Claims of president’s links to Russian business feud rubbished
A private feud between three Russian nationals in New York’s supreme court over one’s $2-billion claim from the other two, which involves the law firm founded by President Nicos Anastasiades, has nothing to do with him personally, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides has told the Sunday Mail.
Russian former parliamentarian and oil tycoon turned Hollywood producer Leonid Lebedev fled Russia in mid-2015 amid investigations of fraud at his electricity company, and found refuge in the US. A year earlier, he had filed a $2 billion suit against former business partners Len Blavatnik and Victor Vekselberg, with whom he had set up the TNK joint venture, a Russian oil company, in 2001. Lebedev initially held a 15 per cent stake in the venture, later diluted to 3.5 per cent following additional partnerships.
In 2013, the company was sold to Rosneft (the Russian state-owned oil giant) for $55 billion, of which Lebedev claims he never received his share. His two partners claimed they had already bought out his entire stake for $600 million in three instalments, paid out from 2003 to 2006 to Coral Petroleum Ltd, an Irish-registered – but Cyprus-run – company he had nominated to receive his share of TNK’s profits. Though the payment of $600 million by the defendants into Coral’s account is not in dispute, Lebedev contends that the $600 million was merely consideration in return for waiving his right to future profits from TNK, not his entire stake in the venture, and – crucially – that, in any case, he neither owns, nor controls, Coral.
Lebedev has long been a client of the Nicos Chr. Anastasiades & Partners law firm, founded but no longer run by President Anastasiades, who turned over his shares to his two daughters when he became president in 2013. Firm partner Theofanis (Fanos) Philippou and Limassol-based German lawyer Viktoria Henkelmann are listed as Coral’s directors. But private communications – email or other – between Lebedev and his lawyers in Cyprus he is refusing to disclose, citing attorney-client privilege.
The answer to who owns Coral is the key to unlocking the court case, and a report from Russia last week claimed it is held by Anastasiades, with the New York court about to file a ‘request for international judicial assistance’ from Cyprus. But the available evidence thus far suggests that, although Philippou and Henkelmann may well be asked to tell the court what they know about Coral, Anastasiades has not been implicated by anyone during the trial. In fact, the as-yet unapproved request for judicial assistance by the New York court asks that only the two lawyers, not the Cyprus president, “are compelled to appear for depositions in Cyprus and to provide testimony and documents” relating to Coral and Lebedev.
Though both Philippou and Henkelmann were subpoenaed – last June and July, respectively – by the Irish high court, which looked into Coral’s ownership structure and financial dealings at the request of the same New York court hearing the Lebedev case, both declined to respond. Liam Grainger, who served as Coral’s director from 1999 to 2012, did respond, and testified that in November 2014, Henkelmann asked him to sign a witness statement affirming that “Lebedev is not in any way related to and has no interest in Coral”, which he eventually signed in March 2015.
John Helmer, a Moscow-based American blogger and freelance investigative journalist, is the author of the reports which seek to implicate President Anastasiades. In a post on his personal blog dated September 20, he linked Anastasiades to the New York court’s quest for the identity of Coral’s ultimate beneficial owner, implied that he threw his political weight behind Lebedev’s “secret” acquiring of a Cypriot passport in March 2011, and even claimed that the president is being threatened by the US government with revelations of his dealings with Lebedev, and his role in any shady transactions the Russian businessman may have been involved in, in order to extract concessions from him in the ongoing negotiations for a settlement of the Cyprus problem. (Specifically, Helmer asserts that US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland is demanding that Anastasiades agrees to the permanent presence of Turkish troops on the island post-solution, in the guise of a NATO base.)
Neither the available evidence, nor the key players vindicate Helmer’s claims.
Responses to the report by various government sources ranged from “this is nonsense” to “this isn’t worth our time”. Government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides told the Sunday Mail that “the president is not implicated in this case”.
“Conceivably, the law firm might be implicated,” he added.
“They can comment, if they want.”
Fanos Philippou could not be reached for comment.
A government source who spoke on condition of anonymity categorically ruled out the NATO-base scenario, saying it is simply out of the question because it would never be backed by main opposition Akel, whose help will be absolutely vital in garnering public support for any proposed settlement.
“Although [a NATO base] would solve many problems,” the source mused.
As for the sinister overtones of Helmer’s claim that Lebedev became a Cyprus citizen “secretly, with help from Anastasiades and Philippou” in 2011, they were refuted by interior minister of the tiem Neoclis Sylikiotis.
“Absolutely not – nor could there have been political interference,” he told the Sunday Mail, in response to whether he had been pressured or asked to turn a blind eye in Lebedev’s case.
“Citizenship applications were forwarded to Europol to make sure the applicant’s record was clean, then the finance ministry to make sure his investments in Cyprus met the required minimum for eligibility, then they came to the cabinet for approval, and everything was then notified to parliament.”
“I don’t remember [Lebedev’s] case specifically, but I do remember a similar one at around the same time,” Sylikiotis said.
“It was another Russian businessman, who had also been elected to parliament in Russia. When his Cyprus citizenship application was approved, his name was leaked to a local newspaper – probably from the House – and his lawyers called me to complain, because you’re not allowed to hold public office in Russia if you have another country’s passport.”