Fimaco Wouldn't Die
Russia's Missing Billions
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
Also published by United Press International (UPI)
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Russia's Audit Chamber - with the help of the Swiss authorities and their host of dedicated investigators - may be about to solve a long standing mystery. An announcement by the Prosecutor's General Office is said to be imminent. The highest echelons of the Yeltsin entourage - perhaps even Yeltsin himself - may be implicated - or exonerated. A Russian team has been spending the better part of the last two months poring over documents and interviewing witnesses in Switzerland, France, Italy, and other European countries.
About $4.8 billion of IMF funds are alleged to have gone amiss during the implosion of the Russian financial markets in August 1998. They were supposed to prop up the banking system (especially SBS-Agro) and the ailing and sharply devalued ruble. Instead, they ended up in the bank accounts of obscure corporations - and, then, incredibly, vanished into thin air.
The person in charge of the funds in 1998 was none other than Mikhail Kasyanov, Russia's current Prime Minister - at the time, Deputy Minister of Finance for External Debt. His signature on all foreign exchange transactions - even those handled by the central bank - was mandatory. In July 2000, he was flatly accused by the Italian daily, La Reppublica, of authorizing the diversion of the disputed funds.
Following public charges made by US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as early as March 1999, both Russian and American media delved deeply over the years into the affair. Communist Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin jumped on the bandwagon citing an obscure "trustworthy foreign source" to substantiate his indictment of Kremlin cronies and oligarchs contained in an open letter to the Prosecutor General, Yuri Skuratov.
The money trail from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to Swiss and German subsidiaries of the Russian central Bank was comprehensively reconstructed. Still, the former Chairman of the central bank, Sergei Dubinin, called Ilyukhin's allegations and the ensuing Swiss investigations - "a black PR campaign ... a lie".
Others pointed to an outlandish coincidence: the ruble collapsed twice in Russia's post-Communist annals. Once, in 1994, when Dubinin was Minister of Finance and was forced to resign. The second time was in 1998, when Dubinin was governor of the central bank and was, again, ousted.
Dubinin himself seems to be unable to make up his mind. In one interview he says that IMF funds were used to prop up the ruble - in others, that they went into "the national pot" (i.e., the Ministry of Finance, to cover a budgetary shortfall).
The Chairman of the Federation Council at the time, Yegor Stroev, appointed an investigative committee in 1999. Its report remains classified but Stroev confirmed that IMF funds were embezzled in the wake of the 1998 forced devaluation of the ruble.
This conclusion was weakly disowned by Eleonora Mitrofanova, an auditor within the Duma's Audit Chamber who said that they discovered nothing "strictly illegal" - though, incongruously, she accused the central bank of suppressing the Chamber's damning report. The Chairman of the Chamber of Accounts, Khachim Karmokov, quoted by PwC, said that "the audits performed by the Chamber revealed no serious procedural breaches in the bank's performance".
But Nikolai Gonchar, a Duma Deputy and member of its Budget Committee, came close to branding both as liars when he said that he read a copy of the Audit Chamber report and that it found that central bank funds were siphoned off to commercial accounts in foreign banks.
The Moscow Times cited a second Audit Chamber report which revealed that the central bank was simultaneously selling dollars for rubles and extending ruble loans to a few well-connected commercial banks, thus subsidizing their dollar purchases. The central bank went as far as printing rubles to fuel this lucrative arbitrage. The dollars came from IMF disbursements.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based on its own sources and an article in the Russian weekly "Novaya Gazeta", claims that half the money was almost instantly diverted to shell companies in Sydney and London. The other half was mostly transferred to the Bank of New York and to Credit Suisse.
Why were additional IMF funds transferred to a chaotic Russia, despite warnings by many and a testimony by a Russian official that previous tranches were squandered? Moreover, why was the money sent to the Central Bank, then embroiled in a growing scandal over the manipulation of treasury bills, known as GKO's and other debt instruments, the OFZ's - and not to the Ministry of Finance, the beneficiary of all prior transfers? The central bank did act as MinFin's agent - but circumstances were unusual, to say the least.
There isn't enough to connect the IMF funds with the money laundering affair that engulfed the Bank of New York a year later to the day, in August 1999 - though several of the personalities straddled the divide between the bank and its clients. Swiss efforts to establish a firm linkage failed as did their attempt to implicate several banks in the Italian canton of Ticino. The Swiss - in collaboration with half a dozen national investigation bureaus, including the FBI - were more successful in Italy proper, where they were able to apprehend a few dozen suspects in an elaborate undercover operation.
