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Life in the fast lane ends for Antonov

Jun 13, 2012
By Lidija Liegis

Life in the fast lane ends for Antonov
BRAINS AND BRAWN: Vladimir Antonov (left) and Raimondas Baranauskas, owners of Snoras Bank.

LONDON - Banker, entrepreneur and investor is how Vladimir Alexandrovich Antonov describes himself on the business networking site LinkedIn. Currently out on police bail, 36-year-old British-Russian Antonov and his Lithuanian business partner Raimondas Baranauskas were arrested on Nov. 24, 2011 in London after the Lithuanian authorities found over 290 million euros in assets missing from Snoras, Lithuania’s fifth biggest bank by assets, which the pair had a majority stake in.

A European arrest warrant was issued for Antonov and Baranauskas by the Lithuanian prosecutor general on Nov. 23, saying: “They are recognized as suspects with regard to misappropriation of property on a large scale and forgery of documents. The grounds are allegations of fraudulent accounting, forgery of documents, abuse of authority, misappropriation of property, money laundering and other criminal offenses committed by the bank Snoras.”

In the days leading up to his arrest, certain events unfolded in the Baltic States. On Nov. 15, Lithuania’s main daily paper, Lietuvos rytas, published an article online about rumors of Snoras’ banking license being revoked. The following day, Latvia’s financial watchdog, the Financial and Capital Market Commission (FCMC) called Mindaugas Leika, director of the economics department of the Bank of Lithuania. He told the FCMC that millions of euros’ worth of securities had disappeared from Snoras bank.

On Nov. 21, the FCMC suspended Latvian bank Krajbanka from all financial services after a shortage of millions of euros’ worth of assets was discovered at the bank. Krajbanka, the sixth largest bank in Latvia in terms of deposits (it held 835 million euros in September 2011, with 5.2 percent of the market), was controlled by Antonov through its Lithuanian parent bank, Snoras.

Only the best
Slight and boyish looking, Antonov pleaded in Westminster Magistrates court in December that his life would be endangered if he was sent for trial in Lithuania. It is unclear why he believes that he would be under threat if he was extradited to another EU country.

Antonov and Baranauskas were, meanwhile, released on bail for £75,000 and £200,000, respectively. Scotland Yard’s Specialist Crime Directorate said it is “facilitating the extradition process.” In proceedings in January, Antonov’s defense counsel James Lewis QC pleaded for the case to be postponed because evidence had to be gathered from over 20 witnesses. Lewis also asked for the original thrice-weekly attendance to be reduced to once a week on the grounds that, so far, Antonov had complied; the judge granted this and the preliminary hearing was postponed until March 22, and the primary hearing until June.

The court bail includes the condition that Antonov lives and sleeps in his Notting Hill mansion, and surrenders his passport.

As well as his opulent west London home, which, according to the Land Registry, is worth over £1 million, he owns a property in a leafy neighborhood in Bromley, south east London, purchased in 2004 for £1.6 million by the Jersey-registered Griffon Properties. Neighboring houses are vast, with large gardens, guest houses and indoor pools. Other assets include a property at Latvia’s seaside resort Jurmala, as well as 14 luxury cars. Amongst them were an Aston Martin, a Maserati Grand Sport, a BMW Alpina Roadster V8, an Alfa Romeo Competizione and several Ferraris.

The vehicles have Latvian, Lithuanian and Swiss registration plates and are valued at a total of one million euros. Former head of Latvia’s Krajbanka, Ivars Prieditis, recalls that Antonov loved his luxurious cars, which were parked in the inside yard of the bank’s main office in Riga. Nobody else drove them except Antonov, when he was in town. From Krajbanka Antonov also inherited his personal driver. A young Latvian guy who currently serves his boss in London.
In late 2011 the Latvia State Police seized the property and cars to recover some of the money lost in Krajbanka.

Who is Vladimir Antonov?

