Britain’s friendly regime of offshore secrecy has tempted an extraordinary array of post-Soviet billionaires to descend on London, sometimes to the sound of gunfire.
Vladimir Antonov fled permanently to Britain after his father, Alexander, was gunned down in a Moscow street in 2009. Another associate, German Gorbuntsov, narrowly survived a volley of shots in London last March.
When Antonov bought a luxury yacht in Antibes, the Sea D, he was careful to register its ownership to an anonymous British Virgin Islands (BVI) entity, Danforth Ventures Inc. He also found funds to try to take over the ailing Swedish car manufacturer Saab, though he did not take control. He did succeed for a while in owning the even more ailing Portsmouth football club.
Antonov is currently on bail in Britain. Lithuanian authorities are trying to extradite him for allegedly looting their collapsed bank Snoras, which he denies.
The allegation that oligarchs exploit Britain’s offshore secrecy regime to shift assets out of their own countries is not an uncommon one. One refugee from the law is the Kazakh billionaire Mukhtar Ablyazov, who was last seen in February allegedly heading out of London on a coach to France.
Ablyazov has been sentenced to 22 months in jail for contempt of court as the BTA Bank in Kazakhstan attempts to pursue his maze of offshore assets. The bank’s lawyers claim Ablyazov, who denies it, has made off with £4bn using BVI and Seychelles companies, nominee directors and layers of front men.
These billionaires justify their use of British-controlled secrecy jurisdictions because they say they must protect themselves from corporate predators and political enemies in their home countries.
Another fleeing oligarch, the Georgian Badri Patarkatsishvili, – a partner of fellow exile Boris Berezovsky– was found dead in 2008 in his Surrey mansion.
Patarkatsishvili’s business manager, Eugene Jaffe, managed £500m of the Georgian’s assets from a central London office in St James’s Square through a BVI company, Salford Capital Partners. Jaffe’s company was owned in turn by an opaque BVI trust he set up called Montana River.
The wild-west financial landscape of post-Soviet Russia has attracted at least one entrepreneur from the British Isles to exploit the possibilities of the BVI secrecy regime. We have traced BVI entities used in Russia by the man once known as the richest in Ireland, the property developer Seán Quinn. He expanded into schemes for shopping malls in Moscow and Kiev. He has now declared himself bankrupt and has received an Irish jail sentence for contempt, as the now state-owned Anglo Irish Bank seeks to recover what it says is a missing £2bn.
Other post-Soviet financiers have used Britain’s secret offshore facilities for widely different purposes. The London-based Latvian oil trader Evgeny Tikhonov set up an entity in the BVI to hide a total of $2.4m (£1.5m) that his employer, Shell, subsequently convinced a British civil court he was wrongly skimming off from fuel deals. He was, however, acquitted of criminal charges over this.
The fund manager Igor Tsukanov, another arrival in the fashionable west London area of Notting Hill, kept funds in the BVI that will have apparently legally sheltered them from Russian taxes.
And on a lesser scale, Dimitry Sergeev, a mobile phone games entrepreneur from Novosibirsk, faced a potentially costly dispute with a small Manchester supplier over some allegedly unpaid invoices because his firm was BVI registered. A source there said: “We decided it was too difficult to bring a legal action in the BVI.” Sergeev did not comment.
Undoubtedly the most flamboyant post-Soviet beneficiary of Britain’s offshore secrecy regime is Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the Ukraine. From a base in the coal-mining Donetsk region, he has personally acquired industrial assets estimated to be worth £11bn. He shifted £136m out of the former Soviet republic in 2007, in order to buy the most expensive flat ever sold in London, at One Hyde Park.
Asked why he hid behind a BVI company, his company spokesman in the Ukraine said it was “for internal structuring reasons”. He added: “Water Property Holdings Limited fully paid all taxes and charges … as required by applicable laws in the UK. This includes payment in February 2011 of stamp duty land tax (SDLT) at a rate of 4% which amounted to £5.467m.”Legal use of BVI entities to disguise Russian movement of funds into British companies, also appears to be widespread. In one example we have unearthed, a British-registered firm, Pennard Chemicals Ltd, with an address at rental offices in Cannon St in the City of London, has had declared revenue over the last 3 years of more than 100 million euros, described as commission on unspecified Russian deals. Pennard Chemicals named director, The Hon Andrew Moray Stuart, with an address in Mauritius, is one of the sham nominees the Guardian/ICIJ research has identified. The shareholder, Imex Executive Ltd, is a BVI entity set up by a Moscow incorporation agency. In turn, its sham nominee directors include Jesse Hester in Mauritius and a sham nominee shareholder, Brenda Cocksedge. These nominees sell their names, without exercising genuine control or ownership. The real owner, according to company records we have seen, is named as Ivan Kovlachuk.Offshore secrets
Guardian team: David Leigh, Harold Frayman and James Ball.
The project is a collaboration between the Guardian and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) headed by Gerard Ryle in Washington DC. Guardian investigations editor David Leigh is a member of ICIJ, a global network of reporters in more than 60 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories that cross national boundaries. The ICIJ was founded in 1997 as a project of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington DC-based non-profit.