Among the authors of the investigation about the investment company Troika Dialog Ruben Vardanyan along with the journalists of the OCCRP (“Corruption Investigation and Organized Crime Investigation Project”) list the employees of the 15min.lt Lithuanian portal. Information about the offshore network is also of Lithuanian origin - the transactions were received by unidentified persons from the local bank Ukio, which went bankrupt in 2013. The OCCRP materials say nothing about their Baltic investigation partners, although for 15min.lt stands the oligarch, known for his secrecy, offshore schemes and antipathy towards Russia.
Media Mogul and Master of Disguise
Practically nothing is known about the owner of 15min.lt Margus Linnamäe in Russia. This is not surprising: in his native Estonia, all the circumstances of Linnamäe’s life and business are hidden in distant cabinets. On the web, you can find only a few of his photos. Margus does not communicate with journalists either. Stealth - the main characteristic of Linnamäe, along with wealth.
“The oligarch is a member of the ruling elite. If you stick to this definition, then Linnamäe is not yet an oligarch. But he has all the prerequisites for this. There are media. There are politicians. And there is money, ”wrote the chief editor of the Estonian Äripäev Meelis Mandel in the 2015 Linnamäe material entitled“ Who really rules Estonia ”.
The Delfi publication placed Linnamäe on the first line of its ranking “The most influential people of Estonia 2018”.
“Despite owning his own publishing house, Margus Linnamäe doesn’t like attention. In order to avoid him, he changes his appearance from time to time, playing with the presence of a beard and its length, glasses, clothing style and hair length. Often not even his own employees recognize him; he is a master of disguise. The only photos available to journalists belong to the period when this “business shark” bought Postimees edition. How Margus Linnamäe looks now is unknown, ”Delfi writes.
The conquest of the Baltic media market and closed Russian media
Margus Linnamäe has two main areas of activity - pharmaceuticals and media. And the oligarch became interested in the media later. In 2015, through his company Up Invest, Margus Linnamäe acquired the media holding Eesti Meedia, which controls key Estonian media: Postimees newspaper, Kanal 2, three radio stations, as well as local newspapers and advertising publications.
Shortly after the change of ownership, Eesti Meedia stopped publishing the newspapers Postimees in Russian and Day by Day, the oldest Russian-language publication in Estonia.
After the former co-owner and editor-in-chief of the Estonian version of Postimees, Mart Kadastik released a biography entitled “Now I will write ...”, in which he talked about the relationship between Postimees and Eesti Meedia and the role of Margus Linnamäe in them, the oligarch funded the publication of a brochure on cooperation with Kadastik KGB. After these events, the former chief editor was forced to abandon the title of honorary citizen of Tartu.
Kadastik was not the only one who wrote about the influence of Linnamäe on the media and on the views that the oligarch broadcast. Margus and his brother Aivar are sponsors of the Isamaa party, which holds nationalistic and anti-Russian views. The fact that Linnamäe "inclines Postimees to the right", said in February 2019, a former employee of this publication Vahur Coortis.
Part of this media empire is the Lithuanian website 15min.lt. A small detail: a few years before the publication of Linnamäe’s control, its Norwegian owners gave the go-ahead to launch the Russian version.
“The absolute majority of Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians living in Lithuania know Lithuanian perfectly, therefore the task of the Russian-language portal is not so much to inform Lithuanians of other nationalities, but also to disseminate reliable information about Lithuania in the Eastern space, where freedom of the media is still infringed and where provided many tendentious texts about our state ”, - explained this decision in the publication.
Now there is no Russian version. And the transfer of 15min.lt to the ownership of Linnamäe demonstrates how the Estonian oligarch does business and how much his methods differ from what Troika Dialog is accused of.
In March 2014, the BNS media group (it among other assets owned the site 15min.lt) was acquired by the owner of several entertainment radio stations, the Estonian Ilmar Kompus. He called the deal a long-term investment for 5-10 years, but after two months he sold BNS Linnamäe. At the same time, Eesti Meedia bought another Lithuanian media asset from the South African company, Allegro, a company engaged in advertising portals.