Only 36 years old, Antonov has managed to build up a business empire which spans from Russia to Panama and Dominica, passing via the Baltic States, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK. But who is he, and how did he manage to gain key stakes in at least 21 banks and businesses across the globe? And why did it all come tumbling down in late 2011?
Antonov’s story begins in Navoi, Uzbekistan, where he was born on June 20, 1975 into a family of prominent scientists. His grandfather was amongst the scientists to study the effects of the first atomic explosion, and Antonov’s father Alexander spent his life working in uranium enrichment plants. Having gained a Ph.D. from the Leningrad Institute for Aviation Instrument Engineering, Alexander moved to Navoi. Soon after Vladimir’s birth the family moved to Chikalovsk in Tajikistan, where Alexander’s father-in-law was director of the plant. Navoi and Chikalovsk were both home to uranium mines and processing plants belonging to the Soviet Ministry for Economic Energy.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexander quit the nuclear sector to set up an engineering consulting firm, which would pay for Vladimir’s education.
Vladimir left Tajikistan in 1992 to study at the elite Moscow Engineering and Physics Institute, but shortly afterwards moved to Sberbank’s Banking College, as he predicted that there would be better prospects for bankers in the post-Soviet world. After graduating in 1996 at the age of 21, he joined Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia and Eastern Europe at the time. The following year he started working at the now defunct Lefko Bank, where he headed the commercial finance department. His LinkedIn profile states that he “earned his initial seed capital while overseeing Lefko Bank’s trading strategies during the Russian financial crisis in 1998.” Antonov told corporate investigator Kroll that he was paid a $5 million bonus by Lefko Bank for his sale of Russian state treasury bonds.

Presumably it is with this initial capital that in 1999, aged 24, he purchased his first bank, the failing Akademkhimbank, for 156,000 euros ($200,000). It was on the verge of bankruptcy due to a liquidity crisis and Antonov was able to offer cash flow in the short term, acquire new depositors and restructure the bank’s management. When his consulting firm went bust in 1998, Antonov senior says that he began to help manage Akademkhimbank. Vladimir Antonov worked at the bank until 2002, as head of the investment and development department and chairman of the board. It seems it was at this point that father and son began building the business empire.

From 2002 to 2008, Antonov held various positions at Conversbank, progressing quickly up the ladder. These included deputy chairman of the managing board and chairman of the supervisory board. Conversbank is a financial group operating through various subsidiaries in Europe.
Founded in Moscow in 1989, it provides banking and financial market services, including foreign exchange, brokerage and financial advice, serving businesses, corporate clients and individuals. The group is headquartered in Moscow and has branches in Belarus, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia. During his six years at Conversbank, Antonov supervised its management and several corporate finance projects. One of the most important factors was that the bank had an international license, which allowed him to buy banking institutions abroad, and it is during his time at Conversbank that he made several major acquisitions. It remains a mystery as to how he rose so quickly through the ranks to seemingly take over Conversbank.

In 2003 he acquired 68 percent of Lithuania’s Snoras bank and in 2005, through Snoras, he acquired 83 percent of Latvia’s Krajbanka. In 2006 he acquired Pointon York (later renamed Conversbank), a Leicester-based company with a UK banking license, which was seen as a crucial step in building a pan-European banking network. Very little is known about Antonov’s activities with Pointon York.

When Snoras first tried to open a UK branch, in December 2007, Britain’s banking regulatory body, the Financial Services Authority, refused permission on the grounds that “Snoras was likely to fail to deal with the FSA in an open and cooperative way.” Unusually, the case was appealed and the FSA had to defend its decision because Snoras claimed it was being discriminated against. Lawyers for the FSA said at a hearing that it had opposed Snoras’ application because it suspected executives didn’t give “straight answers to straight questions” about their dealings with Russian regulators. A further statement published by the FSA in February 2008 implies that concerns had already been flagged by other individuals about his previous business dealings: “In 2005, Mr. A’s engagement with a previous employer was terminated due to concerns over the quality of the mortgage business he had submitted to two separate lenders, and his approach to compliance issues.”

