Suddenly it seems great sport to beat up on poor old Russia. Surprise, surprise, the country is corrupt. Rule of law does not exist. The place is a den of thieves.
Where were Russia's myriad critics two years ago, when it snowed money in Moscow? You'd be surprised how many were snuggled up at the bar of the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, surrounded by attentive and leggy blondes and comforted by the bloated bonuses virtually every Westerner then earned in Russia.
Where were the Republicans -- so cross these electioneering days at Al Gore over the looting of Russia -- when former president George Bush cooed at the country's progress and prospects during the June 1998 unveiling of Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs's Moscow office?
There was a strange silence during the bubble years, when Russia's foreign-dominated stock market outperformed any other on earth. Nor did one hear a lot of indignant grumbling about corruption when big Russia players such as Credit Suisse First Boston tripled their early investments in the market for Russian treasury bills, known as GKOs.
What, then, is the big difference between Russia today and the Russia of the high-flying years of 1996-98? Has the level of graft increased so dramatically since the bubble burst last year? Or did a lot of U.S. investors accustomed to easy gains simply lose their shirts and start crying foul?
"When times were good, very few people asked pointed questions about Russia," said Charles Blitzer, a former World Bank representative in Moscow, who -- when we spoke on the eve of the Aug. 17 crash last year -- headed U.S. investment bank Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette's Russian research department in London. "But when things started going wrong, the answers suddenly scared the hell out of everyone."
More than 100,000 foreigners streamed into Moscow during the mid-'90s, with American investors leading the charge to cash in on the Russian bonanza. My wife was the vice president of one of those pioneering outfits, a New York-based hedge fund that had gambled $10 million in Russia in 1992 and by early 1998 had holdings worth more than $3 billion. We lived in a luxury apartment filled with antiques looted by the Red Army in Austria in 1945. The rent ran more than my journalist salary but was modest compared with the $20,000 some American bankers paid monthly for their Moscow digs.
Back then, Moscow's expatriates were shockingly unsympathetic when Radisson Hotel promoter Paul Tatum was shot to death in 1996, amid an ownership dispute with the powerful mayor of Moscow. The unfortunate entrepreneur, so the reasoning went, had brought trouble on himself by violating one of the fundamental unwritten rules of doing business in Russia: He had complained loudly about corruption.
According to Peter Charow, at the time head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, this code of silence was only one of the many local guidelines Westerners strictly followed to stay safe and get rich.
Nothing has changed in Russia since Paul Tatum's brutal death, with the expection, perhaps, that Americans are no longer making money there -- and are thus free to be belatedly sanctimonious. So since we all seem to be in such a finger-pointing mood this early in the election season, let's add one other, largely unacknowledged, group that also must bear direct responsibility for Russia's sorry state of affairs: Wall Street.
As the money-laundering scandal currently unfolding around Russian-controlled accounts at the Bank of New York sadly shows, it takes a certain blind faith not to notice anything suspicious about a company with a residential corporate address making 10,000 laptop-generated transactions worth well over $4 billion.
American investors were among the first buyers of Russia's much-maligned privatization certificates, often traveling to the deep provinces, where workers parted with their shares in exchange for a bottle of vodka. American and British bankers, including financier George Soros, did deals with the so-called oligarchs.
Prominent U.S. investment advisers packaged most of the Russian bond offerings that today are worth five cents on the dollar. Those same banks binged on billions of dollars of dubious GKO debt, betting there was no way the International Monetary Fund would allow Russia to go down the tubes.
American stockbrokers wrote the book on Russia's supposed industrial recovery, publishing such rosy analyst reports that U.S. and British fund managers went to ingenious lengths to buy restricted shares of murky companies such as RAO Gazprom. American accounting firms also did their bit for the Russian economic miracle, creating fanciful financial statements out of what at times seemed thin air. But the fat fees now-bankrupt Russian concerns such as Menatep and Sidanko paid for the window dressing were very real.
So where did mobsters and corrupt Russian officials learn about the intricate art of money laundering? And who introduced Russian businessmen to the joys of such offshore tax havens as Cyprus?
If Russians have perfected their financial sleight-of-hand wizardry over the past few years, it is because they had some cynical and well-compensated accomplices right here in America.
The writer was a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Russia and Eastern Europe.