Transactions could be of interest to Lithuanian antimonopoly managers - too many resources accumulated in the hands of Margus Linnamäe. To avoid this, the Estonian oligarch sold part of the publications, including 15min.lt, to the Dutch STAK Foundation (a special business structure that is used to conceal the real owners of the company) Kemplake.
The fund’s managing partners were the Dutch Loren Rinks and Hans Fraats from the Henley Trust. The journalists of the Estonian edition Delfi noticed that the Henley Trust also has a third partner - Estonian Aare Kurist, partner of Margus Linnamäe in the pharmaceutical business.
Delfi concluded that the Kemplake Foundation serves exclusively as a formal lining between the oligarch and his media assets.
But the news publications were only part of this game. In Estonia, Margus Linnamäe purchased large real estate portals competing with each other (again through Ilmar Kompus) - kv.ee and city24, after which the prices for their services increased two to three times. In Lithuania, he began to control the "boards" for the sale of cars and apartments, and again the story with rising prices repeated.
In 2016, the Lithuanian antimonopoly authorities nevertheless drew attention to the deal, but the issue first hung up in court for two years, and in 2018, the Competition Council decided that Eesti Meedia acted lawfully.
Pharmaceuticals and Offshore
But the core business of Margus Linnamäe is still pharmaceuticals. Here is how Estonian newspaper Eesti Ekspress describes the oligarch's conquests:
“For 25 years, Linnamäe has created a commercial empire that surrounds us all. Every third pill we get from Magnum Medical (Margus company). Under the Apotheka brand (also owned by Margus), only 169 pharmacies operate in Estonia. Kanal 2 is the most viewed private TV. Postimees, advertising portals (osta.ee, kv.ee, and so on), radio stations, district newspapers, real estate, bookstores and cinemas Apollo, startups, pet shops - everywhere you can meet Linnamäe. He pays well, but also expects loyalty from his fighters. One former subordinate confessed: “Some employees said that if Linnamäe said to jump out of the window, it would have to be done immediately.”
Back in Soviet times, as Delfi writes, Margus made a bright, but strange for such a “quiet” person act - arrived on the border with the RSFSR and put a column with the inscription: “The border of the Republic of Estonia passes here.”
The start date for the construction of the business empire Linnamäe was 1992, when he and his brother and another partner created the company Magnum, which was engaged in the sale of medical products. In 1994, he bought the Tallinn Pharmaceutical Plant, and in 1998 sold it. Shortly before this, a scandal connected with Magnum and the plant broke out: Latvian counterparties accused Linnamäe that he demanded to pay bills for the supply of hundreds of thousands of dollars through offshore companies, and part of the money was transferred in cash.
In Estonia itself, too, were unhappy that Magnum Medical, which had grown by this time, had registered not with them in the country, but in Mauritius and Nauru. In 2002, the company heard a claim and registered in Tartu: “It is important for us that Estonian pharmacies are in the hands of Estonians and are served by Magnum Medical as a strong national distributor at the national level”. However, according to Eesti Ekspress, the parent company was registered in Belize.
Two years later, Magnum’s ownership structure changed again, but remained offshore. According to the newspaper Aripaev, the company was 79% owned by the investment company New European Investments Ltd (NEI), registered on the Isle of Man, and only by 21% Hortense owned by Margus Linnamäe. NEI, in turn, was owned by an insurance company in the Cayman Islands.
Now Linnamäe’s pharmaceutical assets are concentrated in the Dutch company MM Holdings BV.
Taxes and beer
Margus' love of tax optimization is well illustrated by another story from the past century. In 1995, he and his partners bought a brewery in Tartu for 17 million kroons, and literally a year later offered it to Finnish Olvi brewers. They first acquired a 10% stake in the company, and then the entire plant, giving 138 million kroons for it. And with this super-profitable transaction, Margus did not pay a cent of taxes. Just sold the company, according to Delfi, not directly, but through laying in Ireland and the state of Delaware.