Building his business empire
Between 2002 and 2011, Antonov built up the number of businesses that he controlled. This included his 85.16 percent stake in Banco Transatlantico, a Panama-based bank with a sister branch in Dominica. After the collapse of the Baltic Banks, Antonov sold his shares in the Panama bank. In the Caribbean his control was also extended to the West Indies Power Company, in which he is reported to have a stake. The company is controlled by Lithuanian Dimitrijus Apockinas, who is also a director of Dominican Bank Banco Transatlantico with Antonov. Last year the energy company secured a license from the Dominican government to start geothermal drilling on the island.

Antonov was a director of Conversgroup, founded in August 2009. He was also chairman of JSC Finasta Holding, a company controlled by Snoras which provided real estate management, construction work and asset management. He was a chairman of the advisory board of JSC Bank Finasta (Lithuania), the main shareholder of Russian bank Investbank and member of the supervisory board of the Latvia’s Krajbanka.

In Lithuania, Antonov was the main shareholder and chairman of Snoras, the country’s fifth largest bank; in November 2011 he sold the Ukraine branch of Convers Bank, a small bank with 18.5 million euros in capital, to four individuals including a former Krajbanka advisor, Reinis Turnovs. It is unclear whether he still has control of the other aforementioned banks. Snoras was the parent bank of several banks and companies, including Finasta investment bank, which is mostly active in Lithuania and Latvia. In Lithuania Snoras had several companies attached to it, including a consumer leasing arm with a portfolio of 86 million euros, making it a major local player.

Following his passion
Antonov’s main passion is clearly cars – something reflected in his tweets. He posted last May about his excitement at getting a new Saab: “Just got my 93 independence day! Orange! Amazing! My wife forgot her Bentley Continental.” Re:Baltica was told by several sources that in his Convers group office in London, Antonov has a Spyker C12 Zagato.

In the Netherlands Antonov had stakes in luxury sports car producer Spyker, and it was through Spyker that he attempted to purchase ailing car maker Saab in 2010. He tried to obtain emergency funding from Chinese investors, but the deal was disrupted by creditors including the European Investment Bank amid allegations of financial impropriety. Saab filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2011; Spyker’s CEO Victor Muller said that the funding for the Saab offer came solely from Antonov.

Bowler, a UK race car producer, also belongs to the Antonov-controlled CPP Global Holdings (registered in Coventry with Conversgroup as its majority shareholder). After the Saab deal fell through, Antonov gained the right to build a new version of the Jensen Interceptor, a sleek Italian-designed sports car produced in the UK between 1966 and 1976.

In Italy Antonov owned Zagato, a car factory which worked with Spyker and also belonged to CPP.
In the UK Antonov’s purchase of football clubs has attracted much media attention. He was ready to pay £6.5 million for AFC Bournemouth in 2010, but club chairman Eddie Mitchell refused to sell for reasons which are still unclear. Later that year Antonov made a £75 million bid for Glasgow Rangers, but again the offer was declined amid allegations of his links to organized crime. In June 2011 Antonov successfully purchased Porstmouth FC, which had debts of over £100 million. But it was an ill-fated purchase, with administrators being called in when parent company Convers Sports Initiative went into administration in November. In Lithuania he owns Lietuvos Rytas, a basketball team, and in Russia he controlled Spartak. In the UK he also controlled North One Sports, a company which provided TV channels globally with the exclusive rights to show car and boat races until its contract was axed after CSI went into administration.

Yet Antonov’s power also extended to the media, with ownership of the Lithuanian newspaper and media company Lietuvos rytas (which includes a TV channel, the daily, magazines and a publishing firm), and in neighboring Latvia the newspaper Telegraf and radio station Radio 101, which both allegedly took loans from Krajbanka. Odnako, a Russia-based business magazine, is also said to have received several million dollars from Antonov.

So what drives this man? Certainly not fame, as Antonov generally avoids the limelight and only tends to speak when the subject is cars or sports. Before his fall from grace he had a substantial online presence, with regularly updated Facebook and Twitter accounts. After Spyker’s failed takeover of Saab, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in defense of Russian investors. In it he described himself as a man of charity, coming to the aid of GM and Saab. He emphasized that without his investment, thousands of workers would have lost their jobs. Antonov had a snazzy Web site where he used to post photos and updates on his business ventures, as well as respond to critics, but this has now been taken down along with his Facebook page.

