“Steal in Russia and spend in the West” is how Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza describes the behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his associates. A similar principle has become commonplace in most authoritarian regimes. Countries in which the rule of law is strong find themselves at risk from ill-gotten gains that autocrats have hidden within their borders. Not only does this make them complicit in the perpetuation of corruption abroad, but it also provides hidden “sleeper capital” through which autocrats and their cronies can exert influence domestically.
The countries in which money is most often hidden—the United States, the United Kingdom, and many countries of the European Union, especially France and Germany—have a strong rule of law system and desirable markets. In their large cities, representatives of autocratic systems can purchase real estate, retain lawyers and PR firms to conduct influence operations and reputation laundering, and access elite circles and high society thanks to their illicit wealth. However, in the last few years, these countries have become more aware of the infiltration of their markets by authoritarian finance and have taken steps to curb its flow into their borders.
They have sought to fortify themselves through a variety of measures, including beneficial ownership transparency (BOT). BOT is a government policy which requires incorporated entities to report their “beneficial owners”: the real individuals who ultimately enjoy the benefits of ownership of a company or property, or the underlying asset of value. Beneficial ownership data is then available to law enforcement or the public. This is vital to transparency because, in many jurisdictions, beneficial owners do not necessarily need to be listed on legal paperwork—they may list “nominee owners” who hold assets on their behalf.
While anonymous shell companies have legitimate uses, they are often abused to launder money. Autocrats can create a chain of such companies across many jurisdictions, evading law enforcement and moving stolen money from company to company until that money is nearly untraceable. At that point, the money is considered “washed” and can be used for all manner of ostensibly legitimate purposes.
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Contributor: Paul Massaro, Policy Advisor