Seek the Russians: Vassilev protected by Kremlin players
The €1 gang, Gebrev and Dunarit and Plan Bulgaria are all textbook KGB operationsTelegraph , Sofia
If you want to know how things panned out in the aftermath of the biggest financial scheme in Bulgarian history, the collapse of Corpbank, seek the Russian trail. That is because the long hand of the Kremlin has a pretty active role not just in fugitive banker Tsvetan Vassilev’s hiding from the judicial system, but in the secondary plundering of assets acquired with money from the failed lender that has been happening over the past five years.
Vassilev may be trying to pin the theft on his enemies, chief among them lawmaker and Telegraph Media publisher Delyan Peevski, but even a cursory look at the assets stolen during the secondary plundering and the circles that control them now leads straight to the fugitive banker and his Russian patrons.
The first stage in the Russian campaign designed to seize key assets in the country was launched several months after Tsvetan Vassilev packed up and fled to Belgrade, where he found a safe haven and a refuge from the angry crowd of depositors and the investigative authorities after him. Even at the time, doubts crept in that the indicted financier choosing the Serbian capital was no coincidence – it is close to Bulgaria and, thanks to the money flowing towards the former Serbian president, the local authorities treated Vassilev favourably. And last but not least, there was the strategic connection with the Kremlin.
And it stood out immediately. Especially when the “€1 gang” led by Belgian with Russian passport Pierre Louvrier came onto the scene. He made his appearance with great fanfare in early 2015, shortly after the state had started restoring guaranteed CorpBank deposits. The start of the first foray was given with a short press release, announcing that Tsvetan Vassilev is transferring six of the most valuable assets bought with CorpBank money – BTK, NURTS, First Digital, GARB, Dunarit and Avionams – in exchange for a total of €1. It mentioned a future partnership, as well as TV7 and the hotel chain Sana Space. The list was missing only a couple of the strategic assets stolen under the nose of the CopBank conservators – Petrol, Gips, Kostenets and Paracin. That was because Vassilev did not need to give them to the Russians in order to steal them – they were already in the hands of his people and effectively under his control.
Louvrier’s appearance coincided with another important event – several days earlier the National Assembly had passed amendments to the Bank Insolvency Act, which put temporary bankruptcy administrators in CorpBank. The goal was to stem the ongoing (with the conservators’ blessing) plundering of the bank’s assets. These companies were among the few with actual operations and real value. The remaining over 100 corporate borrowers were shell companies that helped Vassilev syphon off depositors’ money.
In order to keep for himself (and his Kremlin patrons) only the “golden assets” and leave the depositors and the state with the liabilities, Vassilev called on his Russian cronies for help. The indicted financial fraudster’s ties to Moscow actually go way back (see textbox), but they became vital for him during his fleeing from the law. And so Pierre Louvrier stepped on stage, all dapper, at a fancy Sofia hotel, concealing his Russian connections behind the image of an entrepreneur and “owner” of the newly founded offshore company LIC33. But the masks quickly fell. In mere hours, the Bulgarian media (including Telegraph Media publications) uncovered Louvrier’s contacts with the Kremlin oligarch with Orthodox Christianity beliefs Konstantin Malofeev. The latter is on the EU sanctions list because of his actions as the right hand of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Following the failure of the “€1 gang” headed by the preposterous Belgian pawn Pierre Louvrier, another of Malofeev’s puppets joined the efforts – Dmitry Kosarev. The scheme devised by Vassilev and the oligarch Malofeev’s figurehead was also exposed in 2015, when the newspaper Trud published a contract signed between the Bulgarian Madoff and Kosarev. The short but extremely intriguing document reads, “This Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) is signed as a document intended to advance the relations between Mr Tsvetan Vassilev (Partner 1) and Mr Dmitry Kosarev (Partner 2), represented by an authorised proxy or personally (depending on the situation). The two partners agree that the current MU reflects the most recent talks and will control their relations with regard to the activities set forth below and will lay the foundation for the negotiation of an agreement(s) acceptable to both parties, now and moving forward, keeping in mind the mutual obligations that result from reasonable rationalisations.”
Here are some of the most significant things agreed between Vassilev and Kosarev. One, setting up a fund, in which the banker was to deposit “certain assets”, “retaining full and unconditional control over the assets”. Proceeds from the sale of any part of the assets were to be distributed in a ratio of 80% for Vassilev to 20% for the Russians. ПVassilev and his Russian partner also agreed another key commitment: “Partner 2 is to provide Partner 1 with every possible and necessary protection, ensuring their security (including the personal safety of Partner 1 and his family).”
