Two leading business tycoons expressed unease today about the impact of a U.S. investigation into alleged Russian money laundering at a New York bank, saying it is tarring all Russian businesses as criminal.
The separate comments by Boris Berezovsky, who is close to President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of Yukos, Russia's second-largest oil company, echoed similar remarks by Russian officials.
The reports of an investigation into possible Russian money laundering and large capital flows through the Bank of New York have shaken Russia's financial and political establishment, many of whose members routinely use offshore accounts to avoid taxes, hide profits and sidestep financial risks at home.
"All of us are discussing this problem," said Khodorkovsky in an appearance on Echo of Moscow, a popular radio station. "We cannot find a more or less persuasive explanation" for the huge money flows through the Bank of New York. Khodorkovsky said he was incredulous at reports that Russian companies might have moved as much as $4.2 billion through the bank over a period of six months, as investigators have reported. "This is a sum comparable to the oil exports of the country!" he said.
One of Khodorkovsky's vice presidents is Konstantin Kagalovsky, whose wife, Natasha, handled Russian accounts at the Bank of New York. She was suspended when the probe began, and another bank official, based in London, was fired Friday. The Kagalovskys have denied any wrongdoing, and the bank has said it is cooperating with investigators. Khodorkovsky said no allegations have been made against his vice president, but "without a doubt we are going to hold our own investigation."
Khodorkovsky, one of a group of Russian business magnates with key media and financial interests who often are described as "the oligarchs," devoted most of the interview to raising alarm about the investigations and the adverse impact he said it would have on Russian business. "We are now dealing with an emergency situation," he said, "and we should react to it in an emergency way." He was not specific, but suggested that the Russian government help root out whoever is "guilty" and that "people should be punished.
"You know, in America, the scandal has been going on for the second week already, and in the framework of this scandal, on the basis of chewing over several relatively true and not-exactly-true facts, the whole of Russian business is painted black," he said.
Berezovsky warned in a separate interview on the station that "all business in Russia will be represented as criminal" if the government does not soon respond.
Both tycoons have been in the spotlight lately because of their own offshore business activities. Khodorkovsky was accused by minority shareholders of watering down Yukos stock and then moving it to obscure offshore tax havens that they say he controlled. Russian authorities are investigating Berezovsky's links to a Swiss firm that held a large amount of hard-currency earnings for Aeroflot, Russia's national airline.
A Russian prosecutor, Nikolai Volkov, who has been looking into the Aeroflot affair, left for Switzerland today for talks with authorities there. The Interfax news agency said a second prosecutor, Georgi Chuglazov, had been invited to Switzerland but did not fly there as planned because someone else was assigned to the case. Chuglazov had been looking into allegations of corruption involving government contracts with a Swiss construction firm to renovate the Kremlin.
Berezovsky also responded today to reports--earlier denied by the Kremlin--that Yeltsin and his family keep money abroad. "There is no law that bans a Russian citizen, including the president, from holding accounts in foreign banks," he said.