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Is Africa’s Richest Woman a Russian Citizen?

Is Africa’s Richest Woman a Russian Citizen? video by Nik Yarst.
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Is Africa’s Richest Woman a Russian Citizen? video by Nik Yarst.

Isabel dos Santos

Isabel dos Santos

Billionaire émigré from Angola

“I am Russian by birth. … I did not restore my citizenship; I always kept it.”

Under Russian law, someone of dos Santos’ heritage must apply to restore citizenship

On Jan. 9, the Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported that Isabel dos Santos – the daughter of Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos once ranked by Forbes magazine as Africa’s richest woman – is a citizen of Russia.

Isabel dos Santos’s ties to Russia have been the subject of journalistic investigations for nearly a decade. But the issue heated up more recently with corruption allegations made by the Angolan government against dos Santos, her husband and another businessman. She has been living outside Angola for several years; in December, an Angolan court froze her assets.

Reuters cited a court document alleging that dos Santos and the others were responsible for more than $1 billion in losses to the state. Dos Santos and an associate were accused of attempting to transfer 10 million euros to Russia.

Portuguese news outlets including the Jornal Económico and Expresso reported this month that dos Santos did business with the Russian state oil giant Rosneft in several countries, including Mozambique, Iraq and Turkey. She also owns a 25 percent stake in Nafta, an oil and gas company in Azerbaijan.

The ability to claim Russian citizenship could prove important to dos Santos in order to protect her foreign assets from being seized by the Angolan government. Russia protects its citizens and assets from foreign or international prosecution under Article 61 of its constitution.

Dos Santos claims the corruption accusations against her are false and “politically motivated,” and she called the media investigations “fake.” The corruption case was brought under the administration of Angolan President João Lourenço, elected in 2017 to replace dos Santos’ father, José Eduardo dos Santos, who had ruled since 1979.

Jornal Económico reported that Isabel dos Santos “became a Russian citizen Isabel Dosovna Kukanova,” in a process directed by President Vladimir Putin.

Expresso reported that her Portuguese lawyer, Jorge Brito Pereira, last October and November filed changes to the shareholder registry data for two Maltese companies affiliated with dos Santos and her husband. The changes include the couple's new business address in Dubai and a new country of nationality for Isabel dos Santos –– Russia.

“I am Russian by birth,” TASS quoted her as saying. Asked whether she received or restored Russian citizenship in 2013, she told TASS: “I did not restore my citizenship, I always kept it.” The news agency said she is in exile in Dubai and “not planning on returning to Angola.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a inquiry about dos Santos' citizenship.

A review of Russia’s citizenship law raises new questions about Dos Santos’ status.

Initially adopted in 1992 after the Soviet Union collapsed, the law was overhauled and signed by Putin in 2002. Under the law, persons born in former Soviet republics other than Russia – like Azerbaijan – do not automatically inherit Russian citizenship from a Russian parent. Instead, they must apply to restore citizenship – a process that can be both expensive and time consuming.

Blood Ties

Isabel dos Santos was born in 1973, in what was then the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Her parents attended college in Baku, the capital. Her father, José Eduardo dos Santos, is Angolan, and her mother, Tatiana Kukanova, is a Russian from the provincial city of Penza. The couple moved with their baby daughter to Angola, where José Eduardo dos Santos became Angola’s president. By the age of six, Isabel was “a princess” in the presidential palace, according to Forbes.

Kukanova divorced José Eduardo dos Santos and reportedly moved to London with Isabel, but details are scarce. Multiple Russian sources claim Kukanova did not retain permanent residence in Russia after moving to London.

Kukanova has no public social media accounts and only appeared once in her daughter’s Facebook posts ­– on Christmas, Dec. 25, 2018.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported in 2002 and 2015 that Isabel dos Santos was a shareholder in Ascorp, “the Angolan diamond monopoly controlled by Russian-Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, who is a close friend of Vladimir Putin.” The report said her mother’s name was linked to accounts at HSBC that held as much as $4.5 million in 2006-2007, the ICIJ said.

On Aug. 13, 2019, the Times of London reported that Isabel dos Santos had purchased a mansion worth 13 million pounds (about $17 million) in a London neighborhood the paper described as “one of Britain’s most secretive gated communities.”

The Citizenship Law

Russia’s citizenship law, Article 12, states that “a child acquires Russian Federation citizenship by birth, if, on the day of the child's birth,” one of the child’s parents “has Russian Federation citizenship, and the other parent is a foreign citizen, provided that the child was born on the territory of the Russian Federation.”

The law has special requirements for those born in areas like Soviet Azerbaijan that were outside the territory of the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which was the largest Soviet republic and is now the Russian Federation.

According to Article 13 of the citizenship law, anyone holding foreign citizenship who had Soviet citizenship by birth but was not born in the RSFSR must reapply for Russian citizenship. In addition, they must live in Russia for at least three years. That would appear to apply to Isabel dos Santos’ circumstances.

Articles 28 and 29 of the citizenship law, however, give the Russian president sweeping authority to decide granting or restoring Russian citizenship.

A vivid example of how Russia’s citizenship law is applied in regular, non-high-profile cases involves the Meskhetian Turks, who were deported by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin from their homes in Georgia and Azerbaijan to Central Asia during World War II. Thousands of Meskhetian Turks returned to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union but have been deprived of citizenship. In 2004, the U.S. granted humanitarian asylum to Russia’s Meskhetian Turks, resettling some 10,000 in Arizona, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Several Russian lawyers who specialize in citizenship restoration confirmed that dos Santos would be required to reapply for her citizenship.

Radio Echo Moskvy, one of the country’s most popular news outlets, questioned dos Santos’ status in a report this month: “If Isabel dos Santos had our passport before, it was only a Soviet one. After the collapse of the country, she had to exchange it for a Russian one.”

Embrace of Russia

In 2013, the Forbes magazine, known for its annual lists of the world’s richest people, reported that dos Santos, then 40, was Africa’s youngest and only female billionaire. Forbes’ latest estimate puts her wroth at $2.1 billion.

Dos Santos visited Russia last October to participate in the Russia-Africa Economic Summit in Sochi.

In a Facebook post from the summit, dos Santos said: “As passionate about my country and continent, I feel it is my duty to be at the forefront of the new era and reality of the world economy, defending our place …”

The accusations against Isabel dos Santos in Angola are part of a wider anti-corruption drive under President Lourenço. He dismissed a number of government officials, removed Isabel dos Santos as head of Sonangol, the state oil company, and canceled state contracts with businesses connected to the dos Santos family.

However, some observers question Lourenço’s anti-corruption drive, noting that he has specifically targeted the former president’s family while leaving others suspected of large-scale corruption untouched.

In a recent interview with VOA, Isabel dos Santos criticized the Angolan government.

“In a country that I believe should have the rule of law, like Angola, I’m very concerned for the future,” she said. “I’m very concerned that these kinds of measures are going to be just arbitrarily put on someone from the private sector. Then it could be me today but it could be anyone else tomorrow.”

Reuters reported Thursday that dos Santos had expressed in running for the Angolan presidency in 2022. "It's possible," she told the news agency.