Dmitry Kosarev is very close to the oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who was among the first Russian citizens included in the EU and US sanctions lists. According to the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, Kosarev is a former vice-chair of I.N.F.R.A Engineering, controlled by Malofeev. This is further confirmed by the fact that Kosarev uses the services of the same powerful law firm Malofeev employs for some of his other business ventures. Among the oligarch’s people are also Alexander Borodai and Igor Girkin-Strelkov. Prior to becoming the first “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Borodai was a PR consultant in Malofeev’s company Marshall Capital. Igor Girkin-Strelkov was a bodyguard of Malofeev before leading the Russian paramilitary fighting in Ukraine and later taking the position of defence minister of the Donetsk People's Republic. In this capacity he was recently sentenced by a US court to pay $400m in damages to the relatives of the passengers of the Malaysia Airlines’ shot-down Boeing.
The Russophiles plan
“The Kremlin never puts all of its eggs in one basket.” These are the words of former socialist lawmaker and incumbent leader of the National Movement “Russophiles” Nikolay Malinov. In the autumn of 2019 he became the first individual in Bulgaria charged with spying for a foreign country in 20 years – the country being Russia in this case. Malinov is being tried for his involvement in the preparation of a creeping coup designed to engineer a geopolitical shift in course by Bulgaria and transforming the country from a pro-western state with EU and NATO allegiances to a Russian satellite. The other plotters are the Kremlin oligarch Konstantin Malofeev and the Soviet GRU agent Gen. Leonid Reshetnikov. The engine of the Plan Bulgaria, as the project was dubbed, on the ground was Nikolay Malinov. Over €500m (BGN 1bn) worth of assets were transferred by fugitive banker Tsvetan Vassilev for the purposes of the coup. Malinov is indicted under the Crimes against the Republic section of the Penal Code. The charge is under Article 105, Paragraph 1, which provides for 5-15 years of imprisonment for anyone who serves the interests of a foreign state or organisation.
No, the Kremlin does not put all its eggs in one basket, which is why, while the Kosarev circus was taking place publicly, the latest attempt to put a hand on the CorpBank assets was being prepared behind the scenes. Malinov popped up in the public space in the role of a “savior”, which is a favourite plot of the Russian security services. In 2015 he said that he had found a way to save TV7 from bankruptcy, which had swallowed up BGN 300m in CorpBank loans by that point. The idea was for it to become… a channel for Orthodox Christianity content. Here the clues once again lead to Malofeev and his media projects. It is important to note that because of his involvement in the scheme Malinov was presented personally by Putin with the Order of friendship in November 2019, while his wife Daniela Malinova earned the admiration of the Russian president for her “fortitude and courage”. And that is no coincidence – Malinova works for the open Kremlin propaganda that is the project Russia Beyond (formerly known as Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH)). In Bulgaria, the project is implemented by virtue of a license contract concluded between Daniela Malinova (official rep of RBTH for Bulgaria) and Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The online media outlet RBTH is among the ambitious ideas of Vladimir Putin and the Moscow apparatus for spreading influence to the west. The project was envisioned as the Russian equivalent of the US Radio Liberty and has as its mission spreading positive news about the “big brother” in the respective country. The ideologist behind it is the oligarch Malofeev, an interview with whom started off the Bulgarian desk of the RBTH. The French branch of the media outlet employs the spouse of another “journalist” tempted by the fugitive banker’s schemes – Maria Onuchko, wife of the chief editor of the racketeering website Bivol Atanas Chobanov.
Several months ago, the Prosecutor’s Office disclosed some of the evidence in the espionage case against Malinov, including an agreement, dated February 2015, between Rossiiskaya Gazeta and the newspaper published by Malinov in Sofia for the publishing of pieces of content in the form of advertisements and supplements in the publication and its website. The content was supposed to come from the Russian press. The Russians were ready to pay the Bulgarian publisher 450,000 rubles (about BGN 12,000) a month up to a total amount of 900,000 rubles.
Because of the uncovered plot against the state, Malinov was indicted, but that did not stop him from travelling to Russia after a judge permitted him to do so despite a standing ban for him to leave the country and thus in violation of the law. It was later revealed that Malinov used his trip to Moscow to seek protection against the investigation in Bulgaria and meet with his mentors – GRU general Leonid Reshetnikov and the Kremlin oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. Malinov’s statements following the trip revealed that he tried to secure diplomatic protection for himself against the ongoing probes in Bulgaria. Similar to Tsvetan Vassilev, who has sought support abroad, Malinov maintained that he was being investigated for being “a friend of Russia” and not for spying for another country. Putin reassured him that “pressure is being exerted on the Bulgarian authorities”. Apparently, he did not specify want kind of pressure, but the fact is that shortly thereafter Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dared to threaten Bulgaria, saying that there would be “grave consequences” if the award that the Russophile had received in Moscow became reason for his persecution in Bulgaria. Reshetnikov, for his part, commented Malinov’s recognition by Putin in his Facebook profile: “Russia remembers its friends and never forgets them. Not in good times, not in bad times. We have been together and together we will stay.”
