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#Amex reputation at stake due to a controversial Russian partner

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By any standards, Russian billionaire Roustam Tariko needs a stiff drink – no doubt a double vodka – if he is to ward off accusations of being a “fraudster”.
For the second time, the man who gave the world “Russian Standard Vodka” is accused of serving up a short measure. Once again, he’s defaulted on Eurobond payments.

And that could lead to his empire losing one of its best customers – American Express.

It was Tariko, 58, who brought the ubiquitous card to all Russians.
At the height of his pomp he told Forbes Magazine:
"I have one of the best vodka brands in the world and one of the biggest retail banks in Russia.
"If I just maintain what I have and grow it, that will already be enough to be proud of myself."
But pride goes before a fall…

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Roustam Tariko

Roustam Tariko

Tariko’s problems started when his Russian Standard Bank (RSB) did not cough up $400 million in 2017.
RSB was the collateral on the loan.
Now, international bondholders are planning to claim a 49% stake in the bank.
They called in the Center for Financial Investigations and Forensic Expertise (CFIFE) to go through the RSB books.
Although confidential, the analysis was later shown in documents lodged with the Moscow Arbitration Court.
And it makes for uncomfortable reading for Tariko.
Investigators say the full sum of Tariko’s debts are more than $800 million.
And, they are convinced that cash and assets are being stripped from the bank.
According to the CFIFE these fears are “not unfounded”.
Last month (July) the creditors started an action to collect its collateral.
The Center reports more than $300 million has been withdrawn from the bank.
It added: “Since 2017, the value of the bank's assets has been constantly and sharply decreasing, while the share of illiquid assets, on the contrary, is growing just as rapidly.”
David Nitlispakh, head of the Swiss fund Pala Assets, represents the creditors of Russian Standard Ltd.
Pala Assets is a Switzerland-based investment company focusing on emerging market bonds.
Mr Nitlispakh said: “We have stated for a long time that the shareholder of Russian Standard organized a massive withdrawal of money from the bank.
“We are convinced he should bear full responsibility for unlawful actions to inflict such large damage on the bank.
“We are confident that it will not be possible to break the law with impunity.”

Russian Standard Bank

Russian Standard Bank

Pala Assets is considering filing an application to start a criminal prosecution.
A spokesman said: "What is happening is a clear malicious violation of the law, and we believe that the criminal activity of depriving the bank of its liquid assets must be stopped."
One creditor said: “The shareholder of Russian Standard Bank has been playing with his bondholders for three years, every time promising repayment of debt and then breaking the promise.
“This is done to squeeze all valuable assets from the bank before it is taken by bondholders as a collateral.
“This scandal can seriously tarnish the reputation of Amex whose exclusive partner in Russia is Tariko.”
Commenting on RSB’s future, Alexey Sanaev, of the Russian brokerage company Finam, told Cards International:
“The bad thing is that if the transactions are what they appear to be, then it would put the reputation of Tariko at significant risk.
“He may be labelled as a fraudster, which is bad.
“What will most likely happen is that the international bondholders will become the primary shareholders of the bank.
“Ultimately, that would help to make sure the bank’s reputation continues to grow in a positive direction. “
And, in a world where reputation is everything, global banking giant American Express finds itself caught up in the financial farrago.
Amex ran a famous advertising campaign in the 70s and 80s with the catchphrase “that’ll do nicely, sir”.
It was aimed at promoting how its credit card was welcomed worldwide and loved by all.
An Amex card carried cache. It was for the aspirational. It appealed to the new entrepreneurial Russian.
Amex and RSB have been close trading partners since the turn of the 2000s.
It was an alliance that saw Amex cards issued in Russia.
But as the worldwide reputation of RSB diminishes, there is a fear Amex may well be looking to distance itself from its partner.
Mr Sanaev said: “Russian Standard Bank was the first – and is still the only – bank to issue American Express cards in Russia.
“When the two companies first collaborated, the market was booming, and consumer spending was growing.
“The bank was a pioneer and one of the greatest beneficiaries of this market.
“I don’t think it is a surprise that American Express chose RSB as its exclusive partner.
“Back then it was the right thing to do, and a good name in the prospective market for Amex to be associated with.
“But the question remains as to whether that is the right thing to do now.
“Amex’s exclusive partner is suffering in terms of its reputation.