FIMACO's name emerged rather early in the swirl of rumors and denials. At the IMF's behest, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) was commissioned by Russia's central bank to investigate the relationship between the Russian central bank and its Channel Islands offshoot, Financial Management Company Limited, immediately when the accusations surfaced.
Skuratov unearthed $50 billion in transfers of the nation's hard currency reserves from the central bank to FIMACO, which was majority-owned by Eurobank, the central bank's Paris-based daughter company. According to PwC, Eurobank was 23 percent owned by "Russian companies and private individuals".
Dubinin and his successor, Gerashchenko, admit that FIMACO was used to conceal Russia's assets from its unrelenting creditors, notably the Geneva-based Mr. Nessim Gaon, whose companies sued Russia for $600 million. Gaon succeeded to freeze Russian accounts in Switzerland and Luxemburg in 1993. PwC alerted the IMF to this pernicious practice, but to no avail.
Moreover, FIMACO paid exorbitant management fees to self-liquidating entities, used funds to fuel the speculative GKO market, disbursed non-reported profits from its activities, through "trust companies", to Russian subjects, such as schools, hospitals, and charities - and, in general, transformed itself into a mammoth slush fund and source of patronage. Russia admitted to lying to the IMF in 1996. It misstated its reserves by $1 billion.
Some of the money probably financed the fantastic salaries of Dubinin and his senior functionaries. He earned $240,000 in 1997 - when the average annual salary in Russia was less than $2000 and when Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the USA, earned barely half as much.
Former Minister of Finance, Boris Fedorov, asked the governor of the central bank and the prime minister in 1993 to disclose how were the country's foreign exchange reserves being invested. He was told to mind his own business. To Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty he said, six years later, that various central bank schemes were set up to "allow friends to earn handsome profits ... They allowed friends to make profits because when companies are created without any risk, and billions of dollars are transferred, somebody takes a (quite big) commission ... a minimum of tens of millions of dollars. The question is: Who received these commissions? Was this money repatriated to the country in the form of dividends?"
Dubinin's vehement denials of FIMACO's involvement in the GKO market are disingenuous. Close to half of all foreign investment in the money-spinning market for Russian domestic bonds were placed through FIMACO's nominal parent company, Eurobank and, possibly, through its subsidiary, co-owned with FIMACO, Eurofinance Bank.
Nor is Dubinin more credible when he denies that profits and commissions were accrued in FIMACO and then drained off. FIMACO's investment management agreement with Eurobank, signed in 1993, entitled it to 0.06 percent of the managed funds per quarter.
Even accepting the central banker's ludicrous insistence that the balance never exceeded $1.4 billion - FIMACO would have earned $3.5 million per annum from management fees alone - investment profits and brokerage fees notwithstanding. Even Eurobank's president at the time, Andrei Movchan, conceded that FIMACO earned $1.7 million in management fees.
The IMF insisted that the PwC reports exonerated all the participants. It is, therefore, surprising and alarming to find that the online copies of these documents, previously made available on the IMF's Web site, were "Removed September 30, 1999 at the request of PricewaterhouseCoopers".
The cover of the main report carried a disclaimer that it was based on procedures dictated by the central bank and "...consequently, we (PwC) make no representation regarding the sufficiency of the procedures described below ... The report is based solely on financial and other information provided by, and discussions with, the persons set out in the report. The accuracy and completeness of the information on which the report is based is the sole responsibility of those persons. ... PricewaterhouseCoopers have not carried out any verification work which may be construed to represent audit procedures ... We have not been provided access to Ost West Handelsbank (the recipient of a large part of the $4.8 IMF tranche)."
The scandal may have hastened the untimely departure of the IMF's Managing Director at the time, Michel Camdessus, though this was never officially acknowledged. The US Congress was reluctant to augment the Fund's resources in view of its controversial handling of the Asian and Russian crises and contagion.
This reluctance persisted well into the new millennium. A congressional delegation, headed by James Leach (R, Iowa), Chairman of the Banking and Financial Services Committee, visited Russia in April 2000, accompanied by the FBI, to investigate the persistent contentions about the misappropriation of IMF funds.
