The fast-moving events of the past few days in Ukraine have shown the depth of anger over the violence and corruption of the regime of Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies. There may now be early elections, andYanukovych has fled, but this alone will not heal the wounds of the past few years.
The pictures of the former president’s plush compound – his vintage car collection and fancy pheasants, the private restaurant and golf course – have struck a chord in the same way the palaces of Ben Ali and the wealth of Hosni Mubarak angered the people of Tunisia and Egypt.
Ukrainians want those in power and their accomplices who used their positions to pillage the public coffers held to account, and measures taken around the globe to make sure this cannot happen again.
This means enforcing anti-corruption and money laundering legislation in the places where the ill-gotten gains have ended up, not just in Ukraine. This will require a consistent and sustained change of policy. It should and could have happened sooner in Ukraine.
The corruption at the heart of Ukraine’s political system that has enriched the few – and disadvantaged the many – was only sustainable through the knowing compliance of actors in the financial systems of those same states now lecturing Kiev on good governance and democratic values.
The Ukrainian elites have for years salted away ill-gotten gains throughout the EU while the authorities, specifically in the UK, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Latvia, failed to apply their anti-corruption and anti-money laundering legislation to stop them.
If this was part of a strategy to woo Ukraine westward, it clearly failed. Those in power decided to throw in their collective lot with Russian’s bailout billions despite opposition from the people. The sad truth is that it has taken a near civil war to raise the spectre of financial sanctioning for a kleptocratic regime and its backers.
Although the UK government estimates that £23bn-£57bn a year might be laundered through its financial centre, it issued the first fine for lax anti-money laundering controls in January this year. The UK branch of Standard Bank Group was fined $12.6m – less than 2% of its 2013 first-half earnings.
According to a report by Transparency International UK, the global anti-corruption movement, there is a “tendency to tackle corruption only where there is strong bilateral political support“.
In other words, the British government is reluctant to charge foreign citizens with money laundering without the explicit approval and co-operation of that citizen’s government. How is this system supposed to work if it is the government officials that are stashing cash and buying villas in faraway places around the world?
The real world consequences of this policy are obvious: the only foreign citizens in danger of investigation, let alone prosecution – Ukrainian or otherwise – are those out of favour with their home governments. Those shielded from prosecution in Ukraine are automatically afforded the same protection in the UK and elsewhere.
Reversing this trend should not be too difficult if there is political will. Investigative journalists and civil society activists have done a stellar job unearthing the links between those in power in Ukraine and huge wealth.
At the Yanukovych.info website, for example, two non-governmental organisations, PEP Watch and the Anticorruption Action Center, have traced the alleged financial dealings of Yanukovych’s inner circle showing the interconnectedness of the presidential administration and a myriad of “shell and shelf companies” in London, Austria, the United States and other conventional tax havens.
European money laundering laws can and should be strengthened to force greater due diligence on the part of financial institutions and others. The vote this week in the European parliament to make it mandatory for jurisdictions to keep a register of the beneficial owners of companies could make it harder for people to hide assets in shell companies.
But even as things stand, if the current anti-corruption laws were enforced then the pillaging of assets that we have seen in the Ukraine would have been harder to do.
Transparency International has chapters around the world and we willfocus our energy on making sure that the promises to investigate and freeze illicit funds from Ukraine are indeed upheld and criminals sanctioned.
Corruption is a cross-national issue and weak financial oversight only encourages the abuse of power and fiscal malfeasance by offering a safe and easily accessible hiding place for purloined funds. For governments and activists seeking to promote democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine and other transitional countries, the battle starts at home.