“I am not sure if Amex will continue to operate with RSB.
“It isn’t a question of the reputation of Amex in Russia, but the reputation of Amex in America, and globally that may be affected by the activities of its Russian partner.”

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Mr Sanaev believes Amex will soon drop the damaged RBS.

He said: “Amex will choose a different partner in Russia, one with a cleaner reputation.
“I think that is an obvious thing to do.
“Amex is no longer gaining from the partnership with Russian Standard Bank – financially and in terms of reputation.”
In the early days Tariko embodied what Amex is all about.

He made his fortune from scratch – unlike many other oligarchs who helped themselves to a considerable slice of the nation’s industrial assets during the 1990s.

After graduating in 1989 with an economics degree from the Moscow Institute of Railway Engineering, he turned his hand to importing luxury items into Russia.

His money was made in chocolates and Italian sparkling wines.

It was a stepping stone to bringing more big-name drink brands to Russians – and then offering vodka to the world.

In the early days Tariko embodied what Amex is all about.
He made his fortune from scratch – unlike many other oligarchs who helped themselves to a considerable slice of the nation’s industrial assets during the 1990s.

"I made a fortune selling vodka to the Russians and now I am making a fortune selling it to the British.”, said Tariko to Forbes magazine.

However, some believe Roustam Tariko is now drinking in the last chance saloon as he fights to keep his business empire and – more importantly – his good name.

Energy

Nord Stream 2 goes to the finish line

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In recent months, the passions around the notorious Nord Stream 2 project have heated up to the limit. The Western press often expressed opposite points of view: from the need to ban the Russian gas project up to opinions that the gas pipeline is beneficial to Europe taking into account the growing demand for natural gas. Of course, there were also speculations about the importance and even the obligation to preserve the transit of Russian gas to Europe through Ukraine, as “the main condition” for the EU and the US agreeing to give a green light to the controversial project, writes Alexi Ivanov, Moscow correspondent.

In this regard, Washington and Berlin have been engaged in a tense dialogue over the past six months, looking for the best arguments for approving Nord Stream 2. Chancellor Merkel held rather tough and pragmatic talks with President Biden in Washington some time ago, which allowed the parties to find the best formula to justify their approaches to the project. As a result, Nord Stream 2 seems to have reached the finish line and will soon start functioning.

This is exactly the point of view that was recently voiced at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. The Russian ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechaev, told the press that “only a few weeks remain " before the full completion of Nord Stream 2.

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As the diplomat noted, the work on the pipeline is at the final stage. "We proceed from the fact that the German-American agreement will not affect the pace of construction and the timing of completion of the Nord Stream 2," he said.

At the same time, Nechaev added that the agreement between Washington and Berlin does not carry any specific obligations for Russia.

Nord Stream 2 is a 99 percent completed pipeline from Russia to Germany with a total capacity of 55 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The construction has already reached the final stage and should be completed by the end of summer. In June, Nord Stream 2 AG, the operator of Nord Stream 2, announced that the construction of the offshore part of the first branch of the gas pipeline was technically completed, and commissioning work on filling the pipeline with gas will take several more months.

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Earlier, Berlin and Washington issued a joint statement noting that for the project to be implemented, it is necessary to ensure the continuation of transit through Ukraine after 2024. Germany also pledged to seek sanctions against Russia "if the Kremlin uses energy exports as a weapon".

Moscow has repeatedly urged to stop politicizing the situation, reminding that the gas pipeline is beneficial not only to Russia, but also to the European Union, and emphasizing that it has never used energy resources as an instrument of pressure.

President Vladimir Putin has more than once stressed that the Nord Stream 2 is “a purely economic project”, its route is both shorter than through European countries and Ukraine, and cheaper.

Of course, it is worth recognizing that the main dissatisfied party in this whole situation remains Ukraine, which still considers Nord Stream 2 a "threat" to its economic and partly political interests. Kiev is convinced that the West has made a deal with Russia to the detriment of Ukraine's strategic interests. It seems that President Zelensky is keen to raise this issue during his upcoming talks with President Biden in Washington at the end of August.

