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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Latvia central bank chief denies seeking bribes

ECB representative Ilmars Rimsevics refuses to resign following weekend arrest

Latvia's central bank governor Ilmar Rimsevics speaks to the media in Riga. Ints Kalnins / Reuters
Latvia's central bank governor Ilmar Rimsevics speaks to the media in Riga. Ints Kalnins / Reuters

The embattled head of Latvia’s central bank denied seeking bribes and accused two of the country’s lenders of conspiring against him as the crisis engulfing the Baltic nation’s banking system deepened.

“I have taken the decision not to resign,” Ilmars Rimsevics, the Bank of Latvia’s governor and representative to the European Central Bank, told reporters at a press conference in Riga on Tuesday. “I am not guilty.”

The Latvian government has repeatedly urged Rimsevics to step aside after the anti-corruption agency detained him over the weekend on suspicion of securing bribes. Rimsevics, who was released on bail and hasn’t been formally charged, alleged that the accusations were part of an effort to undermine him and said he has received death threats.

The governor, who’s led the Latvian central bank since 2001, may be protected by the institution’s independence. The latest allegations, first reported by the Associated Press, concern Norvik Banka, which is controlled by Grigory Guselnikov, a Russian-born UK citizen.

Norvik detailed the accusations in a 39-page complaint to a World Bank arbitration body. The document, obtained by Bloomberg News, didn’t name him, referring only to a “very high-level, senior Latvian public official”. The chief executive officer of Norvik bank, Oliver Bramwell, said this official is Rimsevics.

The complaint against Latvia, filed in December, also alleged that the Latvian banking regulator had retaliated against Norvik for the refusal to pay the bribes over a two-year period to late 2017.

The bribery probe into the central bank chief is just a piece of the widening financial scandal in Latvia, a nation of two million that’s faced repeated questions over its role as a hub for money laundering. Just last week, the US Treasury Department proposed to ban ABLV Bank, the nation’s third-largest lender, from the US financial system, saying it helped entities allegedly linked to North Korea’s missile program and institutionalised money laundering as a “pillar” of its business.

The latest allegations have put the government in a tight spot. While Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis has called for Rimsevics to step down, he also accused Norvik on Tuesday of seeking to undermine the integrity of the country’s financial system. Norvik must present evidence of its allegations, Kucinskis said on Tuesday.

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“There is reason to think that this is more likely Norvik Bank’s and Mr Guselnikov’s attempt to harm the state’s image,” Kucinskis told reporters in Riga. “Anyone can submit legal evidence or turn to the relevant authorities and inform them about violations, including payments or demands for bribes. At the moment, none of Norvik Bank’s representatives have submitted any evidence to any relevant authority.”

Rimsevics accused a group of banks of trying to undermine him, deceiving law enforcement and regulators. Just hours after he denied a loan from the central bank to ABLV on Febuary 16, his office and house were searched by Latvian authorities, he said.

Gulselnikov has demanded €200 million to leave Latvia and give up his bank, Rimsevics claimed. “I have no doubt that these banks are coordinating among themselves against me and the state of Latvia,” he said.

Guselnikov hit back at Rimsevics, who was deputy governor of the central bank from 1992 before taking over the helm in 2001.

“Now the regulator is trying to pretend there was no corruption. It’s clear he was at the top of it, without him nothing would have happened,” the Russian-born banker said by phone from London. “For 25 years Rimsevics has been directing things.”

Latvia’s Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, which detained Rimsevics, said it had begun criminal proceedings against a “a top-level public official” of the country’s central bank. It’s investigating “an alleged solicitation and acceptance of a bribe” of at least €100,000, it said in a statement.

Rimsevics, 52, was released late Monday following 48 hours in custody after his friend put up a €100,000 bail, local media reported. He’s the longest-serving head of a national bank on the ECB’s Governing Council, which he joined in 2014 when Latvia adopted the euro.

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