Vladimir Antonov, whose grandfather worked on the Soviet atomic bomb, opted for a career in banking when he arrived in Moscow in the early 1990s.
Almost two decades later, the fallout from that choice is being played out across Europe as authorities try to trace the whereabouts of more than $1.6 billion missing from banks owned by the 36-year-old Russian in Lithuania and Latvia.
Antonov, whose network of companies also included English soccer club Portsmouth F.C., a Dutch sports car maker that went on to buy Saab Automobile AB, and banks in Panama and Ukraine, is scheduled to appear at court in London tomorrow. He was arrested on Nov. 24 in the U.K. with a business partner, Raimondas Baranauskas, at the request of Lithuanian prosecutors wanting to charge them with fraud and embezzlement. They both deny any wrongdoing and plan to fight extradition.
“This looks like someone else who put together an enormously lucrative portfolio of assets and now with forensic accounting I’m sure that will all unravel,” Chris Akers, who served as a director at Portsmouth Football Club (2010) Ltd. alongside Antonov, said in a Dec. 1 telephone interview. “It’s like the Russian dolls,” he said.
Investigators are trying to figure out how a man whose holding company claimed to have $7 billion of assets as recently as nine months ago ended up with an insolvent bank in Lithuania, Bankas Snoras AB, and an international arrest warrant.
They also are aiming to piece together how the businesses were financed by Antonov, another Russian who amassed wealth in the 1990s, though who didn’t make the Forbes magazine list of the country’s billionaires published in April.
Antonov, who grew up in the former Soviet state of Tajikistan, is a car enthusiast who was blocked by the European Investment Bank from investing in Saab as long as the Swedish car company owed the bank money. He previously was stopped in December 2009 from being involved in the purchase of Saab from U.S. carmaker General Motors Co.
Snoras, his bank, was barred from opening in the U.K. by the Financial Services Authority, alleging the company wouldn’t deal with the regulator in an “open and co-operative way,” the FSA said in a statement on March 3, 2009.
“You have to admit that a bank isn’t some candle factory, you need to find proof for each argument because we’re talking about billions of litai,” Vitas Vasiliauskas, Lithuania’s central bank governor, told lawmakers on Dec. 6. “We’ve acted with caution and care by meticulously gathering all evidence and our insights to substantiate our suspicions.”
Snoras, which was majority owned by Antonov, was seized by the government in Vilnius on Nov. 16 on concern it was performing illegal operations. The Baltic country’s central bank said regulators are now looking for 3.4 billion litai ($1.3 billion) that is unaccounted for.
Antonov and Baranauskas called it a “state-sanctioned raid” on the bank and vowed to protect their business from the “forced nationalization,” they said in a statement e-mailed on Nov. 21 through their spokeswoman, Natalja Olesik.
In Latvia, the banking regulator halted the operations of Latvijas Krajbanka AS, a unit of Snoras, on Nov. 21 because of missing funds. About 167 million lati ($311 million) needs to be recovered, Janis Brazovskis, the deputy head of the regulator, told national television on Dec. 11.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said on Nov. 25, the day Antonov and Baranauskas first appeared in court in London, that Snoras was “an institution of possibly criminal financial machinations” taking money from depositors to finance the other businesses run by the shareholders.
Should he be extradited from his home in London to face the charges in Lithuania, he faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty, according to the prosecutors in Vilnius.
Antonov was released on bail by a U.K. judge. He “strenuously denies dishonesty in any of his dealings,” Rachel Scott, one of his lawyers, told the court. The men are accused of stealing about 879 million litas through forgery and misappropriation, U.K. prosecutor Natalie Soule said. They allegedly forged documents to show false deposits in unspecified Swiss banks, she said.
The Russian declined numerous requests during the past two weeks for an interview, both through his lawyers in London and e-mail exchanges with spokeswoman Olesik. When contacted on his mobile telephone on Dec. 13 he said he was in a meeting with his lawyers and was unable to talk.
Prosecutors in Vilnius seized personal assets valued at 300 million litai from former Snoras shareholders, Ruta Dirsiene, spokeswoman for the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office, said in a Dec. 6 e-mailed response to questions. She declined to say how much of it involved Antonov.
Latvian police spokeswoman Sintija Virse confirmed on Dec. 12 that officers had seized 14 cars and one house registered to Antonov in Jurmala, a wealthy town about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Riga, the capital.
“It’s likely that more assets held by former Snoras shareholders and people linked to them may be uncovered,” Dirsiene said in her e-mail.
Antonov rarely displayed the trappings of wealth, said Akers. “If you walked into a room of 10 or 15 people you wouldn’t have assumed he was theoretically the wealthiest in the room,” he said. “He’s a very quiet individual, almost bordering on a reclusive character.”
Born in Uzbekistan in 1975, Antonov moved shortly after to Tajikistan with his family to a center of uranium mining and processing, according to a report by research consultancy Kroll dated Dec. 16, 2009, and made public by the Swedish debt office a year later. He is the grandson of Yuri Antonov, who was one of the founders of the Soviet Atomic program, Kroll said.
The report was commissioned after Antonov tried to secure Saab and found no evidence of any illegalities.
Antonov’s company, Convers Group Management, originated in 1999 when, aged 24, he bought a stake in a Russian bank for $200,000, Kroll said. He had graduated from the Moscow Institute of Banking in 1996, and told Kroll he earned about $5 million in bonuses working for a Russian bank by selling out of local government bonds just before the 1998 ruble crisis. Antonov’s LinkedIn networking page refers to him as a “banking specialist” at Moscow Banking College from 1993 to 1995.
