Revolutions and secessions: will Ablyazov and cronies escape through the mazes?
Will the so-manieth colourful revolution in Ukraine, its alienation to other former Soviet republics (except for the Baltic states) and the subsequent secession of the Crimea thwart attempts by Kazakhstan’s troubled Bank BTA to bring its former president and major shareholder Mukhtar Ablyazov to justice wherever in the world and get at least part of the many billions he embezzled back? Lawyers on behalf of some of the culprit’s associates until recently held behind bars in the Czech Republic and Poland, where anti-Russian sentiments have persisted ever since the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and the USSR, have already abused the troubled situation and the standoff between western Europe, the USA and the Kremlin to obtain support and “protection” for the defendants they represent, thereby threatening to jeopardise further efforts by BTA’s new majority owner Kazkommertsbank (KazCom) to get the stolen cash and assets back. In other words: whether a thief is always a thief appears to be largely dependent on the changing winds in world politics…
BY CHARLES VAN DER LEEUW, WRITER, NEWS ANALYST
One should read its reports with extreme caution, since the tandem consisting of “Radio Liberty“ and “Radio Free Europe” is a relic of the Cold War and even nowadays no less tendentious for it. “The Interior Ministry of the Czech Republic this week offered so-called “international protection” to Tatiana Paraskevich, a former colleague of Kazakh oligarch and opposition supporter Mukhtar Ablyazov,” the US newsreel reported on Febriary 23 this year. “ This is good news for Paraskevich, a 49-year-old former accountant who has spent nearly two years in a Plzen prison facing possible extradition to Ukraine or Russia, and a likely handover to the vagaries of the Kazakh justice system from there. Although international protection does not offer the full security afforded Czech asylum-holders, it should keep Paraskevich safe for a year from extradition to Ukraine. A court decision on Russia’s individual request has not yet been conducted, but if passed, would have to abide by the one-year stipulation as well.”
According to Interpol, Parashkevich is wanted on charges of “misappropriation, embezzlement or conversion or property by malversation committed in respect of an especially gross amount, or by an organized group”. The 5-year old former business administrator of BTA at the time Ablyazov was in charge of it was arrested in October 2012 in Prague as a result of an Interpol warrant posted on request of the Russian Federation. “Tatyana Paraskevich, suspected of embezzling $5 billion from BTA Bank, has been detained in the Czech Republic,” Russia’s judicial newreel RAPSI reported on October 30, 2012, referring to the Interior Ministry’s Investigative Department. “The woman was part of a group headed by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the former director general, board chairman and owner of the bank. The Interior Ministry reported that Paraskevich was in charge of developing monetary transfer schemes and financing the group. Paraskevich’s apartment in Moscow and her previous place of residence in the Altai Territory have been searched. During the searches, investigators confiscated a huge number of fake seals of commercial organizations and tax authorities, according to the ministry’s press release. This is not the first time Russian law enforcement authorities have discovered that funds were embezzled from the bank. On October 19, the Moscow Dorogomilovsky District Court sentenced four Eurasia Logistics high-ranking officials to prison terms of eight-nine years and imposed major fines for stealing $730 million from the bank. BTA Bank (presently known as AMT Bank) is a multipurpose financial institution with nine branches and 26 offices. According to the RIA Analytics Economic Research Center, AMT ranked seventy-first in terms of assets among Russia’s top banks as of April 1, 2011. According to the bank’s website, Mukhtar Ablyazov directly owns a 19.7 per cent stake in the bank.”
As we reported at the time, the particular affair involving Parashevich (one among a long list of them, that is) goes back to December 18, 2008, when a company named Winterra Holdings based in Victoria, Mahe, Seychelles, under the management of a certain Anabel-Jean Louyu transferred a share package valued at 104.9 million US dollar to a firm called Somerset Projects IHC, based in Tortola on the British Virgin Islands, which had its account at a Latvian bank with ints headquarters in Riga, called Trasta Komercbanka. Somerset was controlled by a certain Stephen John Kelly. On April 29 that year, Winterra’s entire debt (an undisclosed amount) had been taken over by Bangor Holding, based in Diekirch, Luxemburg. Like its counterpart Baldock, Bangor was only to be registered in the Grand-Duchy as of July 29, 2008. Somerset subsequently allocated a credit line of $25, 411,740 to a firm in Nicosia called Roadnext Holding Ltd., under the direction of Panagiotis Demetriades. The terms were: 14 per cent interest per anum over a period of seven years. Somerset then transferred a share package to Winterra Holdings Ltd.
