The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor
By ALEXANDER LEBEDEV | FEB. 26, 2014 | NYTIMES.Com
Whenever government representatives from around the world meet, they’re often able to make progress in many areas of common interest: combating climate change, poverty, the drug trade, Islamic extremism, human trafficking and modern-day slavery, even cybercrime — the list is long. What these officials often fail to dwell upon is corruption. All of their nations suffer from it; they agree it’s a cancer of our age and should be stamped out. But they do precious little about it.
This is bizarre, when you consider the scale of the problem. What is corruption? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.” And “by those in power” I would include those working for corporations and institutions that are part of the ruling elite.
According to the Tax Justice Network, an independent group promoting efforts to curb tax avoidance, crooked business people, working with corrupt officials, have embezzled $30 trillion over the last 15 years — or half of the world’s annual gross domestic product.
From China, nearly $4 trillion is thought to have disappeared between 2000 and 2011, much of it the profits of corruption, channeled into secret offshore financial havens. From Russia, the figure is close to $1 trillion. In the European Union, the total is put at $1.2 trillion.
In the West, the best-known figures linked to high-level fraud include Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Jérôme Kerviel of Société Générale, Kweku Adoboli of UBS. And everyone knows of the subprime debt scandal and the criminal rigging of the Libor rate. In my country, Russia, there have been similar scams: the theft of $5 billion from Bank of Moscow; $4 billion from BTA Bank and AMT Bank; $4 billion from Rosukrenergo; $3 billion from Globex and Sviaz Bank; $2 billion from Russian Agricultural Bank; $1 billion from Rosagroleasing; and $1 billion from VEFK Bank.
Many of the perpetrators of these scams have been able to move abroad, where they draw upon the expertise of what I term the “financial services oligarchy” of international banks, law firms and accountants to ensure they can continue to live off the proceeds of their crimes. Some, like Andrei Borodin, former chief executive of Bank of Moscow, have been granted political asylum (Mr. Borodin, in Britain).
Sergei Pugachev, owner of the bankrupt Mezhprombank; Viktor Khrapunov, former mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan; and the wife of Yuri Luzhkov, former mayor of Moscow, have all settled freely in the European Union or Switzerland, where they enjoy super-rich lifestyles. They contend that in their home countries they would be persecuted for their political views — though not much was known about their politics until they moved overseas; even if they were involved in politics at all, they tended to align themselves with the ruling powers.
Various nations have launched initiatives to tackle corruption. But these moves ignore the international, cross-border nature of the problem: Recovering stolen assets inevitably involves some degree of cooperation with another jurisdiction. But countering this is an entire industry devoted to helping people hide their wealth overseas, far from the prying eyes of the authorities. If governments want to have any chance of recovering what has been lost, they must join together to create an international anticorruption force, along the lines of Interpol, to defeat these financial oligarchs.
The new organization should have wide powers. It would not, however, be expensive to run (my estimate is about $70 million a year). Its remit would be to raise awareness about corruption; explain why it matters; and cross national borders to seize suspects and assets.
To lead the force, I would appoint a person of global credibility and stature. (Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be an excellent choice.) The leader’s mandate would be straightforward: to tackle corruption in the hopes that those planning to deceive their countrymen, to purloin valuable funds, would desist.
Without such a body, it is difficult to see how the battle against corruption can be won. Ranged against national police forces and investigators is an entire corps of professional advisory firms well-versed in assisting those who want to put their wealth beyond the authorities’ reach. Aiding and abetting those who have committed fraud are offshore tax havens that structure their laws to help those seeking total secrecy and security. This oligarchy can be broken only if governments fight like with like — by creating a well-equipped sleuthing agency that is not afraid of anybody or aligned with any particular nation.
Unlike the United Nations and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, an international anticorruption body would move fast and be flexible. At present, if someone steals $1 billion and heads for an offshore haven, it is practically impossible to take legal action against him or her. Recovery of the funds is even more unlikely; it would take years and cost a fortune.
We have to take the fight to the criminals and their well-paid, well-connected helpers. When a major corruption scandal erupts, there are predictable howls of rage. But ask yourself: How many of the perpetrators are ever caught, how much of the profits are ever recovered?
We’ve seen a slew of these cases in recent years. As transferring money and communications get quicker and easier, there’s no doubt such fraud is on the increase. The sums of money involved are also growing just as fast.
We need to put a stop to this. Governments around the world are struggling to raise funds to counter the global downturn, but they can’t simply keep increasing taxes on the middle- and higher-income brackets. Rather, they must pursue cash anywhere they can — and one source has to be the proceeds of corruption. (After all, in many cases, it’s government money that was spirited away in the first place.)
I propose a relatively cheap, effective solution to one of the world’s most pressing issues: an international body to police corruption. And we must have it now, not at some date far into the future. It’s our money — and we want it back.
Alexander Lebedev, a businessman and former senior officer in the K.G.B., is an owner of the Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta and publisher of The London Evening Standard and The Independent.