The Curious Man Behind Nordic Banking Scandals
By F. William Engdahl
5 April 2019
Image: Lietuvių: Swedbank, Konstitucijos prospektas, Vilnius Credit: Bearas https://bit.ly/2UI3njL License: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license With Some Restrictions https://bit.ly/1kvyKWi
In recent days Sweden’s largest mortgage bank, Swedbank, fired its CEO amid charges she was involved in a multi-billion dollar money laundering operation. Swedbank now joins Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, and several other European Union banks implicated in laundering what has been claimed amounts to more than $1 trillion in funds of Russian or Ukraine or other origin in recent years. As impressive as the scandal appears, equally interesting is the curious man triggering the scandals .
On March 28 Swedbank AB fired its CEO, Birgitte Bonnesen, amid allegations she was complicit in a conspiracy to launder billions of dollars in money from former Soviet Union states via Swedbank’s Estonia branch. At present Swedish SVT television reports suggest the mortgage bank laundered as much as 20 billion euros ($23 billion) in questionable funds each year, between 2010 and 2016 in Estonia, which, if true, would total some $140 billion. Swedbank allegedly also misled US authorities on its suspicious customer activities. Reportedly the Swedbank Estonia violations are tied to the even more dramatic allegations that Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, laundered an eye-popping $230 billion via its Estonia operation. Bonnesen was in charge of Swedbank’s Baltic banking operations from 2011-2014.
Among those allegedly using the Baltic branch of Swedbank was former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovytch, ousted in a CIA coup in February 2014 facilitated by Obama State Department official Viktoria Nuland. Another client was reportedly the Russian industrial oligarch, Iskandar Makhmudov, who made his fortune during the Yeltsin years in the “rape of Russia” plunder of Soviet state companies.
The curious whistleblower
The person by all reports responsible for blowing the whistle on what he says is criminal money laundering of funds of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs by Swedbank, Danske Bank and allegations that Deutsche Bank and other EU banks were also involved, is an American-born British citizen named Bill Browder.
Browder is notorious as a bitter enemy of Russia’s Putin. He has charged Putin’s police of murdering a business associate of Browder, Sergei Magnitsky, Browder’s accountant, in a Russian jail, charges never proven. It was enough however, for the well-connected Browder to get the influential backing of US Senator John McCain to pass the Magnitsky Act of 2012. Today the act has been broadened to apply globally, authorizing the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freezing their assets, and banning them from entering the US.
Putin’s government had charged Browder with theft of $230 million in tax money, after Russian authorities banned Browder and seized his Hermitage Capital hedge fund in Russia. As investigators have pointed out, far from wanting him dead, Magnitsky, as accountant for Browder, was the key state witness for Russia against Browder. The McCain-backed Magnitsky Act gave the US Government unprecedented powers to sanction individuals and companies in the name of “punishing rogue, evil regimes who torture innocents.” The Magnitsky Act paved the way to the Cyprus confiscation of Russian deposits, to post-Crimean US sanctions and beyond. Browder’s Magnitsky games are still very active today.
In July, 2018 at the Helsinki Summit with Trump, Putin openly requested permission to send Russian prosecutors to the US to query Browder on his tax evasion. Putin offered that the USA could interrogate any Russian concerning the 2016 elections, provided he could do the same with respect to the Russian 2000 election, including the role of Bill Browder. One week later, with notable timing, Browder openly charged that Danske Bank had illegally laundered $8 billion via its Estonia operations from Russia, Moldova and Azerbaijan oligarchs. US authorities are investigating, but now Browder is apparently going all out to break links between Russian companies and many EU banks, whether criminal or not. Swedbank is apparently part of that escalation.
On March 6, the same Browder, who now seems to have made it his life mission to point the finger at the Putin government, filed a criminal complaint charging that Swedbank handled $176 million connected to the death of Sergei Magnitsky. Then, mysteriously Swedish state TV followed with allegations that Swedbank laundered far more for Russian clients, leading to the dismissal of Swedbank CEO last month. Where SVT got their insider information is not clear at this point. Browder for his part claims that as much as $1 trillion in dubious money from Russia and the former USSR region has found or seeks to find refuge in EU banks like Swedbank and Danske Bank. How he would know that sum is also not clear, but the claim makes dramatic headlines, is quite vague and hard to prove.