As of 12 December 2006, Winterra was also registered in Tortola on the British Virgin Islands. Its manager then became Tatiana Paraskevich. Winterra thereby obtained a 100 per cent interest in Francis Alliance, which in turn controlled 99 per cent of Gorus, based in Moscow which in turn was the 100 per cent owner of Stroy Elit, also based in Moscow, the director of which bore the name of Denis Vorotyntsev – a name that would lead straight home to Mukhtar Ablyazov. Arrested in March 2011 downtown Moscow, after which he had tried to get himself bailed out in vain, he was considered by Russian prosecutors to be one of the three core figureheads in the Eurasia Holding/Eurasia Logistics scandal, which alone stood for well over $4 billion dollar in embezzlements, in part through mortgage write-offs, while the other part took place through schemes the likes of which are being described here. As for the bank transfers to and from the tropical eldorados involved, the names of the two Latvian Banks Kommercbanka Balticums and Trasta Kommercbanka are frequently found.
On 18 December 2006, a transfer of 118.704 million US dollar was made by a company called Starwood Contracts Limited, based in Victoria on the isle of Mahe, Seychelles, the responsible director of which was also Tatiana Paraskevich. The beneficiary was a firm named Somerset Projects IHC, based in Tortola on the British Virgin Islands, which had its account at a Latvian bank with ints headquarters in Riga, called Trasta Komercbanka. Somerset was controlled by a certain Stephen John Kelly. Shortly afterwards, Starwood received 100 per cent of all the shares in a firm called Archeston Solutions Inc. The latter was based on the British Virgin Islands, and also run by Parskevich, and in turn it controlled 99 per cent of yet one more enterprise called Business Engineering, based in Moscow, which consequently owned 100 per cent in a firm called Central Engineering Company, equally Moscow-based, the director-general and “signatory” of which was named A. V. Fatayeva.
Almost a decade later, after languishing in a Czech prison for two years, the hundreds of millions diverted from BTA’s control as orchestrated by Ablyazov, the money seems as far off as the prospect of bringing the culprit and his associates to justice. “Plzen-based prosecutor Vera Chekhova, has refused to honor a judge’s order to release Paraskevich from custody, saying she plans to appeal the decision on international protection,” RL/RFE’s ambiguous report reads. “Although the ministry decision cannot be overturned, the process of hearing Chekhova’s complaint can take up to two weeks – meaning Paraskevich may remain in custody another 14 days. Supporters say it is not the first time Chekhova has sought to delay progress on Paraskevich’s case. A fellow Ablyazov associate, Muratbek Ketebaev, has cautiously welcomed the news on Paraskevich, saying on his Facebook page, “Although Czech prosecutors are doing everything to prevent this…. there’s hope” she may be released. Ketebaev, who faced his own extradition request to Kazakhstan, was granted refugee status by the Polish government in December 2013. Ketebaev has praised the Poles and their “tradition of fighting totalitarianism.” Polish activists and lawmakers have repeatedly traveled to Prague in attempt to convince their fellow EU member and communist survivor to follow suit with regards to Paraskevich.”
Muratbek Ketebaev (also spelt Ketebayev) is related to a foiled terror attack in Almaty that dates back to summer 2012, and also involved Ablyazov’s former chief bodyguard Alexander Pavlov, jailed in Madrid last year pending his eventual extradition to Kazakhstan, for which a court of justice recently gave the government the green light – which leaves it to the latter to proceed or not. “Since 2005 Pavlov had been chief bodyguard of former head of the BTA banker Mukhtar Ablyazov who is also sought by law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan, and has carried out his confidential instructions,” the Baku-based regional news agency Trend reported on March 28, 2012. “One of leaders of the unregistered Alga party Muratbek Ketebaev, who is Mukhtar Ablyazov’s closest confidant and a permanent resident abroad acted in collusion with Pavlov. They matured plans to organise acts of terrorism and extremism since September 2011. It was found that in early March 2012, they instructed their accomplices to commit a series of explosions in public places on March 24, including park areas and office buildings in the city of Almaty. In order to organise such attacks, Pavlov gave $25,000, of which the executor was given a deposit of $15,000. The remaining $10,000 was planned to be paid after the terrorist attacks. During the subsequent investigative it was found that the main purpose of the attacks was to frighten the population, create an atmosphere of chaos and panic and destabilise the social and political situation in the country.”
