LONDON (AP) – The former head of NATO has asked the prime minister of Latvia to create an international task force to guide the country in cleaning up its banking sector, which has been rocked by accusations of money laundering and bribery.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has also been prime minister of Denmark and is currently deputy chairman of Latvian bank Norvik, wrote a letter calling for the creation of a group of experts from major Western institutions like the European Central Bank and U.S. Treasury.
He made the proposal last week in a letter, which was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, to Latvia’s Maris Kucinskis.
Latvia’s central bank chief is being investigated amid allegations of bribery and money laundering. And one of Latvia’s biggest banks collapsed last month after the U.S. said it “institutionalized money laundering” and proposed cutting it off from the U.S. financial sector.
Latvia, which is a member of the European Union and NATO, has been the center of banking scandals for years as it became a hub for international banking, mainly from neighboring Russia and east European states like Ukraine. While offshore accounts are not necessarily illegal, much of that money has been proven to be laundered or obtained illegally.
The U.S. Treasury said in February that one Latvian bank, ABLV, processed payments that broke U.S. sanctions on North Korea, among other things. Concerns about the bank caused a run, leading to its collapse.
Latvian officials have described ABLV as a “non-resident” bank that was acting as a hub for deposits and payments to foreign clients mostly from the former Soviet republics, including nations like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine.
In his letter, Rasmussen said the U.S. Treasury report had undermined progress in cleaning up Latvia’s banking sector. He said that, amid reports of corruption among Latvian officials themselves, having an international group of experts would be the only way to restore credibility to the sector. The group of 5-10 “international luminaries” would meet at least four times a year, according to the proposal, to review the country’s progress and submit publicly available reports to the Latvian government.
To curb money laundering, the Latvian government last week proposed to fast-track legislation to ban shell companies – front organizations that have no real business activity but are used mainly to move or contain money, often secretly. Businesses have taken advantage of shell companies to funnel billions of dollars through the small Baltic nation with the help of financial institutions like ABLV.
The government, led by Kucinskis since February 2016, said it wants to add amendments to existing laws to prevent and reduce the proportion of what it described as “risky transactions in the banking business.”
It is asking lawmakers to pass the draft law in April. Should lawmakers give the green light, the new legislation could take effect in May.
Jari Tanner in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.
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