Greasing the Wheels: How Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Ended Up Financing Russian Corruption

Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world. Established in 1990 to diversify Norway’s oil wealth and minimize negative consequences associated with fluctuations in commodities markets, GPFG has amassed close to $1.3 trillion in assets. In keeping with Norway’s sterling reputation for integrity, GPFG has embraced anticorruption as one of the fund’s guiding principles. In fact, GPFG requires the companies in which it invests “to identify and manage corruption risk, and to report publicly on their anti-corruption efforts.” The fund’s Council of Ethics has also declared that the fund will keep “gross corruption” out of its portfolio, and GPFG has been widely praised for its social responsibility (see here and here).

Yet despite all this, GPFG has not avoided corruption-related scandals, particularly with respect to its investments in Russia. Understanding how things went wrong offers more general lessons for how sovereign wealth funds can strengthen their safeguards against investing in corrupt companies and supporting corrupt regimes. Continue reading

Bribe to Survive: Sextortion and LGBTQ Discrimination

In February 2019, a gay man from Krasnodar, Russia named Stanislav arranged to go on a date with a young man he had met on a dating app. When he arrived at their agreed-upon location, however, the young man was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Stanislav was greeted by police officers, who later beat him and threatened him with criminal prosecution unless he paid a bribe. Just a year earlier, another man, Fedor, similarly found himself on a “fake date” with a man he had met on the same dating app, which ended with him being forced to pay police a US$2,500 bribe after also being beaten and threatened with prison. In both cases, Russian prosecutors refused to carry out any investigations of extortion or police misconduct.

It isn’t just in Russia that police have begun turning to online dating sites and other forms of technology to entrap their victims. By arbitrarily seizing cell phones or creating profiles to set up “fake dates,” law enforcement officers around the world (including in Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Moldova, just to name a few places) have been able to obtain screenshots and photographs to blackmail LGBTQ people into paying them bribes. Not only are victims coerced into paying these bribes to end their torture and humiliation, but they also do it in response to threats of having their arrests publicized on national television, or revealed to their family and employers. In this way, laws criminalizing homosexual activity are imposed not only, or even primarily, to enforce moral ideologies, but rather to expand opportunities for the corrupt extraction of money from vulnerable communities.

Continue reading

Time to Make the OECD Antibribery Convention an Antikleptocracy Convention Too

Confiscating assets acquired through corruption is a critical part of the fight against corruption. If those who would profit from corruption know they will be denied the benefit of their wrongdoing, there is no incentive to be corrupt.

As Justin explained Monday, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given asset confiscation a major boost. Many of Putin’s superrich backers, oligarchs or kleptocrats, became wealthy through corrupt deals, and the seizure of their mega-yachts, mansions and other properties now located outside Russian territory offer the West a way, albeit indirectly, to pressure Putin to end the aggression. Italian, German, and other Western prosecutors are thus now aggressively invoking domestic forfeiture statutes to confiscate them.

But as the Washington Post reports today, with the help of pricey lawyers and other enablers (here and here), the oligarchs have hidden their assets inside complex legal thickets of offshore companies that make confiscation hard if not impossible. In response, last Thursday President Biden asked Congress to give U.S. prosecutors new powers to cut through this underbrush (here).

The President’s initiative is welcome. But it also invites the obvious question: Why shouldn’t other Western nations follow suit?  All are united in their opposition to the war and desire to make Putin’s associates suffer consequences. Why shouldn’t every Western state ease the task their prosecutors face to the rapid seizure of oligarchs’ assets? And indeed to the seizure of any asset corruptly obtained or unlawfully possessed found in their territory?

The most straightforward way to realize this goal would be to amend the OECD Antibribery Convention.

Continue reading

The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Anastasia Kirilenko

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I featuring on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, my ICRN colleague Christopher Starke interviews Anastasia Kirilenko, an investigative journalist and the co-producer of Putin and the Mafia, a documentary about Vladimir Putin’s connections with organized crime. In their conversation, Christopher and Anastasia discuss the themes of this documentary, and also discuss the role of media and civil society in Russia, the role of oligarchs in Russian politics, and what the international anticorruption community could do to more effectively promote change within Russia. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN). If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends. And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

The Corruption of Italian Democracy: Russian Influence Over Italy’s League

Italy’s largest far-right policy, La Lega (“the League”), has long had close ties with Putin’s regime in Russia. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, has been a vocal supporter of Putin for years (see also here, here, and here), and in 2017 the League signed a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. Even before then, the League (then known as Lega Nord, the “Northern League”) often advocated within Italy and the EU for Russian interests. Notably, while the EU imposed sanctions on Russia after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the League opposed sanctions and tried (unsuccessfully) to upend the solidarity necessary to keep EU sanction in place. That opposition to sanctions only intensified after the 2017 cooperation agreement: At a 2018 conference in Moscow, Salvini—then Italy’s Interior Minister–insisted that Italy would work “day and night” to repeal the 2014 sanctions. Salvini’s efforts proved unsuccessful, as he was unable to convince his coalition partners to change Italy’s stance. But the Kremlin still benefitted from the League’s vocal opposition to sanctions, as it showed that Russia wasn’t isolated diplomatically and that the West is internally divided.

