Spies, lies and ECB ties in Latvia's most explosive banking crisis

roche futures

Even for a country long accused of funnelling dirty Russian funds into the European Union, Latvia's latest banking scandal is shocking.

Just days after the US threatened to penalise Latvia's third-biggest lender for having "institutionalised money laundering," including for clients linked to North Korea's nuclear programme, authorities in Riga detained veteran central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics on suspicion of bribe-taking.

Hours later, after his two-day detention ended, the drama deepened with the publication of an Associated Press investigation that suggested he's a target of Russia's security services.

As a member of the European Central Bank's governing council, Mr Rimsevics is privy to market-moving decisions, and he's also a senior official in a former Soviet state that angered Moscow by joining Nato.

Under fire from multiple sides, Mr Rimsevics summoned reporters on Tuesday to deny wrongdoing, accuse banks of conspiring against him and declare himself the victim of a death threat to destabilise Latvia. Premier Maris Kucinskis thickened the plot after by urging Mr Rimsevics to resign - while also disparaging the bank Norvik and Russian owner Grigory Guselnikov for publicly accusing Mr Rimsevics of demanding a bribe without producing evidence.

Then the Defence Ministry weighed in with what amounted to a national-security alert that all but accused Russia of a disinformation attack.

President Raimonds Vejonis claimed Latvia is locked in a "hybrid war" and that Mr Rimsevics should step down for the sake of the financial system.

Mr Rimsevics dug in Thursday, telling Bloomberg Television he won't step down, even temporarily. He denied ever accepting an illegal payment, though he said he regretted not reporting the "hint" of a bribe in the past. "I'm not a friend of the banking system in this country," Mr Rimsevics said in his lawyer's office in Riga.

The ECB, whose council met on Wednesday without Rimsevics, its Latvian representative, has yet to comment.

With Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants once again at the hazy centre of a geopolitical storm, the Kremlin responded with a characteristic shrug.

"This is an internal political matter for our Latvian comrades," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "We wouldn't want to get involved."

As the murky events engulfing this Baltic outpost unfold, officials in Riga point to tighter rules, record fines and annual checks for banks with foreign clients as progress in their efforts to shed the country's reputation as a laundering centre.

The amount of dollars banks handle has fallen by two-thirds, from $221bn (€179bn) in 2014 to $76bn last year, mainly because major counter-parties like Deutsche Bank closed their Latvian dollar accounts.

Foreign deposits in Latvia have fallen by a third in the last two years and the finance minister expects another 50pc decline over the next few years.

A country of just 2 million bordering four other former Soviet republics - Russia, Belarus, Lithuania and Estonia - Latvia emerged as a trusted conduit of dollar flows westward after the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which triggered the equally sudden emergence of legions of millionaires. Like Cyprus - an even bigger mover of Russian funds - Latvia is a regional banking hub on the fringes of the EU with a large Russian-speaking population.

From 1996 to early 2005 - the year after Latvia joined both the EU and Nato - the US Treasury identified Russia and Latvia as major violators of anti-money-laundering laws. Of the 1,002 so-called suspicious activity reports it received on US shell companies in the period, 504 involved banks in Russia and 449 in Latvia that together handled $18bn of illicit transfers.

In 2005, Latvia's oldest commercial lender, Multibanka, and VEF became two of the few institutions to be blacklisted by the US as a "primary money-laundering concern" under a measure of the 2001 Patriot Act that gives Treasury power to ban lenders from the US system through which all dollar transfers must pass. Multibanka was later bought by a Russian lender controlled by the Rotenberg brothers, Putin's old friends from St Petersburg who are both sanctioned by the US over Ukraine along with their bank.

"Russian money will always try to find the easiest way out and that means the Baltics will always be an attractive channel," said Aivar Paul, a former head of Estonia's financial police who's now an executive at LHV bank in Tallinn. "How many EU countries offer extensive banking services in Russian?"

Three years later, a Treasury delegation flew to Riga to discuss with Latvian officials Iranian efforts to circumvent penalties imposed over its nuclear programme through Krajbanka.

Krajbanka eventually collapsed amid fraud allegations.

It was one of several domestic banks involved in a case where $1.6bn went missing from lenders owned by a Russian investor.

From 2011 to 2014, Latvian banks helped shift illicit cash out of Russia in a $20bn scheme the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which uncovered it, dubbed "The Russian Laundromat."

"You get the feeling the authorities are scared of the banks in Latvia, not vice versa," said Bill Browder, a fund manager whose lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in a Moscow prison after alleging a $230m tax fraud by officials. The Hermitage Capital Management founder said much of those funds were laundered via Latvian banks.

"There was never any interest in pursuing laundering charges, even when we brought them a case on a platter," he said. Trasta Komercbanka had its licence pulled by the ECB two years ago for breaching regulatory requirements. And last year, a Paris court fined another Latvian lender, Rietumu, a record €80m for helping clients of a French company evade taxes.

The bank denies wrongdoing and is appealing the decision.

Two weeks after the French ruling, Rietumu became the fifth Latvian bank to reach a settlement with local regulators over involvement in attempts to circumvent sanctions on North Korea. Another lender fined over North Korea at the same time, Norvik, is the one now accusing Rimsevics, the central bank governor, of demanding €100,000 a month in bribes.

"For 25 years, Rimsevics controlled everything," Mr Guselnikov, the Norvik owner, said. "He and his team are unmovable. He's been in charge of supervision since 1992 and all his employees have been there since the 1990s or 2000 and they owe him their careers and positions." Since the Korean fine, Mr Guselnikov has lured two western security experts to Norvik's board: former Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former German foreign intelligence chief August Hanning. Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre, is also a director of Latvia's Baltic International Bank.

One bank that escaped fines in the Korea probe, ABLV, is the lender the US designated a "primary money-laundering concern" last week. It denied the charges, said it's taken steps to prevent laundering and pledged to work with US officials.

"In money-laundering centres like Latvia there's a sense their hands aren't really dirty," said Mark Galeotti, from the Institute of International Relations who tracks Russian organised crime.

"The money just passes through and earns fees. You could argue the true laundering capitals are London and Frankfurt, but money arrives there pre-washed.