Boris Johnson could not have been more clear. “I just think it’s very important that the house understands: we do not raise money from Russian oligarchs.” Some opposition MPs laughed, and it very much is the case that the prime minister was accurate only in a strict legalistic sense.
Peter Walker www.theguardian.com
It would be impossible for someone with only Russian nationality, however rich, to donate legally to a UK political party. What has undoubtedly happened is that a series of people with dual UK-Russian nationality, or with significant business links with Russia, have donated heavily to the Conservatives in recent years.
A Labour party calculation based on Electoral Commission information estimated that donors who had made money from Russia or Russians had given £1.93m to either the Tory party or constituency associations since Johnson became prime minister.
Others put the sum higher. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, to whom Johnson was replying in the Commons on Wednesday, said the Tories had raised £2.3m “from Russian oligarchs”.
Oligarch is a loose term but is often associated in this context with very rich people who generally made their money amid the financial free-for-all of the post-Soviet and Putin era, and who often keep close links to the Russian president.
Those who have donated to the Tories since Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019 deny either that any of their wealth has murky origins, or that they are under any sort of Russian influence over how they use it.
The biggest single donor of this group is the financier Lubov Chernukhin, who has donated £700,000. A British national since 2011, she is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister under Putin. Documents published in the Pandora papers in October suggest he was allowed to leave Russia in 2004 with assets worth about $500m (£366m) and retain Russian business connections.
The couple’s lawyers say that none of Vladimir Chernukhin’s wealth was acquired in a corrupt manner, and that none of his wife’s donations were funded by improper means or affected by the influence of anyone else.
What is certain is that Lubov Chernukhin is a generous donor and something of a presence in Tory circles; she had the winning bid at the party’s 2020 fundraising ball for the prize of a game of tennis with Johnson.
Shortly before Johnson became PM, Liz Truss, then international trade secretary, posted a photo to Instagram of what she termed a “ladies’ night”, posing alongside Theresa May and a series of other female Tory MPs, plus Lubov Chernukhin.
The industrialist Alexander Temerko, also a UK national, has donated £357,000 since Johnson took office. He is a minority shareholder and co-owner of a company called Aquind. Its majority investor is the Russian-born oil tycoon Viktor Fedotov.
Another big Tory donor in the Johnson era is the businessman Mohamed Amersi, who has given £258,000 over the period.
Amersi advised on a lucrative telecom deal in Russia in 2005 with a company that a Swiss tribunal subsequently found to be controlled by an associate of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Amersi told the Financial Times in July he had made $7m in the country, but only prior to 2008. “Not a penny that I earned in Russia … has even remotely come close to being invested in the UK political system,” he said.
Under electoral laws for Great Britain – they vary slightly in Northern Ireland – donations to parties can be made only by people on the UK electoral register, or from UK-registered companies and other organisations such as unions.
The only people allowed to go on the electoral register in England are British citizens, people with EU citizenship living in the UK, and Commonwealth citizens who can live in the UK.