The Dunarit ATM
Out of all the operations attempted in Bulgaria by Tsvetan Vassilev and his Russian patrons, only one can be deemed successful – the seizing of the military plant Dunarit. It went through several stages, the crucial one being the supposed attempted poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok of arms dealer Emiliyan Gebrev, who nowadays is a loyal pawn of Tsvetan Vassilev.
But let us go back to the Russian trace – in early 2015, while Pierre Louvrier and Dmitry Kosarev were still trying to gain control of the six “golden assets”, including Dunarit, the presence of Russians from the Kremlin security services was detected in Bulgaria. Gebrev claimed that they were the ones who attempted to poison him. As reason he cited Dunarit. Today, Gebrev tells the attempted murder story a bit differently, but the basic facts are pretty telling.
These days, Gebrev says that he was targeted because of announcing his intention to acquire Dunarit. We are not using the word “buy” because the goal of Gebrev and his partner in the scheme to seize the military plant, fugitive banker Tsvetan Vassilev, has never been to pay the real price of the company, but to deftly steal it under the nose of the state, which is its main creditor (albeit indirectly because Dunarit’s primary and secondary debt to CorpBank, and by extension the state, exceeds BGN 200m – editor’s note).
Gebrev has literally said that his alleged attempted poisoning happened a month or two after “in February reports surfaced that the he was interested in Dunarit”. Obviously, he is blatantly lying about the chronology of events because a simple look at the news items between early 2015 and the middle of that year shows that no such thing was reported in any media outlet. Perhaps because in 2015 he actually had aspirations towards a different company in the arms industry, as the archives indicate. Gebrev was hospitalised on 28 April 2015 with symptoms of poisoning after having dinner with Russian and Polish partners. Not long after getting released from the hospital, Gebrev did file the paperwork to acquire a Bulgarian military plant but it was not Dunarit – rather it was the Scientific Research Technological Institute (NITI), which makes AK-47 submachine guns. It is worth noting that the NITI deal fell through in January 2016 and only a month later Gebrev shifted his focus to Dunarit, filing with the Commission for Protection of Competition for a permission to acquire the Rousse plant.
Following the chronological order of events is obviously a challenge for Gebrev and the entire clique around Tsvetan Vassilev. They conveniently forget the fact that Vassilev was trying to gift Dunarit to the Russians for the entire 2015. At the time, the fugitive banker was working hard to pull off his shady plan to get, together with his Russian partners, his hands on lucrative assets worth a total of €1bn and bought with money stolen from the depositors of the failed CorpBank. Dunarit is in good financial state, making it attractive to Vassilev and the arms dealer. It has an estimated market value of nearly BGN 300m, annual turnover in excess of BGN 160m, and net profit of over BGN 35m. The arms dealer has not been registered as owner of the plant despite the attempts of the criminal tandem Gebrev-Vassilev to achieve that – three in total, so far.
Why does the duo Gebrev-Vassilev want Dunarit? The most obvious reason is that the plant serves as a piggy-bank for Vassilev, helping him to maintain a luxury lifestyle in Belgrade for the past several years. As we mentioned earlier, a pretrial proceeding in relation to that fact has been launched. But there are other reasons. Like the fact that the plant has knowhow and markets that any arms deal would love to have.
What is far more important, however, is that the Russian associates of Tsvetan Vassilev have wanted to gain control of the plant for a long time. Thanks to Gebrev, they now have access to its confidential information, even though they are yet to conquer it outright. Here is the time to note that while EMKO is on the US sanctions list, Dunarit carries out orders following NATO standards. This means that anyone with access to its documentation, and Gebrev fits the bill, has access to the specifications described in the standards that munitions used by NATO countries should meet and to data about the various orders serviced not only by Bulgaria. Whichever way you look at it, this is the motherload for any intelligence agency outside of NATO, let alone Russia.
Anti-Corruption Fund illuminates involvement of the fraudster in South Stream
The Russian ties that fugitive banker Tsvetan Vassilev maintained while he was at the helm of CorpBank have been exposed thanks to… the Anti-Corruption Fund created by oligarch Ivo Prokopiev. The absurd situation came after the underlings of Capital released a film about the South Stream affair. Prokopiev’s people unwittingly confirmed earlier revelations about Vassilev’s Russian ties by proving that he had personal communication with one of Putin’s most trusted people – Alexander Babakov. Babakov is a deputy of the upper house of the Russian parliament (Federation Council) and a Presidential Envoy for engaging with Russian organisations abroad. From the so-called “investigation” of the Anticorruption Fund it transpires that Babakov was among the guests who visited Tsvetan Vassilev office in person, more specifically in the company of bodyguards on 22 November 2013. Another disclosed document from the CorpBank case proves that the bank issued a €2,5m guarantee for the South Stream project to the name of Russian company Stroytransgas.