In contrast to the Pavlov/Ketebayev case, hearing Paraskevich and a number of other trapped former business associates of Ablyazov in court could increase the options of BTA and its new owners to recuperate part of the diverted funds and the assets they have been invested into in various places abroad. Lately, the governorate of Hong Kong ordered to freeze assets believed to have been used for that purpose. Back home in Almaty, BTA is expected to be absorbed into its new majority owner Kazkommertsbank – which from there on will carry the burden of fund recuperation on. The timing seems to be bad, given the fresh east-west rift over Ukraine and the Crimea.
“Two of Kazakhstan’s largest banks are merging to create Central Asia’s largest lender. The $1bn deal will return the stricken BTA Bank to private sector ownership five years after it was nationalised in a government bail-out,” the Financial Times reported on February 6 this year. “Kazkommertsbank will pay 72bn tenge ($465m) to buy 46.5 per cent of BTA from Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, it said on Thursday. Another 46.5 per cent government stake will be sold to Kenges Rakishev, a 34-year-old Kazakh businessman who is the son-in-law of the powerful mayor of Astana. A spokesman for Rakishev told Reuters he would pay the same price as KKB for his stake. Following the sale of the stakes, the two banks will merge, with the deal expected to complete by the end of the year, according to Sergey Mokroussov, KKB managing director. Rakishev and the Kazakh government will both be shareholders of the merged group. The deal will give KKB, already the country’s largest lender by assets, a dominant position in the Kazakh banking industry with a market share of 26.3 per cent. However, it will also take on responsibility for BTA’s vast portfolio of troubled loans. According to central bank data, 87 per cent of BTA’s loans were overdue by more than 90 days at the start of January. ‘It is the creation of a new giant,’ said Nurlan Ashinov, banking analyst at Visor Capital in Almaty. ‘But I think it will be difficult for them in the short term.’ BTA is at the centre of a multibillion dollar fraud case against its former head Mukhtar Ablyazov, whom Kazakhstan accuses of embezzling the bank’s money before fleeing the country in 2009. Mokroussov said that KKB would ‘continue and intensify’ BTA’s efforts to recover up to $6bn from Ablyazov, who claims the charges are politically motivated. France last month agreed to extradite Ablyazov to Russia, where BTA also had operations.”
Regarding eventualities concerning Ukraine’s, Russia’s and Kazakhstan’s claims for extradition of Ablyazov and his former associates, it seems all too likely that Ukraine could drop all charges with the stroke of a pen as part of the current tit-for-tat policy as a result of Ukraine’s “revolution” – the third of its kind since Ukraine’s independence – and the subsequent secession and allegiance of the Crimea to the Russian Federation. So far, though, the new government in Kiev seems to have other problems on its mind and given no sign of lenience concerning the case. “An associate of Kazakh oligarch and opposition supporter Mukhtar Ablyazov has been released from jail in the Czech Republic after the Czech Justice Ministry ruled she could not be extradited to Ukraine to face criminal charges there,” RL/RFE reported in a follow-up on March 20. “Tatyana Paraskevich, 49, spent 22 months in custody in the Czech city of Plzen after both Ukraine and Russia issued extradition requests seeking to try the former accountant on charges of helping Ablyazov embezzle millions of dollars from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank. […] Paraskevich, who suffered from heart trouble and anemia as a result of her prolonged prison stay, is now in the Czech spa city of Karlovy Vary, where her family has rented an apartment. The Plzen court is expected in the coming days to reject Paraskevich’s second extradition request, issued by Russia.” In the meantime, Kazakh taxpayers will have lost close to eight billion greenbacks as a result of subsequent bail-outs of BTA by the government, only a tiny fraction of which has been regained by the sale. Creditors to BTA will have lost in the same order – to the detriment of their own shareholders. Should the situation escalate further and result in freezing orders of “Russian” assets in a number of western tax havens, the ironic effect would be that this would include hidden funds embezzled by Ablyazov and company, thereby foiling attempts by their rightful owners to get them back. But who cares? Blame it on the Crimeans…