In early October 2018, billionaire Boris Rotenberg appealed to the Helsinki City Court with a claim to the largest Scandinavian banks, demanding to resume servicing his accounts and pay € 70,000 in compensation. Nordea Bank, Danske Bank, Svenska Handelsbanken and OP Corporate Bank were with them Rotenberg argues - in total about 77% of the banking sector in Finland occupy. The reason for the claims was the refusal of banks to carry out operations on Rotenberg’s accounts, aimed at paying the Finnish budget taxes and other obligatory payments that a businessman must make when being a Finnish citizen (he has citizenship of both Russia and Finland).
The reason for the denial of service were US sanctions, adopted in March 2014. Finnish banks fear that the US government will create obstacles in cooperation with the US banking system and may limit dollar transactions if they work with people under sanctions. Fears are not in vain. In recent years, consultations on sanctions legislation have become one of the main trends in the legal services market: all European and even some Chinese companies are afraid of being sanctioned by the United States and prefer to act according to the principles of “measure seven times, cut once” and ". The case is also complicated by European sanctions against Russia. On the whole, the “sanctions right” is not distinguished by certainty and transparency. No one knows exactly how this or that, sometimes even quite innocuous, deal will be interpreted through the political prism of sanction wars. Therefore, any consultation on sanctions often wants to end with the phrase that is fashionable today: “But this is not accurate.”
The delicacy of the situation with a claim to Scandinavian banks lies in the fact that Boris Rotenberg is not only a citizen of Russia, a member of the Inner Circle (as Vladimir Putin’s associates are called in the USA), a figure in the sanctions list, but at the same time a Finnish citizen. That is why, for example, he, unlike Arkady Rotenberg F 40, has not previously come under EU sanctions: Europe protects its citizens from sanctions.
Thus, the Helsinki court must decide what is more important: the sovereignty and integrity of its citizens from the extraterritorial interference of third countries or the stability of the banking system. In the first case, the court will show its will, but it will create risks for relations between Finnish and American banks. In the second, it can take an economically more comfortable position, but in fact it will be forced to admit that not all Finnish citizens are equal.
History knows cases when European states to one degree or another disagreed with the US sanctions and gave an appropriate response. For example, it is now possible to observe how the European Union is consolidating its position regarding the US withdrawal from the Iran deal. Europe said it would not just ignore the return of the United States to anti-Iran sanctions, but was also ready to actively oppose them if necessary. But one thing is not to recognize the decisions of American courts in the territory of the European Union, another is to create actual risk for interbank dollar operations on correspondent accounts located in the United States. The risk is quite real: Finnish banks have active correspondent accounts in American banks that provide for conducting dollar transactions around the world.
In 2017, at the next round of US sanctions against Russia, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made a statement that the European Union should and is ready to defend its interests before the United States, and also reserves the right to take retaliatory economic measures if the interests of European companies are infringed. The long history of the sanctions wars has long ago developed legal mechanisms to limit the extraterritorial US influence with respect to sovereign states (at least European ones). It is also necessary to take into account the fact that Boris Rotenberg is a citizen of the European Union and, according to available information, the blocked operations were aimed at fulfilling the public obligation to pay obligatory payments to the budget, that is, they were not private in the full sense of the word. From all this, it follows that if the US sanctions are really behind this story, then with sufficient political will, the Finnish court can find arguments to satisfy the businessman’s claims.
However, we should not forget about the alternative scenario that can be chosen by the Finnish court. Already, the banks that received the claim of Boris Rotenberg began to make statements that this whole story is a manifestation of an active struggle against money laundering, as if hinting that it is not at all American sanctions, but of illegal origin of money. If the courts decide to reduce everything to some formal measures to combat money laundering and present it as an ordinary case, then this position may be convenient: you do not have to make the difficult choices described above and take one of two positions.