The figures are staggering: Russian money laundering amounts to $10 billion. No, $50 billion. Or $150 billion. Perhaps as mUch as $350 billion over the past decade. No one seems to know how much. Or to know who is to blame: Russian mobsters? Moscow politicians? The IMF? The Bank of New York? Take your pick. In the end, it doesn't matter much. What's happening in Russia in the 1990s is not much different from what happened in Latin America in the '70s and '80s. It's called capital flight, and while the players and sums have changed, the rUles of the game remain the same.
For decades, business people, generals, bureaucrats, mobsters, and politicians in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America sent money abroad. At its peak in the early '80s, as much as $300 billion was stashed abroad, just about the maximum figure being estimated for Russia.
In Latin America, those who sent capital abroad had a lot of help from private banks. Indeed, institutions in the U.S. and Europe specialized in capital flight. They called it "private banking" and solicited business all over Europe.
Two lessons can be drawn from the Latin experience. First, most of the the capital that fled eventually returned in the '90s as the statist economies developed market-oriented policies. Capital will continue to flee Russia until the Duma passes laws guaranteeing private property and the rule of law. Running after mobsters won't stop it. Second, it is naive to think that most international banks know nothing about capital flight. Russians had a lot of help getting their money out of the country. Private banking is a huge business that is conducted in the gray area of international law. It is up to regulators and bankers themselves to keep on the side of the law.