Nevertheless, Nord Stream 2 has almost become a reality, which will undoubtedly bring benefits to all parties involved in this large-scale project.

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Central Asia

Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity Conference - Exploring the challenges and opportunities

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On Friday 16th July, Tashkent, Uzbekistan hosted their first major international initiative in the history of the region – the Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity conference. Uzbekistan’s President, Shavkat Mirziyoyev called on this initiative to foster a collaborative mission and direction towards a more prosperous future between these two areas which together total a population of almost 2 billion. Calculations show there is an untapped potential of $1.6 billion in trade between Central and South Asia, writes Tori Macdonald.

Mirziyoyev continued by emphasising that dialogue has already begun to foster peace and civilisation, but now the other major focus should be to improve this sense of interconnection through the creation and development of more reliable transport routes to accelerate trade and therefore potential for economic cooperation.

As mentioned, this conference was the first of its kind to be held in Uzbekistan’s capital and it brought together several heads of state including the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Kahn as well as further top-level government and foreign affairs members of Central and South Asian countries and further international state representatives, such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China. Furthermore, members of international organisations such as the United Nations.

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The conference lasted 9 hours and consisted of 3 breakout panel sessions as well as 1:1 official delegation meetings and general press conferences for the attending media representatives. During this time, specific proposals were presented and evaluated regarding how to proceed in mutual cooperation in main sectors such as transport and logistics, energy, trade and investment, cultural and humanitarian issues.

Uzbekistan has already made a head start by demonstrating expansion in trade and investment growth along with increased joint ventures for the production of home appliances, automobiles and textiles. Following Uzbekistan’s accession to beneficiary status in the EU’s GSP+ initiative, this conference also welcomed the attendance of several high level European Union commissioners to comment on the prospects and potential of Central and South Asia’s cooperation.

Another significant focus point of this event was the role of Afghanistan, as their demographic position opens new promising markets and transport routes, particularly for Uzbekistan as they tackle the challenge of being a landlocked state. Afghanistan creates a bridge between the two regions which is why the construction project for the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway is underway to allow Uzbekistan and other countries to significantly reduce transport costs for the delivery of goods to foreign markets.

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The topical issue of peace in Afghanistan was a touchy but essential reference point for furthering cooperation prospects, with representatives of the Taliban movement also invited participate in the event.

Comments from heads of state

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev gave a very warm, almost poetic opening speech into the event, reflecting on the rich historic and cultural past which once linked these regions through the Silk Road. He emphasized the shared mutual ideals around knowledge, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics, geography, architecture, religious and spiritual values, the latter contributing to having created such diverse ethnic communities across the continent. Mirziyoyev noted that reconnecting is crucial for establishing peace as well as improving humane aspects such as living standards and general civilian wellbeing.

There was great anticipation over the comments made by Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opening with an emphasis on the use of technology, stating “connectivity is necessary to grow in the next few years otherwise the gap between our regions will enlarge.” Ghani went on to note that they are converting military airports in Afghanistan into hubs of trade and connectivity in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Furthermore, putting resources towards creating better livelihoods, such as through education on poverty. On the subject of the increasing conflict with the Taliban, Ghani said his government are in the pursuit of political settlement, offering a roadmap of forming and sustaining peace in the government for the will of all people. He also called for collective action and global support through emphasising the importance of a sovereign, united and democratic state.

The Pakistani President, Imran Khan added during his statement that, “the prosperity of regions depends on how we cooperate with distant, advanced countries.” Furthermore, accentuating the importance of mutual understanding, frequent dialogue, and intercultural harmony. In the modern world, cultural and technological development should move in tandem and enhanced connectivity will undoubtedly stimulate economic growth as a result. Khan ended his speech by making an appreciative gesture towards President Mirziyoyev, congratulating the Uzbek leader for pushing this initiative and thanking him for his high level of hospitality for the conference participants in Tashkent.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, also featured at the conference, remarking that the EU wish to promote cooperation complementary efforts through roads linking Central and South Asia. He reflected on how the formation of the European Union has cultivated the longest period of peace in European history, and now with the giant global obstacle that is the COVID-19 pandemic, Borrell stated, “it has given further impetus to reinforce connectivity and networks. We cannot face global challenges in isolation. We must work together to become more resilient and face the challenges of tomorrow.”

