How Mikhail Abyzov made a network

One of the customers of Swedbank, accused of money laundering, turned out to be Russian ex-minister Mikhail Abyzov, more than $ 800 million went through his offshore network.
An internal report from the Estonian branch of Sweden’s largest bank, Swedbank, revealed an offshore network built by businessman and ex-minister Mikhail Abyzov, now under arrest. His 70 companies from Belize, Singapore, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands received $ 860 million from 2011 to 2016. These offshore companies had different functions: some owned enterprises in Russia, one company, according to the Russian investigative authorities, was used to withdraw funds abroad, and another luxurious villa was issued in Tuscany. The bank manager, who was supposed to monitor the "purity" of transactions, apparently, instead helped transfer money between offshore companies. New details may complicate the already difficult situation of the Estonian branch of Swedbank, which is in the center of the scandal due to allegations of money laundering of Russian clients.

A joint investigation of Novaya Gazeta with the Center for the Study of Corruption and Organized Crime (OCCRP), the Swedish public television station SVT and the Estonian newspaper Postimees.

In 2012, Forbes estimated the fortune of businessman Mikhail Abyzov at $ 1.3 billion. In the same year, Vladimir Putin appointed him to the post of Minister for Coordination of the Open Government, although Abyzov wanted to take a more prestigious post of Minister of Energy. Nevertheless, even in the comforting position of a minister without a portfolio, he had a full voting right at government meetings.

According to Swedbank’s internal audit (a copy of it is at the disposal of Novaya Gazeta), accounts for offshore companies of Mikhail Abyzov began to open in 2011. Some of the media companies have already been reported before, but today it became known about the true scale of the offshore network of Abyzov.

Your man in the bank

In February of this year, Swedbank was at the center of the money laundering scandal. According to SVT reporters, from 2008 to 2018, more than 135 billion euros of non-residents, mainly Russian customers, passed through its Estonian wing. After the publication of the material, the authorities of Estonia and Sweden began a joint audit, and the head of the Estonian Swedbank, Robert Kitt, was fired.

This large-scale investigation began with a report from Norwegian anti-money laundering expert Erling Grimstad. He believed that a number of bank employees did not comply with the basic principle of “know your client” and helped Russian clients launder money and evade taxes.

Among such risky clients for the bank was Mikhail Abyzov. Swedbank received $ 860 million in funds from its 70 companies, and $ 770 was withdrawn. Abyzov could help in the transfer of money his own man in the Estonian "Swedbank".

According to the report, a PIN calculator was found in one of the bank’s client managers (the device generates unique digital codes for receiving information and managing the account remotely), which was used to transfer money to one of Abyzov’s companies. This bank employee, Alexey Everson, quit in early 2017, when the accounts of offshore Abyzov were already closed. In April of that year, Everson became the director of the Cypriot Anduril Enterprises Ltd, associated with Abyzov.

Suspicions about Everson are contained in yet another confidential report on another non-resident foreign customer.

“Discussing the transaction with his colleague, Everson said that this transfer of money was“ not the cleanest of transactions, ”indicating that it was not transparent,” the report said.

Everson himself told us that he had never made any transactions using the client PIN calculator. He also doubted the competence of the authors of the report received by the journalists: “I am convinced that they have no evidence for such allegations and do not have the necessary knowledge about the applicable laws and regulations.” Everson added that he had “several job interviews” and he accepted the offer from Anduril Abyzov, when it became clear that Swedbank was going to stop cooperating with foreign clients.

In 2017, the Anti-Corruption Foundation discovered that ex-minister Il Tesoro’s luxury villa in Tuscany was recorded on Anduril. According to the latest financial report of the company, in 2016 the villa was valued at 20.6 million euros.

Swedbank's Estonian branch declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations in Estonia and Sweden. The lawyer of Mikhail Abyzov received our questions, but could not promptly transfer them to his client, who was under arrest.

Abyzov was arrested in March this year, and to date, criminal proceedings have been instituted against him under four articles. Initially, he was accused of creating a criminal community that stole 4 billion rubles belonging to the Siberian Energy Company and OJSC Regional Electric Networks. The Cypriot company Blacksiris Trading Ltd., which also had an account with Swedbank, played a key role in this matter. According to the investigation, fictitious deals were made with Blacksiris, and as a result, "stolen money" came to the company’s accounts, but not at Swedbank, but at Cypriot banks.

Later, Abyzova was added charges of receiving 32 billion rubles from illegal entrepreneurial activity and legalization (laundering) of these funds.

Mikhail Abyzov denies all the charges against him and believes that this is an attempt to put pressure on him, to force him to slander himself and other people. According to Abyzov, the criminal case against him is also used to secure the arrest of his property.

At a meeting where Abyzov was extended his arrest until the end of January 2020, the former minister said that he was not allowed to see his relatives, and his middle son was forced to leave for the USA so that he would not be taken into custody. “All my assets have been seized, I can’t pay alimony to my wife, who has two dependent children,” Abyzov said.

“For seven years I worked in the civil service. I’ve been engaged in entrepreneurial activities for 27 years, I was an adviser to the president and have awards. ”

“And now I ask the court to work normally. For seven months now I have been in Lefortovo with people accused of terrorism. Is it normal?"

Where do the offshore companies go?
Having studied all offshore companies from the Swedbank report, we found out that at least 38 out of 70 companies owned or continue to own large Russian assets in the electric power industry, bridge and machine building, coal mining and agribusiness. Some companies participated in the structures of Abyzov's main business group - RU-COM. Assets not quite relevant for the businessman were recorded on some, including:

Digital October Center for business events and educational projects;
professional community of Russian-speaking doctors “Doctor at work”;
boarding house "Energetik", previously owned by RAO UES;
Cardiology Sanatorium Center “Peredelkino”;
management company of the largest Novosibirsk class A business center “Kronos";
a company that owns a network of entertainment planets (now liquidated due to bankruptcy).
Part of the sale of Russian assets was concluded when Mikhail Abyzov was a minister and did not have the right to engage in entrepreneurial activity. Until 2017, he had to declare his shares in companies, including foreign ones. You can find out whether the ex-minister did this only by reading his full declaration, since the public section, accessible to citizens, does not contain information about the companies. Since 2017, after making amendments to the law, Abyzov could no longer have anything to do with offshore companies.

And yet, from 2012 to 2018, Abyzov’s offshore companies participated in complex transactions in Russia, including the purchase of shares in the largest Russian heavy power engineering company Elsib, as suggested by experts, the ex-minister, interviewed by Novaya Gazeta could not know.
“The use of offshore structures by Russian companies usually has clear goals: reducing tax payments, maintaining the confidentiality of transaction participants, or using a more predictable judicial system. In the case under consideration, part of the offshore transactions could take place with the aim of taking assets abroad with the possibility of anonymous ownership and management of offshore structures by a public official, ”explains Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of Transparency International Russia.

“In turn, Mikhail Abyzov, as minister, did not have the right to engage in entrepreneurial activity in person or through proxies, including in offshore jurisdictions. But given the complex structure of his companies, it can be assumed that it was he who was behind the consolidation of all these assets in offshore, and the initiative for key intra-corporate transactions could come from him, ”said Shumanov.