Questions about whether Margus Linnamäe was related to the Troika Laundromat investigation and whether the 15min.lt edition was the only source of banking transactions, we sent directly to the Lithuanian editorial board.
There, they refused to answer the questions and redirected the Daily Storm to the senior investigating partner - the OCCRP ("Project to investigate corruption and organized crime").
We contacted Roman Schleinow, the regional editor of OCCRP.
- Do you know the first and last name of Margus Linnamäe?
- I hear it for the first time.
- He is the owner of the Lithuanian site "15 minutes", through which, as I understand it, information was received on the bank Ukio.
- Not quite through it, there were several sources. There is an international holding of investigative journalists. Can you imagine how many people go there? I am telling you that the source is far from one.
“Have you checked his connections?”
- I do not check the connections of people who bring something. I am interested in the facts themselves, which they say. Whether they are true or not.
- You are not interested, in whose interests the facts can be presented?
- When there are several different sources, it would be completely strange for me to check different sources, because they are different. And accordingly, it is very difficult to find a common interest among different independent sources. I repeat once again that the sources were different. From this and proceed. I am for the purity of the information that comes. Pure information can be considered only when it comes from different independent sources. You agree with me?
- That's how she came.
- If these sources do not have a single guide.
- There is no guideline. There are different sources of information.
- Wait. You say that the sources do not have a total back-up. But I ask you about one of the sources, and you do not even know him ...
- I don’t even know about him, because I spoke with other people.
- Maybe one of your colleagues checked it?
- You understand that when the sources are different. So I talked with other people, I had enough information from them. And what do you want next? ..
- Why exactly “15 minutes” was specified in the material?
- As one of the partners. Why not? Who first got up, order and sneakers.
- That is, they first rose. But at the same time, you either hide the information about its owner, or you do not know it.
- I do not hide anything, I say that I am not familiar with them. I say that I have my sources.
- Maybe I can contact one of your colleagues? Who checked this source? You publish the material, and are responsible for what is published.
- I have no idea. We are in Russia. I'm interested in the Russian component. I am not interested in the rest of the component. I am interested in Russia. As for information - what is important, as for me and us, is here. I proceed from this.
- You are not interested in who and with what purposes sends you information?
- And for what purpose can information be transmitted when the sources are different? Do different sources have the same goals, in your opinion?
- Yes, if they have a single back.
- No they have. They are different. Are you sure the source is one site? You understand that the site itself does not extract information? He does not have access to bank [statements]. When it comes to big data, for example, a person takes out technical information from a bank or registrar, a person is not able to handle a huge amount of information alone. In order to do this, you need a few dozen people. From 50 and more. What do you think, when someone makes one Panaman’s files, or these bank transactions, is he able to understand what is there?
- It depends on who he is.
- But whoever he is. Because hundreds of people have been working with the volume for more than six months, in the case of Panamanian files. In this case, several dozen people work for several months. And they are not able to understand what is there. So what are we talking about? You say that there was some kind of purpose and prejudice, but I know that it is not.
Ilya Shumanov, Deputy General Director of Transparency International - Russia, who distributes the materials of the Troika Laundromat investigation, was not aware of the owner of the site 15min.lt. He also agreed to answer our questions.
- Do you know about the sources of the Troika Dialog investigation? Lithuanian site "15 minutes" among them?
“I understand that the sources of information are the OCCRP network.” It consists of a journalistic consortium and, as I understand it, “15 minutes” is a partner of OCCRP in Lithuania. If it is logical to assume that we are talking about two Lithuanian banks, then perhaps journalists managed to get information from these banks.
- Did you have any direct relation to the investigation?
- Investigators were engaged in the investigation, I post factum acquainted with the material.
- Then, most likely, the name Margus Linnamäe does not mean anything to you.
“These first and last names don't tell me anything.”
- Estonian oligarch, owner of "15 minutes".
