Russia appears to have finally yielded to American pressure to adopt a tax dodgers’ law known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Arguments advanced by Russian economists may have prevailed over the penchant of some Russian politicians to see any and all U.S. initiatives as a threat to Russia’s sovereignty. Experts are now waiting to see how further negotiations proceed.
In 2012 Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain all agreed to join FATCA, which requires the parties to provide U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with data on the accounts that American citizens hold with their banks, as a measure directed against tax evasion. Failing compliance, the United States has threatened to withhold 30 percent of the cost of banking operations processed on U.S. soil.
Moscow originally took a guarded view of signing up with FATCA. Talks between a Russian delegation and U.S. officials in late May drew a blank. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov communicated that Russia was ready to provide U.S. tax authorities with information through government structures, but only under a separate agreement.
In April, however, Russia — along with the other G20 members — signed a communiqué on the automatic exchange of information between countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development promised to prepare standards that would no longer have “gray” or “black” lists (Russia is on the “white” list of those who honor their obligations).
Nevertheless, negotiations had been going slowly, and media sources previously reported that politics could possibly interfere with the financial links between Russia and the United States: The recent cooling in relations between the two countries has led Moscow to see U.S. initiatives as an attempt to impose its laws.
“Russia finds it easier to uphold its position in such negotiations than other countries because of its weight in the international arena. It is more difficult to make Moscow yield to pressure than, for example, Bern, which is already considering joining FATCA,” said Wolfgang Gerke, president of the Bavarian Finance Center.
However, on June 14, Kommersant newspaper reported that Russia had announced plans to adopt FACTA on June 1, 2014. Nevertheless, Russia’s desire to have a special relationship with the United States on tax issues may end up in failure.
“Russia itself is interested in the international exchange of data. It may result in Russians paying taxes at home and not hiding their incomes abroad,” said Gerke.
Regarding further negotiations, Russia’s leading bank, Sberbank, is not interested in seeing them drag on. Its vice chairperson, Bella Zlatkis, believes that, in the absence of an international agreement, Russian banks would have to sign individual agreements with the IRS, which runs counter to Russian laws.
One more reason to speed negotiations up is that accreditation of banks with the IRS will begin in July. Financial institutions that fail to receive accreditation will have to pay a 30 percent tax — the lion’s share of their dollar transactions via the United States — starting January 1, 2014. Zlatkis asked the Russian Central Bank to step in and explain the financial arguments to political leaders.
Other leading Russian banks, including VTB, have not disclosed their position on the issue. However, their estimated losses due to Russia’s failure to join FATCA are easy to assess: Transactions through the United States run into hundreds of millions of dollars, according to experts.
The number of Americans who hide their money from the tax authorities in Russia is very small, because Russian banks are less attractive for them than, for example, the famously reliable Swiss banks. Thus, Russian banks would risk sustaining heavy losses due to an argument over data concerning a fairly small number of clients.
One more threat also worries Russian bankers. According to Marnin Michaels, a partner at Baker & McKenzie’s Zurich office, in the absence of an agreement with the United States, Russian banks will have limited access to the American market, because most American financial institutions will refuse to deal with them.
Russia could still try to haggle the U.S. down. This is not impossible. In 2012, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain joined FATCA under pressure from the United States. But they also agreed on the mutual exchange of data, which means that the United States will have to share information with European tax authorities. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers expert Achim Obermann, this could eventually help create a global information sharing system.