,” where they can potentially idle for months at a time, he said.

“Then, nobody can touch them.”

Image Credit: Getty

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