Paper: Russian oligarch Mikhail Abyzov was major Swedbank Estonia client ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Russian oligarch and former minister Mikhail Abyzov.
Russian oligarch and former minister Mikhail Abyzov. Source: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Scanpix

Swedbank Estonia catered to Russian oligarch and former minister Mikhail Abyzov for years, and over a relatively short period of time, Abyzov brought to the bank 70 offshore accounts with ties to the oligarch that received a total of $860 million (USD), daily Postimees writes.

Around $770 million was moved out of the accounts in over 3,330 transactions.

As a minister of the Russian government at the time, Abyzov was prohibited from doing business, but an internal Swedbank report suggests that the bank hid the beneficial owners of high-risk nonresident (HRNR) clients from the Russian authorities and tax board.

Swedbank's clients include companies that lie at the heart of Abyzov's criminal case in Russia, an investigation by Postimees, Swedish public broadcaster SVT, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) shows. Abyzov has since been arrested and is facing allegations of large-scale fraud, money laundering and forming a criminal organization.

Abyzov's comanies' accounts at Swedbank were managed by Estonian Aleksei Averson. The report commissioned by the bank found signs suggesting illegal activity in Averson's work and recommended Swedbank notify the authorities immediately. The report suggests Averson was found to be in possession of a PIN calculator used to make transfers for one of Abyzov's businesses.

"Several employees [of Swedbank Estonia], including client managers and members of the high-risk clients admission committee and the management board decided to take on HRNR clients despite the fact that they did not meet the basic standards of the 'know your client' principle," Norwegian money laundering expert Erling Grimstad wrote in the report commissioned by the bank's headquarters. "Part of the HRNR clients were protected from the Russian authorities, including the tax board."

Grimstad added that "said employees agreed to hide beneficial owners when registering them with the bank that created the risk people subject to sanctions could not be identified."

The report has led to a heated relationship between Swedish prosecutors and Swedbank as the bank refused to hand over the document this spring. Swedbank later did not allow investigators to question Grimstad, citing attorney-client privilege; the bank only agreed to Grimstad being questioned this September.

Client manager to Cypriot company director

Everything points to Abyzov having had a person working for him at the bank.

"A client manager was found to be in possession of a PIN calculator for one of Abyzov's companies," Grimstad's report reads. "The same PIN calculator was used to make transfers from the account of a company owned or controlled by Abyzov."

In the banking world, politicians and their family members are known as politically exposed persons (PEPs). Banks are expected to keep an especially close eye on clients associated with PEPs in order to identify potentially corrupt transactions. Grimstad's report suggests, however, that Swedbank did not.

"Swedbank Estonia offered and mediated services, including suspicious transfers and activities, to high-risk nonresident clients," it read.

Averson, the Swedbank employee in possession of the PIN calculator belonging to Abyzov's company, was the client manager of several other noteworthy nonresident clients and their companies. He left the bank in early 2017, by which time all of Abyzov's accounts had been closed. He became director of Anduril Enterprises Ltd. in Cyprus two months later. Grimstad's report and documents from the Cypriot business register tie Anduril to Abyzov.

Averson's name showed up in another internal Swedbank report as well.

"Discussing a transfer with a colleague, Averson said, 'It is not the cleanest transaction,'" the report reads. "In a separate discussion, Averson tells his colleague that a transfer received by an unidentifiable company was reported as for the purpose of gas transport services. It left [the same company's account] as a 'down payment for stationary goods.' Averson described the transfer as a fairy tale."

Documents' contents are fiction, Averson says

Postimees repeatedly sought an interview with Averson, who lives in Viimsi Municipality, but was turned down. The former Swedbank employee agreed to answer in writing after being given access to documents concerning his person. He agreed to come to Postimees to read the documents, but demanded not to be met by journalists.

The editorial desk assistant gave him the documents in a closed envelope; Averson was permitted to read the documents on site, and take only written notes. He later described the documents' contents as fiction.

Averson did not answer individual questions in subsequent correspondence, but rather provided only a general comment in which he expressed doubt that such reports even really exist.

"I am absolutely convinced that the authors of these reports — whoever they are — have absolutely no proof to substantiate these allegations," the ex-Swedbank employee wrote in an email to Postimees. "They also lack the knowledge or simply don't care about applicable laws and regulations [regarding banking secrecy and duty of confidentiality]."

He said he attended several job interviews when it became clear by late 2016 that Swedbank would be shutting down its nonresident business. "I was made one of the two directors of Anduril Enterprises Ltd. two months after I left Swedbank," he noted. "I worked for the company until I left in July 2019."

He denied having made transfers for clients using their PIN calculator however. "This accusation is false and has been rejected," he said, adding that it is a fairy tale dreamed up by the author of the report.

Il Tesoro

Anduril Enterprises is registered in Cyprus and is one of 70 companies directly associated with Abyzov in Grimstad's report. The company's primary asset is its Italian subsidiary Villa Il Tesoro Societa' Agricola. Although the Italian company lists agriculture as its primary activity, in reality it owns a luxury villa in Toscana. The name of both the company and the villa translates as "the treasure."

When Abyzov became minister in 2012, Il Tsoro was valued at €9 million in its annual report. Several million euros were invested in the villa each year Abyzov served as minister, with the latest report from 2016 indicating its worth as €20.6 million.

Two years ago, Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny published a drone video of the villa on YouTube. The video shows a helipad, golf and tennis courts, fountains, an artificial lake as well as olive orchards and vineyards adjacent to the buildings. Documents suggest Anduril has changed hands several times, and every new owner is listed a a Swedbank client in Grimstad's report.

The first recommendation made in Grimstad's report was to immediately notify Estonian and Swedish authorities of its findings. Estonian prosecutors said they had not received a single report of a criminal offense from Swedbank since last December, which is when the report was finished.

Swedbank Estonia refused to answer a single question, citing outstanding investigations in Estonia and Sweden. Former Swedbank Estonia CEO Robert Kitt, who headed the Estonian branch of the bank in 2018, said he has not been shown the report. Kitt claims he learned of the report's conclusions from the press.

"I repeatedly asked [the bank's Swedish headquarters] for the report, but it was never given to me," he said. "I concluded that, had it been important, the supervisory board or shareholders would have shared the report with me."

Swedbank Group CEOJens Henriksson declined to comment on matters tied to specific clients or employees in an interview with SVT, but said that all information would be added to the ongoing internal audit.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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