The impoverished state of Central African Republic - one of the poorest countries in the world - landed a paper windfall on Tuesday, when Russian state bank VTB reported it had lent the country $12 billion, or more than six times the country's entire GDP — but the bank then said it was a clerical error "fat finger" and there was no such loan.
According to Reuters, the loan was mentioned in a quarterly VTB financial report published by the Russian central bank, which included a table listing the outstanding financial claims that VTB group had on dozens of countries as of Oct. 1 this year. There, in the table next to Central African Republic was the sum of 801,933,814,000 roubles, or $12 billion — more than six times the country’s annual economic output of $1.95 billion.
There was no indication in the data published by the Russian central bank of who was the recipient of the loan, the purpose of the loan, or when it was issued and on what terms.
When asked about the data by Reuters, the bank said the loan to the former French colony did not, in reality, exist.
“VTB bank has no exposure of this size to any foreign country. Most likely, this is a case of an operational mistake in the system when the countries were being coded,” the lender said in a statement sent to Reuters.
That, or with the Danske Bank money laundering pathway now closed, Russian oligarchs have found a new and even more creative route to launder domestic funds offshore.
Of course, VTB did not say who was responsible for the mistake or how such a large figure could have been published without being spotted.
Meanwhile, the spokesman for the African nation's government Ange Maxime Kazagui, when asked about the Russian data, said: “I don’t have that information. But it doesn’t sound credible because $11 billion is beyond the debt capacity of CAR.”
“We are members of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). When a member of the IMF wants to take on debt ... it has to discuss that with the IMF.”
CAR is a nation of 5 million people emerging from sectarian conflict, with a gross domestic product of $1.95 billion, according to the World Bank.
And while we joke that Russia is now laundering money through deep equatorial Africa, it is not entirely outside the realm of possibilities: Russia has built up security and business ties with CAR in the past few years; all it takes is one or a handful of entrepreneurs to figure out how to use this new "partner" far from regulatory supervision of any developed nation, to funnel, or launder, billions without anyone noticing.
Muscling aside former colonial power France, Moscow has provided arms and contractors to the Central African Republic military, and a Russian national is security advisor to President Faustin-Archange Touadera. Naturally, corruption is rife: it remains one of the poorest countries in the world and is still marked by the humanitarian and security crisis of 2013.