In 2010, Vladimir Antonov took part in one of Sweden’s major car races, the Midnight Sun Rally, held yearly in the summer. Antonov drove their number two car and described his passion for Saab in an interview with Swedish publication Jyntt, saying how it began with the purchase of his first car, a Saab 9000, in 1994. “It was my first serious car,” he said. “I loved it very much.”

Founder and CEO of Spyker Cars, and former CEO of Saab, Dutch businessman Victor Muller also described Antonov’s enthusiasm for cars at a Saab event in 2010, likening him to a knight in shining armor who arrived to save Saab from the brink of collapse. “This man has shown such passion for this company... I am very proud to call Vladimir Antonov my friend.”

Conversbank and Snoras also previously sponsored race teams, which participated in the long Le Mans sports car race held in France. The race is commonly known as the Grand Prix of Endurance and Efficiency, because cars have to race for 24 hours without stopping.  From all this, it seems that both money and power drive him, but unlike other prominent Russian businessmen and bankers, Antonov hasn’t sought the limelight.

Exodus from Russia
Antonov says he left Russia because of various personal conflicts. The first, with Andrey Kozlov, a Russian central bank official, arose when, through Akademkhimbank, Antonov tried to purchase Inturbank, a small Russian bank. In the final stages of the acquisition, the central bank revoked Inturbank’s license, which automatically led to its liquidation. Antonov claims to have been informed by another senior official that Kozlov revoked the license with the aim of steering the bank’s assets to one of his own allies.

Following its 2004 banking reforms, the Russian government imposed a deposit insurance system (SSV), whose main role was to protect the rights of household depositors. The system is mandatory for all EU countries and similar systems also function in the USA, Japan, Brazil, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia. It was widely reported that Kozlov blocked Antonov’s Conversgroup banks from entering the SSV, allegedly because of suspicions about money laundering. Antonov argues that this was an unfounded decision and that none of his banks excluded from the SSV had been censored by the Russian central bank.

In 2008 Antonov says he was asked by two businessmen, German Gorbuntsov and Petr Chuvilin, to sell them Conversgroup for a very low price. He alleges that they were acting on behalf of Chechen politician and Duma Deputy Adam Delimkhanov, who is closely linked to pro-Moscow Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. According to Antonov, Gorbunzov and Chuvilin tried to convince the tax authorities to crack down on Conversgroup after he rejected the offer; when this failed, Chechen hit men attempted to assassinate his father. Alexander Antonov was injured, and this is when Antonov decided to leave Russia permanently and settle in the UK.

Expanding the business in the UK
The most concrete information about Antonov’s dealings in the UK has come from his former business partner, Roman Dubov. British citizen Dubov met Antonov in London in 2005 through a school friend who previously worked for Antonov. Dubov received an offer to help him build a sports empire in June 2010; investment group Convers Sports Iniative (CSI), founded in September 2010, was the only company where they were partners. It encompassed at least eight businesses and it was through CSI that Antonov controlled Portsmouth Football Club. CSI was put into administration in late 2011.

Other key companies included several sports Web sites and TV channels, one of which had the broadcast rights to the World Rally Championships, which encompasses several car rally events. Dubov told to Re:Baltica: “Mr. Antonov was a majority shareholder in CSI and got 85 percent of the shares. All the staff, press and management were aware who the real owner and investor in the business was.”
Since Dubov had experience working in sports businesses and had previously worked on several large football and golf projects, Antonov requested his help. The plan was to build one of the biggest sports groups in Europe, but the company went into administration on Nov. 25, 2011.

Until Nov. 20, everything seemed to be fine with CSI. Dubov said that it was a “solid and fast-growing business with a number of well-recognized companies.” He said that Antonov was never a director of CSI, nor was he involved in its day-to-day running. However, he was the main investor and the business was “clearly associated with him personally.” CSI was, according to Dubov, funded only by Antonov’s private investment. When Antonov was arrested and his assets were seized, the directors of CSI asked him for a guarantee that he would continue to support CSI through a series of investment programs agreed by the directors, but Antonov was unable to provide this, so administrators were appointed.

