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By John Helmer, Moscow

While Boris Berezovsky, Roman Abramovich and Oleg Deripaska are hard at work changing the British courts’ interpretation of the law on corruption, Vladimir Antonov has come along to challenge the British law on asylum and extradition.

Antonov, along with his Lithuanian partner Raimondas Baranauskas, were arrested in London on November 23, and charged in connexion with a Lithuanian extradition warrant. In Lithuania they are accused of embezzlement of several hundred million dollars from Bank Snoras, the bank they control in Lithuania, and the second largest in that country. The forensic auditors are reported to have found that Snoras’s books are short by $1.4 billion.

Investigation of suspected cash and asset-looting by Antonov from other banks he has controlled – Krajbanka in Latvia ($200 million reportedly missing), the Investbank (aka Konvers) group in Russia, and Pointon York in the UK – are under way. Antonov and Baranauskas are pleading innocent. Snoras, which was sanctioned by the UK regulator, the Financial Services Administration (FSA) in 2007-2009, has been put under Lithuanian state administration.

Antonov, 36, owns the Portsmouth Football Club and a house in Ladbroke Square, London – site of a failed race track in the 19th century, followed by a series of spectacular bankruptcies. But even with these assets, why the London court allowed Antonov unrestricted bail is unclear. For the Lithuanian extradition request is likely to be granted by the court, and once Antonov realizes that, he’s a flight risk, especially towards the Caribbean and Panama, where he owns at least two banks (Banco Transatlantico of Panama, Griffon Bank of Dominica) and other assets in the Antilles and elsewhere.

Antonov left Russia in 2008 after there were reports of an assassination attempt against his father, Alexander, 61. Both men have lived in the UK since then. They have subsequently spent more than enough money to qualify for British residency papers, and enough time may have elapsed for Vladimir to qualify for UK citizenship. But Lithuania is a member of the European Union (EU) to which, for the time being, the government of Prime Minister David Cameron adheres. So whether or not Antonov remains a Russian citizen, or holds passports of a number of other states, the question the Antonov case raises for the UK Home Office is whether he is entitled to the type of protection he would almost certainly have, if the extradition warrant and crimes alleged against him originated with the Russian Prosecutor-General.

Asked whether it is conducting an investigation of Antonov for possible offences in Russia, the spokesman for Prosecutor-General referred the question to the Investigative Committee of the Ministry of Interior, which requested a written application by fax, and has yet to reply. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Oleg Elnikov, said today he “has no idea”.

The Home Office (as the British ministry of interior is called) granted Berezovsky full asylum on September 10, 2003; three days later, following a London court hearing, a Russian extradition request for him was rejected. Since then, sources close to the Home Office claim, there was an internal review of what UK Government policy should be in the dozens of cases of Russian extradition requests which have followed involving other Russians. The new policy, unannounced but in force now, according to the sources, is that the British would not grant asylum but at the same time would not accept extradition requests in cases involving complex business disputes in Moscow, and the suspicion of corruption on the part of the Russian courts and prosecutors.

Lithuania’s judicial administration may be no better. But in 2004 Lithuania joined the EU, and in 2007 acceded to the Schengen Agreement on movement of citizens and non-citizens within EU borders. The Home Office and the London court cannot look behind the warrant for Antonov and find that he is unlikely to be granted a fair trial in a fellow EU state. But there may also be a problem for the Lithuanian Government in having Antonov returned to face trial in case his testimony becomes a domestic embarrassment. Thus, the Lithuanian and British Governments may quietly decide to leave a backdoor open for Antonov to slip away.

A source close to one of Antonov’s banks hints that Antonov may plead in the London court that his life is in danger if he is returned to Vilnius in handcuffs. “The burn has never come so close to his skin. He is scared to death to come back to Eastern Europe, and most of all to Russia, because he owes plenty of money to dozens of people, some of whom may be tough guys. That’s not to speak about the vanished savings of ordinary Lithuanians, but of the balances on the accounts [at Snoras and Krajbanka] of [Russian] offshore companies.” Naturally, the probability of returning cash to claimants is greater if Antonov stays out of the cemetery, but the obligation to return it may be zero if he remains in residence at Ladbroke Square.