Pots and Black Kettles?
Bill Browder is a curious person to be blowing the whistle on Russian illegal money laundering via western banks. In the wild west 1990’s era of CIA asset, Boris Yeltsin, a man who was willing to sell his country in return for unlimited vodka and billions for his “family,” did business with a company named Hermitage Capital.
The administrations of G.H.W. Bush and later Bill Clinton facilitated the plunder of billions of dollars in former Soviet state assets during the 1990s, using a complex network of Swiss and other Western banks tied to the CIA to launder the corrupt gains. One such bank was the Swiss branch of Riggs Bank of Washington, Riggs Valmet SA of Geneva, organized in part by Jonathan J. Bush, brother of the late President. Another was Republic National Bank of New York of the late Edmund Safra.
In the 1990s, US-born Browder, whose grandfather, Earl Browder, had been head of the Communist Party USA, founded Hermitage Capital solely to invest in Russian companies being privatized in the corrupt vouchers system of Yeltsin’s Finance Ministry. Geneva banker Edmond Safra put in $25 million seed capital for Hermitage Capital and Safra’s Republic National Bank of New York controlled Browder’s Hermitage Capital, founding it together with Israeli diamond billionaire, Beny Steinmetz, who himself has been charged with money laundering more than once.
Safra was also linked to gangster Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, who, along with Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos Oil and Bank Menatep, was one of the original oligarchs groomed by Bush’s CIA and banking cronies to facilitate the looting of Yeltsin’s Russia dubbed by the CIA as Operation Hammer.
In short, Bill Browder knew much about illegal money laundering by Russian oligarchs in the 1990s. His Hermitage Capital allegedly helped facilitate it according to Russian charges and other evidence. When Yeltsin was gone, and a little-known nationalist named Vladimir Putin took charge as President in March 2000, Browder was suddenly on the outs in Putin’s Russia.
According to Martin Armstrong, who testified to the US Government that he had been approached to invest in Browder’s Russia Hermitage fund by HSBC, for Browder to get the Magnitsky Act aimed at the Putin government passed in Washington, Browder allegedly donated money to the bill’s recently-departed sponsor’s “Institute” – John McCain. Today, the board of the McCain Institute in Arizona includes such prominent figures as Lynn Forester de Rothschild and Gen. David Petraeus.
European analysts and investigative journalists suggest that Browder’s whistleblowing today on the Russian oligarchs’ use of Nordic banks such as Swedbank or Danske Bank and other EU banks, to move funds out of Russia, may be motivated by more than Browder’s personal pangs of guilt for past Russian deeds in the 1990’s before Putin.
According to Martin Armstrong, Browder’s 1990’s business partner in Hermitage Capital, Edmund Safra, was involved in a scheme to launder a $7 billion IMF Russia loan via Safra’s Republic Bank in New York in a complex blackmail scheme to get Yeltsin to name Safra’s pal, Boris Berezovsky, as Russian President. The plot backfired as Yeltsin smelled a trap, Armstrong claims, and turned instead to Putin for a deal in order to survive.
Armstrong maintains there is a “whole other side to this story that nobody seems to be interested in exposing because it just might reveal American attempts to manipulate Russian politics that backfired and opened the door to Putin.”
Tom Luongo, who follows the case closely puts the right question when he asks, “…looking at this situation rationally, how does this guy get to run around accusing banks of anything and mobilize governments into actions which have massive ramifications for the global financial system unless he’s intimately connected with the very people that operate the top of that system?”.
This might be a good time to open that Yeltsin-era can of worms around Hermitage Capital and the role of the Clinton Administration with whistleblower Browder, Safra, Berezovsky and others in the Yeltsin era looting of Russia with aid of friendly Western banks.
F. William Engdahl is strategic risk consultant and lecturer, he holds a degree in politics from Princeton University and is a best-selling author on oil and geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”