RIGA, March 9 (Xinhua) -- Latvian banks have been left with "very little time" to get rid of their high-risk clients and comply with anti-money laundering rules, Latvian Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola warned in an interview with public television Friday.
If some of the commercial banks fail to take action, they may face the same fate as Latvia's third largest bank ABLV, which is winding up operations after a damning report by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which has accused the Latvian bank of running money laundering schemes and obstructing regulatory enforcement.
The finance minister said in the televised interview that there are around ten commercial banks in Latvia with a large share of nonresident clients and consequently higher number of risky clients, including the so-called shell companies. Any of these banks risks drawing increased attention of supervisory authorities, Reizniece-Ozola said.
The banks have very little time to overhaul their business and cut the share of their high-risk clients, she warned.
If Latvia fails to demonstrate in a short period of time that it is not able not only to detect but also to prevent financial crime, the U.S. can take action not only against particular commercial banks but the Latvian state. This means that the oversight of the Latvian financial system has to be stepped up as well.
"We have systemic shortcomings," Reizniece-Ozola admitted, explaining that she does not mean only the banking regulator, the Financial and Capital Market Commission (FCMC), but also the Corruption Prevention Bureau, the Office for Prevention of Laundering of Proceeds Derived from Criminal Activity, and other law enforcement authorities.
The minister emphasized that Latvia has to prove the "whole system's ability to work" and crack down on financial crime.
"Substantial change is needed. I do not want us to be seen as a grey zone laundering money in the European Union's periphery," Reizniece-Ozola said.
In a report released on Feb. 13, FinCEN said that the ABLV Bank had orchestrated money-laundering schemes and that the bank's management "used bribery to influence Latvian officials when challenging enforcement actions and perceived threats to their high-risk business". FinCEN proposed sanctioning ABLV by banning the bank from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts in the U.S. or altogether blocking the bank from the U.S. financial system.
After the FinCEN report, ABLV Bank started experiencing difficulties as clients withdrew large amounts of money from the bank in a short period of time and the regulator banned the bank from performing any payment transactions. At the end of February, ABLV shareholders decided to wind up the bank.