Moscow media have been reporting that the missing money may include accounts in Snoras and Krajbanka belonging to Deripaska’s Basic Element holding, Suleiman Kerimov’s Nafta-Moskva, Sergei Polonsky’s Mirax group, Gazprom, and a Moscow car dealer called Major Auto. In addition, one individual depositor in five at the two banks is reported to be Russian, with deposit totals of about $500 million at risk in the former, $200 million in the latter; because the depositors are Russian, they may be unprotected by the Lithuanian deposit insurance rules. It has also been reported in Moscow that Deripaska is blaming Antonov to justify delaying payment of wages to some of his Basic Element employees.

According to the source close to Antonov’s banking operations, “I hear that all his roofs – both the red one and the criminal one – have abandoned him. So plastic surgery looks unavoidable. The guy will not take chances. For him reputation means nothing, so there is no upside in the court defence.”

Antonov has left a trail of self-inflicted wounds as he used bombast and money to attack official criticism of his banking practices; and of his critics in the media in Sweden, where he has tried to bolster his reputation to obtain government approval for a proposed takeover of the Saab auto and aerospace group. In 2006, he engaged in a verbal clash with Andrei Kozlov, then deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia; although he threatened Kozlov, he had nothing to do with the September 2006 assassination of Kozlov. The subsequent approval in 2007 by the Central Bank of the merger of Antonov’s Conversbank with Investbank (Kaliningrad), Voronezhprombank and Grankombank, and authorization of his acquisitions of Yenisei Bank and Baikalinvestbank, show that Antonov maintained a clean bill of health institutionally, so far as the Central Bank was concerned – at least until the crash of 2008. By the end of that year, however, Investbank was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Central Bank had started its procedure for withdrawing its banking licences. Again, Antonov survived, and held the business together long enough for him to be able to sell it in March of this year.

Antonov has himself acknowledged that Conversbank was known to be a money-laundering operation when he first acquired it. Rebranding it as Investbank in 2007 was another acknowledgement. Where Antonov junior and senior got the money to buy Convers to start with is another story involving the convicted swindler, former Minister of Nuclear Energy Yevgeny Adamov, and also Andrei Melnichenko of the MDM banking group and Eurochem, the fertilizer producer.

According to a negative outlook cautionary for Investbank, issued on December 11 by Richard Hainsworth and his RusRating company in Moscow, “the change in outlook reflects a possible contraction in available liquidity following the nationalisation of Lithuania’s Snoras Bank, which had been controlled by Investbank’s former principal beneficiary owner, as well as reputation risks arising from circumstances at Snoras Bank.

The rating itself is based on membership in a larger financial group coupled with reduced dependence on funding sources linked to the Bank’s former owner; solid ties to a circle of regular corporate clients; stable post-merger development trends; and established market positions. Constraining factors include the short period of time since the recent change of ownership; possible reputation risks arising from negative media coverage; exposure to large-scale credit risks; and substantial operating costs.”

Investbank was asked to comment on its position in relation to Snoras, Krajbanka and Antonov. It has promised to respond. A source in Moscow reports that Antonov may have sold his stake in the Russian banking group, but kept title to the office building at Goncharnaya Street which Investbank reports as its headquarters (right). If so, the angry Russian depositors are likely to force its arrest and sale to pay creditor claims, though perhaps not proportionally.

There has been speculation in Moscow that Antonov was able to rescue the Investbank group from collapse in 2009, and later allowed to sell out, because he had convinced some government officials that they would all benefit if he managed to win his takeover bid for Saab. That was mounted during 2009 and 2010, after it had become clear to the Kremlin that its attempt to revive the domestic automobile industry through buying the German Opel car division from General Motors, through a bid by Deripaska and Sberbank, had been rejected by Washington.

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