On his relationship with Antonov, Dubov said: “We have never been close friends and he never mentioned any of his problems to me. I heard about them through the media. I personally never had any problems with Mr. Antonov. He is very well educated and seemed like a straightforward and direct person. He supported CSI and, in my view, was a long term player, focused on the future of the business.”

In 2011 Antonov invited Dubov to enter into a couple of business ventures together, thanks to Dubov’s strong management record and success with CSI, but they didn’t start anything. Dubov explained that he would have felt uncomfortable doing further business after Antonov’s reputation was destroyed following Snoras’ collapse. Dubov resigned from CSI in December 2011 and no longer has any dealings with it.  

The downfall
Since the nationalization of his banks in the Baltics and his arrest in Nov. 2011, Antonov has been forced to start selling off his assets to pay off debts. This includes the majority stakes in his Panamian bank, Banco Transatlantico, as well as Conversbank, both of which he sold in November. In the same month, CSI was put into administration, and he also sold his Ukraine-based Conversbank. It further transpired that Antonov had used money from his own companies to fund failing Latvian airline airBaltic, his father admitting publicly that he had done so and that this was illegal.

In his first hearing in December, Antonov said that he is afraid of being extradited to Lithuania. But why is he afraid of being extradited to this small Baltic nation, an EU member state? The case continues and it remains to be seen what the British authorities will decide in June.

What’s happening now?
The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the body handling Antonov’s arrest, refuses to comment. A spokesman said to Re:Baltica: “There is an ongoing extradition request which is going through the UK court system. The defense for Mr. Antonov is opposing the extradition request and it will take time for the court to hear all the evidence and reach a decision.” The CPS will not take responsibility for Antonov being released on bail, stating that it “pointed out the relevant risks in relation to bail but made no comment as to whether these could be addressed by the imposition of bail conditions or a remand in custody.”

Eminent political science Professor Mark Galeotti of NYU in New York, specializing in transnational organized crime, said to Re:Baltica  that he doesn’t believe there is a British interest in protecting Antonov: “I would be surprised if there was a sense that Lithuania could not, or would not, provide adequate security for Antonov’s life. I’d be surprised if it was felt it was sufficiently corrupt or dysfunctional that Antonov could not get a fair trial.”

He suspects that the UK’s only real issue is of not wanting to create an open season for Russian emigres; this is certainly one reason why they are so reluctant to consider Russian extradition requests, because it is very difficult to unpick what is, and is not, a credible case given the levels of corruption which often makes authenticating documents problematic. However, given that the locus for this case is Lithuania, and assuming that the prosecuting authorities have done their work properly, one would hope that such concerns would not arise.
There has been speculation that the UK’s hope is that, whilst on unrestricted bail, Antonov will simply leave the country and thus save the UK the embarrassment of an extradition and Lithuania, perhaps, any scandals that might emerge in a trial. However, it’s unclear that the UK would be especially troubled by Antonov’s extradition and in the current political climate it might play well, politically, to be tough on shady Russians.

Portsmouth FC has now failed to pay its players’ wages after its accounts were frozen following two missed tax payments of £800,000 to HMRC.
A statement released by the club said: “The club is now seeking a validation order from the court in order to have its bank accounts unfrozen so that staff wages and suppliers can be paid… once obtained, this will allow our bank accounts to be reactivated.”

Two days before the postponed hearing, on March 22, millionaire Russian banker German Gorbuntsov was shot and critically injured outside his east London flat near Canary Wharf. Recently, Gorbuntsov had spoken to the Russian police about the attempted assassination of Alexander Antonov in 2009 and, as a result, the case was reopened. Three Chechens had been convicted of the attempted assassination of Antonov senior, but it was unclear who they were working for.

Initially the shooting wasn’t publicized by the Metropolitan police beyond a press release saying that a shooting had occurred in east London. Only after reports of the attack were published in the Russian press did Scotland Yard confirm the victim’s identity. As of yet, Gorbunstov has not been well enough to tell Scotland Yard what happened on the evening of March 20 and remains under armed guard in a London hospital.

Meanwhile Antonov and Baranauskas await their fate, which is in the hands of a UK judge.

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