The League’s long history of cooperation with Moscow could be chalked up to shared ideology and policy goals. But it appears that corruption, not policy, might explain why the party is so close with Putin.

Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Oksana Nesterenko

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I are going to try as best as we can to feature on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, I was privileged to welcome to the podcast Oksana Nesterenko, Associate Professor of Law at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla and Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre. Professor Nesterenko was forced to leave Kyiv after the Russian attack, and she spoke with me from Poland, where she, like so many of her fellow citizens, is a refugee. In the first part of our conversation, Professor Nesterenko explains why the war between Russia and Ukraine is really a war of values, and why gradual reforms in Ukraine in the direction of liberal democracy and anticorruption threatened the Putin regime, and why this, rather than any actual military or security threat to Russia, is the real underlying reason for the Putin regime’s attempt to topple the current Ukrainian government. She also explains that Putin’s war is also an attempt to deflect domestic attention from his regime’s failures, including the government dysfunction caused by his corrupt approach to governance. She also provides an assessment of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pre-war anticorruption efforts, emphasizing that from the perspective of anticorruption activists were disappointed in the lack of progress on some issues, but recognizing that as a politician he had to balance interests and demands from different stakeholders. In the final part of our conversation, we turn to the question of Russian (and Ukrainian) dirty money flowing into wealthy Western countries, and what more can and should be done to stop this. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN). If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends. And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Igor Logvinenko

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I are going to try as best as we can to feature on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, I had the opportunity to speak to Igor Logvinenko, Associate Professor at Occidental College and author of Global Finance, Local Control: Corruption and Wealth in Contemporary Russia. In the first part of our conversation, Igor discusses Russia’s Russia’s historical corruption and current financial integration into world business, and we then turn to the impact of the current sanctions on Russia–including government sanctions on Russia and Russian companies, actions by private companies, and the use of targeted individual sanctions and asset seizures. In addition to discussing these issues in the context of the current war, Igor also discusses more broadly the role of Western financial systems, international financial integration, and the possibility for locally-driven structural changes to fight grand corruption. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN). If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends. And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Corruption, Sanctions, and the War in Ukraine: A Short Interview in Harvard Law Today

My home institution’s in-house publication, Harvard Law Today, recently interviewed me on some of the topics we’ve been covering on this blog (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here) and on the KickBack podcast (here and here) related to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. As I tried to emphasize in the interview itself, I am very far from an expert in many of the specific issues at the intersection of corruption and the Russia-Ukraine war, but I tried to pull together succinctly some of what I’d learned from conversations with actual expert over the last couple of weeks. For those who are interested, you can find the interview here.

Why Has Ukrainian Military Corruption Been a Non-Story in the Current Conflict?

In my post two days ago, I noted that one reason that the Russian army’s progress in Ukraine has been slower than expected—notwithstanding Russia’s overwhelming numerical superiority—may be the corruption that has been rampant in the Russian military and defense sector for years. (See, for example, here, here, and here.) While I don’t want to attach too much importance to this factor, it does seem at least plausible to me that widespread corruption has undermined Russian military effectiveness, particularly with respect to things like supplies, maintenance, and equipment quality, and possibly also with respect to training and the competence of the leadership.

But if we think that widespread defense sector corruption has played a non-trivial role in Russia’s under-performance on the battlefield in the current war, this naturally invites a question: Why haven’t we also seen reports suggesting that Ukrainian defense sector corruption has hampered the effectiveness of the Ukrainian defense against Russia’s invasion? After all, while corruption has long been recognized as a serious problem in the Russian military, many commentators—including many Ukrainian analysts—have been saying for years that the Ukrainian military also suffers from serious corruption problems, and that those problems threaten to undermine Ukrainian military effectiveness (see, for example, here, here, and here). And yet the news out of Ukraine suggests that the Ukrainian armed forces are fighting quite effectively, without reports of equipment or operational problems that might plausibly be due to corruption.

Why is this? I have no idea—so this is going to be one of those posts where I raise a question rather than trying to argue for what I think is the most likely answer. I may try to do more research and address this in a future post, but for now let me throw out three hypotheses. I would welcome comments from readers who know more about this topic as to which of these seem most plausible, or whether there might be another explanation that I have overlooked: Continue reading