Antonov’s Moscow-based Konversbank bought Bankas Snoras in March 2003, saying the Lithuanian bank was a vehicle to enter European Union markets. He built it into Lithuania’s third-largest bank by deposits by making it the most accessible bank in the country via a network of more than 230 blue kiosks.
One in central Vilnius carried a poster with a golden retriever dog arranging wooden block letters to read “Snoras” and a slogan below saying “Everyone knows it’s worth holding a deposit here.” Almost a month after Snoras’s collapse, a sign on the closed glass door tells customers to claim their deposits insured by the government at other banks. The cash machine inside flashes that Snoras’s banking license has been canceled.
The central bank, which fined Snoras in 2004 after the bank ignored recommendations to set aside more money for bad loans, gave Snoras 10 days in January this year to improve risk management and other deficiencies in operations.
“This bank has not had a significant footprint on our economy and lending to businesses,” Mykolas Majauskas, chief economic adviser to Lithuanian premier Kubilius, said in London on Dec. 5 at an event to drum up investment in the Baltic state. “It did however have a connection with depositors and it collected a lot of deposits.”
The breadth of Antonov’s interest appears in a press release issued on March 11 by Convers Group, the company he chairs along with his father, Alexander Antonov.
The group included Bankas Snoras, Krajbanka, Conversbank in Ukraine and Banco Trasatlantico SA in Panama, the statement said. It announced that Vladimir Antonov had sold his 40 percent stake in a company called Investbank for an undisclosed sum and both Antonovs were leaving the board.
“The proceeds from the sale of his share will drive the development of his business internationally in profitable and fast developing sectors,” the statement said.
Alexander Antonov worked in uranium enrichment plants owned by the Soviet government until 1993, when he moved his family to Moscow to join Vladimir after the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of Tajikistan, the Kroll report said. He was shot and wounded in Moscow in March 2009, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office said on its website. Antonov and his bodyguard were hit by automatic-weapon fire as they walked to Antonov’s car, Kommersant newspaper reported on March 12, 2009.
Fear for Life
Vladimir Antonov told Kroll that the assassination attempt was linked to a conflict in Russia over the assets of his holding company. Both men then chose the U.K. as their domicile, Kroll said in its report.
Antonov junior told the Lithuanian daily Respublika in a phone interview published on Nov. 25 that he feared for his life. “I understand that extradition is inevitable,” he said. “I can say it openly: I am scared that I may get killed.”
Olesik, the spokeswoman for Antonov, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking confirmation of the comments.
Antonov continued disposing of his assets last month.
He signed an agreement on Nov. 19 to sell his 85.16 percent stake in Banco Trasatlantico to the bank’s minority shareholders, all Panamanian, banking regulator Superintendencia de Bancos de Panama said in an e-mail on Dec. 6. The contract is currently under review by the regulator, it said. He also sold his Kiev-based Conversbank to a group of investors on Nov. 22, the bank said in a statement on its website.
“We have not been contacted by nor received information from authorities of Lithuania and Latvia,” the Panamanian regulator said in the e-mailed response to questions.
The Russian banker is listed as a current director in the U.K. at Convers Group Holding (U.K.) Ltd., International Sportsworld Communicators Technologies Ltd. and North One Sport Ltd., according to the U.K. registry on Dec. 9. He resigned as a director of Portsmouth soccer club on Nov. 29, it said.
While Antonov spent more than 30 million pounds ($46.7 million) on as many as 10 sports businesses, according to business partner Akers, the Russian only kept directorships at two. Akers was asked to set up Convers Sports Initiatives, or CSI, he said.
North One Sport owns the rights to the World Rally Championships. Andrew Andronikou, the administrator trying to find buyers for CSI’s assets, said fresh investment is needed if the businesses aren’t to run out of cash.
Convers Group is a shell company and doesn’t have any assets, Roman Dubov, another U.K. business partner, said. Dubov, like Akers, was a director of CSI, which bought Portsmouth F.C. in the English Championship, its second-tier soccer league, using Antonov’s money, they said.
Dubov, 37, said in a Dec. 1 e-mail that he got to know Antonov through an old school friend. He said his first business dealing with the Russian banker was 15 months earlier when Antonov asked him to set up a sports business. He and Akers set up CSI in September 2010, they said. It went into administration on Nov. 25, filings show.
“I, as all management in CSI and subsidiaries, was shocked when the situation with him happened in Lithuania,” Dubov said in the e-mail. “We have never been involved in his personal business, and Mr. Antonov has not been involved in the day-to-day operation of CSI, but CSI clearly associated with him as majority shareholder,” he said.
Antonov never showed much interest in soccer, said Akers, who called him a “petrol head” rather than a “football person.” His LinkedIn profile says he is “passionate about cars and participates in several rallies.”
Spyker Cars NV, the Dutch maker of sports cars that Antonov owned a stake in and was its chairman, was close to signing an agreement with GM in December 2009 to buy Saab until the U.S. company halted negotiations. Antonov subsequently was forced to sell his stake and leave the board. Spyker eventually bought Saab in February 2010.
“The only real shock is, if the allegations are true, countless entities have done their (checks) and not been able to prove anything,” Akers, the former business partner, said. “There was a lot of smoke. People can go back to the FSA, the investigation by Kroll and the Swedish national debt office. It was very difficult to prove otherwise.”