Camdessus himself went out of his way to defend his record and reacted in an unprecedented manner to the allegations. In a letter to Le Mond, dated August 18, 1999 - and still posted on the IMF's Web site, three years later - he wrote, inadvertently admitting to serious mismanagement:
"I wish to express my indignation at the false statements, allegations, and insinuations contained in the articles and editorial commentary appearing in Le Monde on August 6, 8, and 9 on the content of the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) audit report relating to the operations of the Central Bank of Russia and its subsidiary, FIMACO.
Your readers will be shocked to learn that the report in question, requested and made public at the initiative of the IMF ... (concludes that) no misuse of funds has been proven, and the report does not criticize the IMF's behavior ... I would also point out that your representation of the IMF's knowledge and actions is misleading. We did know that part of the reserves of the Central Bank of Russia was held in foreign subsidiaries, which is not an illegal practice; however, we did not learn of FIMACO's activities until this year--because the audit reports for 1993 and 1994 were not provided to us by the Central Bank of Russia.
The IMF, when apprised of the possible range of FIMACO activities, informed the Russian authorities that it would not resume lending to Russia until a report on these activities was available for review by the IMF and corrective actions had been agreed as needed ... I would add that what the IMF objected to in FIMACO's operations extends well beyond the misrepresentation of Russia's international reserves in mid-1996 and includes several other instances where transactions through it had resulted in a misleading representation of the reserves and of monetary and exchange policies. These include loans to Russian commercial banks and investments in the GKO market."
No one accepted - or accepts - the IMF's convoluted post-facto "clarifications" at face value. Nor was Dubinin's tortured sophistry - IMF funds cease to be IMF funds when they are transferred from the Ministry of Finance to the central bank - countenanced.
Even the compromised office of the Russian Prosecutor-General urged Russian officials, as late as July 2000, to re-open the investigation regarding the diversion of the funds. The IMF dismissed this sudden burst of rectitude as the rehashing of old stories. But Western officials - interviews by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - begged to differ.
Yuri Skuratov, the former Prosecutor-General, ousted for undue diligence, wrote in a book he published two years ago, that only c. $500 million of the $4.8 were ever used to stabilize the ruble. Even George Bush Jr., when still a presidential candidate accused Russia's former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin of complicity in embezzling IMF funds. Chernomyrdin threatened to sue.
The rot may run even deeper. The Geneva daily "Le Temps", which has been following the affair relentlessly, accused, two years ago, Roman Abramovich, a Yeltsin-era oligarch and a member of the board of directors of Sibneft, of colluding with Runicom, Sibneft's trading arm, to misappropriate IMF funds. Swiss prosecutors raided Runicom's offices just one day after Russian Tax Police raided Sibneft's Moscow headquarters.
Absconding with IMF funds seemed to have been a pattern of behavior during Yeltsin's venal regime. The columnist Bradley Cook recounts how Aldrich Ames, the mole within the CIA, "was told by his Russian control officer during their last meeting, in November 1993, that the $130,000 in fresh $100 bills that he was being bribed with had come directly from IMF loans." Venyamin Sokolov, who headed the Audit Chamber prior to Sergei Stepashin, informed the US Senate of $2 billion that evaporated from the coffers of the central bank in 1995.
Even the IMF reluctantly admits:
"Capital transferred abroad from Russia may represent such legal activities as exports, or illegal sources. But it is impossible to determine whether specific capital flows from Russia-legal or illegal-come from a particular inflow, such as IMF loans or export earnings. To put the scale of IMF lending to Russia into perspective, Russia's exports of goods and services averaged about $80 billion a year in recent years, which is over 25 times the average annual disbursement from the IMF since 1992."
Sam Vaknin served in various senior capacities in Mr. Gaon's firms and advises governments in their negotiations with the IMF.
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The Typology of Financial Scandals
The Bursting Asset Bubbles
(Case Studies: The Savings and Loans Crisis, Crash of 1929, British Real Estate)
The Shadowy World of International Finance
Hawala, or the Bank that Never Was
Money Laundering in a Changed World
The Varieties of Corruption
Corruption and Transparency
Straf - Corruption in CEE
The Criminality of Transition
The Kleptocracies of the East
The Enrons of the East
Bully at Work - Interview with Tim Field
The Economics of Conspiracy Theories
The Industrious Spies
The Business of Torture
Treasure Island Revisited - Maritime Piracy
Organ Trafficking in Eastern Europe
Begging Your Trust in Africa
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