The economy of modern Russia is hemorrhaging cash: every month, $1 billion to $2 billion slips out in wire transfers, phony import-export documents and insider price manipulations. About $100 billion to $150 billion has fled abroad since 1992, according to Russian and Western estimates, outstripping the international aid coming into the country.
Capital flight is one of the most debilitating woes of Russia's eight-year attempt to transform the centrally-planned economy of the Soviet Union into a free market. All of the country's other troubles -- political upheaval, lawlessness, hyperinflation, oligarchic rule -- have combined to drive wealth that might otherwise go toward rebuilding and growth into overseas bank accounts, real estate, luxury resorts and offshore tax havens.
The breadth of the problem has been highlighted this month with the disclosure that U.S. law enforcement officials are investigating transfers of as much as $10 billion in Russian money through the Bank of New York over the past year and a half. Some of the money appears to have come from Russian organized crime bosses, and investigators have described some of it as part of a money-laundering scheme to conceal the origin of criminal profits.
But the enormous transfers also appear to be part of a broader phenomenon of capital flight, money on the run from Russia from a variety of sources and for a host of reasons: to hide it from taxes or business partners, to conceal pillage of natural resources or stripped factory assets, or to skirt political and economic upheaval at home.
According to Russian bankers, economists and analysts, the Bank of New York transactions are typical of several "clean pipes" carrying Russian capital out of the country to the West. These channels are often run by intermediaries from Switzerland, Cyprus and elsewhere, who specialize in getting the money to a safe haven. The "clean pipe" may be carrying the money of dozens of different people and companies, whether legal, shadowy or criminal, and to different destinations.
Since the collapse of the ruble a year ago, the dimensions of Russia's capital flight problem have been thrown into high relief. The crisis itself was a shock, propelling billions of dollars abroad, and the aftermath underscored how widespread the practice had become. According to many businessmen here, Russia's financial and political elite, from mid-level bureaucrats to high-level Kremlin officials, from factory directors in the provinces to Moscow moguls, have moved capital and assets abroad with impunity. While there are rules against exporting capital, they are widely ignored and almost never enforced.
"You see, it's a very, very easy thing to do this," said a Moscow banker. "It's not a problem, technically."
In one of the more striking cases, shares in Russia's second-largest oil company, Yukos, were moved offshore late last year and earlier this year after the parent bank defaulted on Western loans for which it had pledged the shares. The shares were then traced to a maze of discreet offshore havens in the Isle of Man, the Virgin Islands and Cyprus. The offshore companies are believed by minority shareholders to be in the hands of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the mogul at the head of Yukos, and his close associates, but the company has refused to say. The case is under investigation by the Russian securities commission.
In another high-profile example, Russian prosecutors have been examining how the foreign currency earnings of the national airline, Aeroflot, were reportedly channeled into a Swiss company believed by the investigators to be controlled by tycoon Boris Berezovsky. And, in another case receiving renewed attention, the now-suspended Russian general prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, has threatened to reveal the identities of what he described as high-level government officials with Swiss bank accounts.
Even the Central Bank of Russia, which is supposed to be a paragon of trust in the country's finances and has sought to stop capital flight, secretly transferred some of Russia's national currency reserves abroad to an obscure offshore company in recent years, according to the results of an audit.
Many economists have long argued that in the increasingly globalized economy, capital flight is not the chief cause of Russia's problems, but a symptom of a more profound failure to create conditions that would attract and keep capital at work inside the country.
"Money is transnational today," said Valery Solovei, an analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation here. "Money moves through borders and seeks the best rate of profit. Money likes quiet. And money must be working. Unfortunately, in Russia we have neither quiet nor the conditions to make a profit. One may lose everything. One financial clan loses to another, and then it loses everything. Naturally, they hide the money in the West. You can slow this process a little bit, but you can't stop it altogether. You can stop it only if you create attractive conditions in Russia."
But those conditions have not taken hold. Rather, political instability has roiled Russia, and the rule of law has not been established. In the last year alone, President Boris Yeltsin tossed out four prime ministers amid the worst financial crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"The root of the evil is the political situation," said Denis Rodionov, an analyst at Brunswick Warburg, an investment bank here. "People don't know who is going to be the next president and whether the Communists are going to come back to power."
Nor has the financial system inspired confidence. In many developed Western economies, banks and stock markets perform a basic function of providing capital to businesses, but in Russia's recent history banks have been more often tools of their owners' empires, and stock markets have rarely raised new capital. The risks of investing have been increasingly evident as Russian tycoons trample shareholder rights.
"It is the absence of clear market traditions," said Yevgeny Yasin, the former economics minister and one of those who supported the reform efforts of recent years. "I mean fulfilling contracts, protecting shareholders' rights -- minority shareholders have no rights whatsoever, and there is the absence of a developed financial market infrastructure, such as mutual funds and investment companies."
Yet another key factor has been Russia's arbitrary and punishing tax system, which parliament has yet to reform. It has been the cause of pervasive tax avoidance, much of it in offshore havens.
But the Russian government has appeared helpless. For years, successive cabinet ministers have stoutly promised action, but to no avail. The parliament passed new legislation against capital flight in June, and the Central Bank tried to tighten restrictions, but the leakage continues.
Capital flight takes many hidden routes out of Russia. For a long time, two of the most common were through import and export transactions. A company would sign a contract to export goods, but the payment would be deposited in an offshore account abroad rather than in Russia. Or, a company would send money overseas supposedly as "prepayment" for imports, which would never arrive. Another mechanism has been transfer pricing, in which oil or other natural resources are sold cheaply to an offshore firm, which keeps the profits abroad. Yet another tactic has been to manipulate loan payments between a Russian company and an offshore one so the Russian company's profits are paid to the offshore firm.
Recently, Alexander Livshits, a former finance minister, suggested a tax on money that appeared to be leaving the country. "There is no point in trying to stop a flowing river," he said. "It would make sense to put a power station on the river and generate electricity."
But the Moscow banker said too many people have a stake in capital flight to stop it easily. "There is no action against capital flight because there is a very powerful lobby in favor of capital flight," he said. "If someone will try and establish" a barrier, he added, "then he will be killed. Because it is too big a process to stop in this way."
Added Solovei, the analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation: "The regime itself is involved in capital flight, its top leaders, or members of their families. That is why we can expect changes only with the establishment of new authorities, whose interests are going to be in Russia and not the West. I think repatriation of capital is going to be a very slow and hard process. It will take years, maybe decades."