It should be noted that despite the many benefits of increased connectivity, most leaders also commented on the potential risks that equally arise, particularly in the form of security: the destruction of public assets, drug trafficking, terrorism, and systemic looting to name a few.

Breakout sessions

During the afternoon’s breakout sessions, the first focussed on Trade and Transport Connectivity for Sustainable Growth. A topic discussed was what countries in the region can do to remove soft barriers, including the border crossings and trade facilitation to carry out the full potential of transport initiatives. The consensus included, liberalising trade policies further on a non-discriminative basis, improving trade agreements through the digitisation of borders and custom points, adopting risk management systems and improving the standards of goods through vehicle and sanitary measures.

Overall, the common theme for trade growth was through electronic and innovative powers. This was particularly evident on the subject of infrastructure investment, where the panel members (consisting of MD level individuals of major international trade organisations) agreed that successful business projects would be dependent on sound preparation, which is where technology can play a role in determining cost effectiveness, comparative advantage, and calculating necessary measures for resilience in the face of climate change.

Then there was a session on the revival of cultural ties to strengthen friendship & mutual trust. It was concluded that peace can be achieved through five main objectives, this included, the joining cultural and human initiatives to strengthen cooperation between the two regions, particularly through tourism and preserving cultural heritage. Furthermore, the organisation of practical measures for the continued development of science, and improved youth policy necessary to encourage enthusiasm and active improvement of young people through the invocation of programs and initiatives. It was highlighted that there has been strong engagement from the Uzbek government since Mirziyoyev’s election in 2016 regarding youth development which is inspiring.

Conclusions

The overriding conclusion as a next step following this conference was the importance of collaboration to overcome threats. Notably, to consider the common interests and objectives of all participants to cooperate effectively in a beneficial manner. The most sustainable method of doing so being to keep dialogue frequent between nations. By working together consistently, the opportunity to improve and enhance economic and social growth can be achieved. Unified tariffs and the creation of transport corridors were the principal proposed tangible measures for achieving this objective.

How the rest of the world can contribute to the collective effort is through private foreign investment. This is where technology can play a major role in creating ease and efficiency in cooperating with distant countries.

All in all, what matters most is to simply keep moving forward, if not, the development gap between Central, South Asia and the rest of the world will only widen and it’s the future generations who will bear the brunt as a result.

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Commission has approved Portugal's recovery and resilience plan worth around €16 billion despite serious questions

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On Wednesday (16 June), Portugal became the first EU country to have its recovery plan rubber-stamped by the EU. Crucially, the Portuguese national recovery plan, as with others, will need to satisfy certain EU demands. These include meeting the landmark targets of at least 37% spending on the Green Deal and 20% on digitisation. Sustainable structural reforms in line with the country-specific recommendations are also a key assessment criterion.

The plans should describe how the proposed investments and reforms contribute to the main goals of RRF, which include green and digital transformations, smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, social and territorial cohesion, health and resilience, and policies for the next generation.

Amid the fanfare surrounding Wednesday’s announcement the big question now is: how effectively will Portugal spend the huge pot of money?

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German MEP Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesperson of the Greens/EFA group, told this website: "In principle, the European recovery fund is a great success.”

But he went on: “Now it is a matter of implementation whether the fund’s potential is fully exploited. In the case of Portugal, for a significant part of the measures it is not yet foreseeable whether they will have a positive or negative impact.”

The deputy concedes: “Important details on the implementation of some of the measures planned are still missing.”

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Specifically, he asks, for example, whether the construction of new housing in Portugal will contribute to the achievement of the European climate targets.

The answer, he argues, will depend decisively on the building materials used and the energy efficiency of the planned buildings.

Giegold said: “It is important that the Commission continuously accompanies the implementation of national plans and verifies their compliance with the spending objective and the do no significant harm principle.

“We call on the Commission to make the negotiations with the Member States transparent. The European Parliament and civil society must be involved as provided for in the EU regulation.”

Toni Roldan, head of research at the Esade Centre for Economic Policy (EsadeEcPol) in Madrid, says that since the eurozone debt crisis began in 2011, Lisbon has often been in the firing line of Europe's more "frugal" members frustrated at having to fork out money to subsidise spending in what they have seen as the somewhat less fiscally virtuous south.