- I think that, most likely, there were several sources of this leak [from the bank], because all the same, journalists from different sides deal with different issues. And I do not know how much it should be compared with Russia, but, as it seems to me, not always the owner of a publication can determine the editorial policy of a particular publication.
- In Estonia, they believe that they tend to interfere.
- I am not personally acquainted with journalists or the owner of “15 minutes,” I only know that journalists publish excellent investigations and this is almost one of the best publications and investigators who are generally in the Baltic. They just investigated the banking scams that have been lately, because the Baltic banking industry is so intertwined, as I understand it, they very closely followed this topic.
A look from Estonia
To find out about the attitude in Estonia to the Troika Laundromat investigation and the connections of the journalists who conducted it with Margus Linnamäe, we contacted the former chief editor of the Estonian version of Postimees, Mart Kadastik.
- I'm not interested in talking about him. From the moment when we crossed with him, five years have passed.
- Maybe you know someone who would be aware?
- He [Margus Linnamäe] is very "quiet." Low profile. He says nothing in public. It is very difficult to find exits to it, almost impossible. Those of my colleagues who work closely with him will not be able to talk with them. Everyone is loyal to him. I cannot even recommend anyone either in Lithuania, or in Russia, or in Estonia. Easier to collect information in open sources.
Vitaliy Belobrovtsev, a teacher of the theory and practice of journalism at Tallinn University, was able to tell us a little more about the owner of Magnum.
- He owns the Eeste Meedia holding, which operates in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. In Estonia, they have one of the most popular newspapers Postimees, they publish several monthly magazines. He owns portals that accept and publish real estate listings. He also sells various pharmaceutical products, and is considered to be one of the main suppliers of medicines in Estonia.
- Could he know about the content of the “15 Minutes” investigation on the “Troika Dialog”? Could he be interested in publishing?
- I think that he has so many different kinds of enterprises that he is engaged in detail, that one of his resources is investigating there ... At the same time, we understand that the resource does not address the owner and does not say that we will now investigate, find the features knows how many materials and drown Russia. When the investigation begins, it’s not very clear how it will end, I think he had no idea about that.
- So, in your country, there is a distance between the owner of the media and the editors?
- In Estonia, the owners are trying to move away from direct management of media resources so that they are not accused of sympathy for certain political movements, parties, and Linnamäe is now accused of sympathizing with the Isamaa party. Therefore, it is hardly in his interest. He donated a large amount to the party of Isamaa, and in many of the materials that are published in his publications, such indirect sympathy for the party shines through.
“But this is contrary to the principle of distancing, which you just said.”
At first glance, it contradicts, but at the second - not necessarily. Because it can be like this: when rich people donate money to parties, they are obliged to declare it, everyone knows that. And when your owner allocated a large amount of a certain party, you, as an employee, maybe start to think that these people probably need help, since our boss allocated them money. This, too, can not be ruled out.
The publication of the investigation on Troika Dialog was indeed preceded by a lengthy money laundering scandal in the Baltic banks (Ilya Shumanov mentioned it). First in Norvik banka and Rietumu banka. Then a larger one - with ABLV Bank. Through it, front companies transferred billions of dollars, laundering money for corrupt customers from Russia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine - this was the conclusion reached at the US Treasury Department. It was the employees of this department, and not the site 15min.lt, who opened the Latvian landromat.
However, despite the noise around money laundering through ABLV Bank, no sanctions were imposed on its customers.
After the publication of the Troika Laundromat investigation, Ilya Shumanov stated in a Telegram:
Troika Dialog Investment Company was acquired by Sberbank in 2012. Since Sberbank shares are traded on the London Stock Exchange, Transparency International - Russia will contact the British Financial Conduct Authority regulator to check the circumstances of the Sberbank takeover transaction Troika Dialog regarding proper Diligence procedures. In addition, Transparency International - Russia will send an appeal to the American anti-laundering regulator FinCEN with a request to check the possible money laundering in the USA through the structures of Sberbank CIB (formerly Troika Dialog)).