On Aug. 20, 2020, Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned by agents of President Vladimir Putin’s main domestic security agency with the nerve agent Novichok. Navalny survived, thanks to the pilot on his plane doing a swift emergency landing and ambulance drivers taking him quickly to a hospital in Siberia. Although he has been a political prisoner since he returned to Russia in February, Navalny published a commentary in Britain’s The Guardian, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and France’s Le Monde on the anniversary of his poisoning.
Navalny is worth listening to. Currently, Russia has only two political leaders, Putin and Navalny. Astutely, Navalny has developed his Anti-Corruption Foundation as a prime investigative body and an outstanding publicity juggernaut. He knows the greatest weakness of Putin’s kleptocracy is that Russians, as virtually all people, strongly dislike corruption, which is a way for the elite to extort the people.
Navalny’s finest work is the film about Putin’s private palace on the Black Sea, which has been downloaded on YouTube more than 118 million times. Little surprise that Putin has lawlessly imprisoned him despite repeated verdicts in Navalny’s favor from the European Court of Human Rights. In June, a Moscow court prohibited his Anti-Corruption Foundation as “extremist,” forcing its dissolution. Sure, to Putin it is “extreme” to tell the truth about his kleptocracy.
Sticking to his trade, Navalny devotes his new commentary to the battle against global corruption. As always, he is refreshingly ready to fight and optimistic that something can be done: “All it takes to get started is for western leaders to show determination and political will.” He proposes a resolution in five steps, which he sees as “entirely realistic” and “easy to implement.” His ideas are actually closely aligned with President Joe Biden’s views of the damage wrought by global corruption, which will be a key topic of his Summit for Democracy, scheduled for December 9-10. Biden should invite Navalny as the foremost representative of Russia civil society.
`Countries That Encourage Corruption’
Navalny’s first thesis in the op-ed is that the west should single out certain “countries that encourage corruption” and carry out punitive measures against such countries. At present, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) of big and developed countries blacklists jurisdictions that do not comply with its standards for control of money laundering. However, FATF, which is headquartered in Paris and has 39 members, tends to blackmark small Caribbean island nations, while the world’s two leading kleptocracies, China and Russia, are full members in good standing. A true community of democracies would focus on the real culprits rather than the small and weak countries.
A second demand is far-reaching international transparency. In its fifth anti-money laundering directive of June 2018, the European Union compelled its 27 members to establish public registries of the ultimate beneficiary owners of all significant assets within two years. This reform is well under way. Similarly, the U.S. Congress adopted the Corporate Transparency Act at the beginning of this year. It forces all U.S. LLCs to register their ultimate beneficiary owners with the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) within three years. These two parallel reforms will offer the developed world far greater financial transparency, to the detriment of kleptocrats.
Third, Navalny is all in favor of personal sanctions, but he wants them to hit “oligarchs, primarily those in the entourage of Putin – the role model for all the world’s corrupt officials and businessmen.” He bitterly complains about the latest “sanctions list, replete with the names of intelligence service colonels and generals nobody has ever heard of.” Indeed, the very day that his article was published, the U.K. and the United States sanctioned a bunch of not very senior FSB officers.
Instead, Navalny wants the West to sanction “Putin’s oligarchs, those heading ‘state-owned’ companies and companies that are formally private but whose prosperity is linked to Putin’s group, are not businessmen but leaders of organized crime groups.” Navalny has repeatedly singled out the two top Putin oligarchs, Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov. He proceeds, “the western establishment acts like Pavlov’s dog: you show them a colonel of the intelligence services and they yell, ‘Sanction him!’; you show them the oligarch paying the colonel, and they yell, ‘Invite him to Davos!’”
In March 2014, the U.S. sanctioned four of Putin’s closest cronies, his St. Petersburg friends who have made billions through privileged deals with the state, merely because of their friendship with Putin. Untypically, Putin complained publicly about these violations of their “human rights” no less than five times in a year, showing that these were sanctions that got his attention.
`Kid Gloves’ for Officials
Fourth, Navalny praises the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and similar laws in the U.K. and Germany, but complains that “western law enforcement agencies treat corrupt foreign officials with kid gloves.” This appears particularly true of the U.K., which appears to be turning into a black hole of global finance after Brexit because of the great presence of dark money in a country that is now outside of EU jurisdiction.
Finally, Navalny calls for an international body or commission that can obstruct the export of political corruption. Without mentioning them by name, he complains that a former German chancellor (clearly, Gerhard Schröder, chairman of the supervisory board of the Russian state oil company Rosneft as well as of the shareholders committees of Nord Stream AG and Nord Stream 2 AG), a former Italian prime minister (apparently Silvio Berlusconi, who is known for his pro-Putin views), and a former Austrian foreign minister (likely Karin Kneissl, member of the supervisory board of Rosneft) “can act as background dancers for the Russian dictator, normalizing corrupt practices.” Indeed, European countries need new laws prohibiting former top politicians from working for hostile powers.
These are all valuable points that deserve serious consideration. Both the United States and the EU are well on their way to shoring up corporate transparency through legislation. But while FATF fulfills certain functions, such as setting anti-money laundering standards, it catches little but mosquitoes. It should be reinforced and turned into a truly anti-kleptocratic organization, preferably without representatives of kleptocratic nations among its members.
The current Western sanctions policy, focusing on lowly security officers, makes little sense and should be swiftly revised. Go for the Putin oligarchs instead! The tepid enforcement of anti-corruption laws, primarily in the U.K., is unacceptable. Finally, European countries need to establish elementary norms for what former top politicians are allowed to do after retirement.
Biden should let Navalny’s ideas guide his Summit for Democracy. This longtime crusader’s incisive and valiant efforts against what might rank as the world’s biggest kleptocracy and on behalf of democratic ideals would set a serious example for how to advance democracy.