Although some of the conditions attached to the stimulus packages remain vague, he says Portugal could have shown "greater reformist ambition" in using the money, particularly in the area of education.

The CIP, Confederation of Portuguese Industries, is also lukewarm (at best) over what the ‘cash bazooka’ will actually mean to those that need it most in Portugal.

 None of these concerns stopped Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president,from travelling to Lisbon on Wednesday to mark the Portuguese plans’ approval in what is scheduled to be a series of visits to EU capitals.

 The Commission says it has adopted a positive assessment of Portugal's recovery and resilience plan, an important step towards the EU disbursing €13.9 billion in grants and €2.7 billion in loans under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) over the period 2021-2026. This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Portugal's recovery and resilience plan.

The Commission, a spokesman  told this website, had assessed Portugal's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms contained in Portugal's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

The Commission's assessment finds that Portugal's plan devotes 38% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. This includes investments to finance a large-scale renovation programme to increase the energy efficiency of buildings or the promotion of energy efficiency and the use of alternative energy sources in industrial processes.

The Portugal's plan devotes 22% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. This includes efforts to digitalise the public administration and to modernise the computer systems of the National Health Service, as well as technological laboratories in secondary schools and professional training centres.

“The Commission considers that Portugal's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Portugal,” said the spokesman.

It includes measures in the areas of accessibility and resilience of social services and the health system, labour market, education and skills, R&D and innovation, climate and digital transition, business environment, quality and sustainability of public finances and efficiency of the justice system.

Portugal's plan proposes projects in six European flagship areas. For instance, Portugal has proposed to provide €610 million to renovate public and private buildings to improve their energy performance. This, hopes the commission, will result in Portugal reducing its energy bill, greenhouse gas emissions and energy dependence, as well as reducing energy poverty.

“The control systems put in place by Portugal are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.”

For some, this is the key point and, in particular, Portugal’s ability to effectively manage and spend these new EU funds.

Having sound mechanisms in place to protect the bloc’s financial interests against any maladministration is, says the commission spokesman, one of the elements prioritised by the Commission in the negotiations with national governments to finalise the recovery plans. 

But, in the past, Portugal has been blamed for having a notoriously slow judiciary system. Portugal, in fact, has one of the worst records in processing court cases and its administrative and tax courts in particular have been severely criticised by foreign investors and the EU.

This resulted in the European council identifying reform of the administrative and tax courts as one of the priorities in Portugal´s economic reform.

Some of the cases affected by the backlog are those put forward by a group of international investors, following the resolution of Banco Espirito Santo in 2015, who challenged the losses imposed on the €2.2 billion of bonds they held.

The scandal surrounding the Banco Espirito Santo (BES), the second largest private financial institution in Portugal but which collapsed in 2014 under a mountain of debt, is often cited as an example of why Portuguese courts need reform.

Despite improvements “the efficiency of the justice system continues to face challenges”, said the Commission in its first Rule of Law report about the country in 2020.

The commission addressed this issue in the country-specific recommendations, calling on Lisbon to improve the efficiency in tax and administrative courts 

Portugal has found itself at the centre of allegations about misspending EU funds over several years, including criticism from the Court of Auditors – the EU spending watchdog body – that investigated spending in the field of fisheries. It found that Portugal had not fulfilled its obligation under the Common Fisheries Policy of putting in place effective measures to match fishing capacity to fishing opportunities.

Elsewhere, last February last year, the authorities dismantled a transnational network  based in Portugal where the suspects were engaged in fraud and illegal EU fundraising.

In addition to the Recovery Fund fortune, Portugal has reaped the fruits of the more than €100 billion of Cohesion Policy funds invested in the country since its accession to the European Union and Portugal will receive significant support from the EU under the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy, with a proposed envelope of €23.8bn.

Paolo Gentiloni, Commissioner for Economy, says “it is fitting that the first plan to be assessed positively is Portugal's: not only because it was the first to be submitted, but also because the Portuguese Presidency played such a key role in putting in place the legal and financial framework for this unprecedented common European endeavour.”

So, with the spending spotlight firmly on Portugal many are now looking to see exactly how – and if - Lisbon will fulfil its duties with its new “pot of gold”.

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