By Paul Massaro, policy advisor
and Amelie Rausing, intern
Russia’s weaponization of corruption—its export of corrupt practices via the abuse of western legal and financial loopholes in order to further its geopolitical goals—has stimulated anti-American sentiment in Europe and galvanized extremist forces on both sides of the Atlantic. While Moscow pushes its anti-globalization narrative, it is simultaneously taking advantage of globalization to export its own version of crony capitalism to many countries in the OSCE region.
The Russian brand of corruption thrives off of globalization and depends on access to the global financial system. Under this model, weak property rights and lack of rule of law support a corrupt system at home, where markets are distorted and courts are politicized. State funds are looted and assets are acquired through corporate raiding and asset stripping. Cronies then siphon off national funds to safe havens outside of former Soviet countries.
Offshored money can be used to buy real estate, education, and health care in the United States and in Europe. It can also be used back home, to finance rigged elections, support local political figures, reward loyal cronies, and fund projects strategically important for geopolitical goals. Stolen money can also buy influence and keep foreign governments friendly. In the meantime, popular discontent brews domestically.
Western politicians often argue that globalization undermines corruption and authoritarianism. In reality, that is not the whole story. The emergence of a parallel, opaque, financial system that allows dictators to anonymously and untraceably funnel money to the West is one of the direst consequences of an increasingly globalized world. European and American lawyers, bankers, lobbyists, and accountants provide services that facilitate and benefit from the laundering of stolen assets. Illicit wealth is then invested in real estate in cities like London, New York, and Miami.
In many cases, victims are well aware of the West’s complicity in funneling off their hard-earned taxes and state budgets. Their sense of powerlessness is further fortified when the United States and European countries fail to trace and recover funds that have vanished in the global financial system. It strengthens the sense of a culture of impunity for grand corruption, a public setback that can then be exploited by extremist voices.
In Russia, “Londongrad” is widely known as the capitol of Russia’s stolen wealth. Furthermore, in the digital era, stolen assets are flaunted on social media for everyone to see. Last year, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Novaya Gazeta established that a 280-plus foot super-yacht named St. Princess Olga belonged to Putin crony and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin after examining the social media accounts of his rumored girlfriend, Olga Rozhkova. While the exact price of the yacht is unknown, it is estimated to be around $190 million. At best, the United States and other Western countries are accused of facilitating the looting of corrupt countries. At worst, they drive and benefit from the transfer of financial assets from the East to the West.
Disdain of the West becomes especially contagious when people like Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny start to express frustration with Western complicity in money laundering. It is bad news when freedom fighters and dissidents, traditional allies of the United States, start to question the West’s commitment to democratic development.
The failure to return ill-gotten assets, especially when they have been invested in the U.S. economy, diminishes the United States’ democratic legitimacy and America’s claim to be a champion of freedom. The perception of a hypocritical West with sham values is then exploited by opportunist politicians and media, who egg on anti-American sentiment with this carefully constructed narrative about globalization. This narrative fuels extremism and terrorism and it is in the United States’ national interest to encounter it.
The Helsinki Commission recently investigated one aspect of this phenomenon in a staff-level briefing titled, “Countering Corruption in the OSCE Region: Returning Ill-Gotten Assets and Closing Safe Havens.” This briefing demonstrated that strengthening mechanisms for repatriation and accountability in the financial sector needs to be a priority. When these illicit assets are safeguarded in places where democratic governments have some leverage then it is important to use it to ensure the responsible return of funds for the benefit of victims. To avoid looking hypocritical, financial organizations and law firms that enable the looting cannot profit from the repatriation process.
There are many different methods required to combat corruption and responsible asset recovery might not seem like the most critical at first glance. However, it is an essential step for preventing future corruption. Recovered assets can be invested in the rule of law and aspects of civil society that serve as corruption watchdogs. Responsible and transparent repatriation has the potential to empower these watchdog organizations, strengthening the backbone of democratic development.