Sanction grove. Shareholder of “Novaya Gazeta” and The Independent owns hotels in Crimea, bypassing the sanctions
Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev, a shareholder of “Novaya Gazeta” and The Independent, owns a tourism business in the annexed Crimea through European companies, although EU sanctions prohibit it.
Russian businessman Alexander Lebedev, who owns the British newspapers The Independent and Evening Standard, once the largest private shareholder of “Novaya Gazeta” and a member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy of Russia, began investing in tourist facilities in Crimea long before its annexation – in 1997. In 2004, the former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma awarded the businessman the Order of Merit in Crimea. In 2012, Lebedev received the title of “Honorary Citizen of Alushta”.
Lebedev does not hide the fact that he is investing in the tourism business on the annexed peninsula. He talks about the opening of new facilities, the restoration of old ones and plans to further develop the region. The entrepreneur also often writes articles and makes video lectures on fraud in the banking sector, global corruption, and criticizes offshore companies as a mechanism for laundering “dirty” money.
“A whole empire of offshore jurisdictions has been created to pump [money], where parasites are provided with the best lawyers, nominee directors, tens of thousands of companies engaged exclusively in laundering and storing dirty money. As a result, entire continents – for example, Africa – are completely dehamitized. And those who parasitized at someone else’s expense in these man-made paradises, having laid larvae, go to their Promised Land, receiving reliable protection in court from any criminal prosecution in their homeland”, – he wrote in his book “Hunting for a Banker”. In it, he also told that he invests in hotels in Crimea.
“The sanctions do not bother me. I publicly admit that [I am doing business]. I have a thousand people working in Crimea. It would be strange if I fired everyone and listened to the sanctions stories. I hope that after some relatively short time this will all resolve”, – said Lebedev in late May 2017.
In subsequent years, in a few interviews, Lebedev casually mentioned that he still had business in the Crimea, but did not give any details. Alexander Lebedev controls a part of his business on the annexed peninsula through Cypriot offshores, despite the European sanctions. As Current Time and “Municipal Scanner” have found out, Lebedev, through three Cypriot companies, owns the “Almond Grove” hotel complex, the “Morskoy” hotel and the “Eustas-Crimea” hotel complex in Alushta.
Who is Lebedev?
Alexander Lebedev is one of the few large businessmen today who is not associated with the Russian government and actively supports human rights defenders, independent media and conducts anti-corruption education: writes books and columns to international media about how trillions of dollars are laundered through the banking sector. For a long time, he called himself a “dissident”, but now he doesn’t want to be associated with this term anymore.
In the 1980s, Lebedev worked in Soviet foreign intelligence in London in the department for the prevention of capital flight abroad. In the early 2000s, he was a deputy of the State Duma of the fourth convocation. He combined his political career with a successful banking business, which, according to him, the special services tried to “grab” in the 2010s.
Today, Lebedev owns assets in the annexed Crimea and England. Until the beginning of December 2019, he retained control of the private “National Reserve Bank” in Russia. In addition, Lebedev owns several restaurants in Russia, a network of healthy food cafes and a thriving potato business, the “National Land Company”, which is one of the three largest suppliers in Russia.
The businessman partially (together with the “Memorial” human rights center) funded the construction of the Museum and Memorial Complex to the victims of the Gulag under the project of Ernst Neizvestyi. For his charitable activities he was awarded the UNESCO Medal “Dialogue of Cultures”. In the spring of 2019, it became known that Lebedev was working on a project of the series called “Bankster”, which would show how money syphoning schemes work in different countries.
On the first coastal line of Alushta in the hills, one of the largest hotel complexes of the city, “Almond Grove”, is located. The complex includes the “Aquapark” hotel, the “Morskoy” hotel and the “Jasmine” villa, as well as its own water park, several restaurants, baths and the largest children’s entertainment center in Alushta, “Raduga”. Soon after the annexation of Crimea, the website of “Almond Grove” announced an expansion – the construction of a new “Fujia” villa. Today it is already possible to rent apartments with sea views.
It is known that among the guests of “Almond Grove” were the participants the international forum “Microelectronics-2017”, which was organized by several research centers jointly with the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Russia and the state corporation Rostec.
The complex is owned by OOO “Almond Grove”, which was registered in Crimea in October 2014. EU sanctions prohibit European companies from opening a new tourism business and investing in it. However, the founder of “Almond Grove” was the Cypriot Herschel Consultants (Overseas) Limited. In July 2016, it was acquired by another Cypriot offshore company, Sogern Investments, from Belizean Allium Management Limited and Cypriot Rinkler Holdings Limited. It is owned solely by Alexander Lebedev, among its directors are citizens of Cyprus.
In September 2016, Almond Grove LLC bought 98.7% of OOO “Morskoy” from the Ukrainian company of the same name. The remaining 1.3% of “Morskoy” is owned by Vyacheslav Yutkin, the former first deputy chairman of the board of the Ukrainian “Prominvestbank”. In the book “Hunting for a Banker,” Lebedev calls Yutkin the manager of his projects in Ukraine. In addition, Yutkin owns the “Tavrichesky” apartment complex in Alushta.
A few years after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian authorities raised the land rental prices for companies involved in the tourism business by several times. The profits of some hotels decreased significantly when instead of several thousand rubles for the rent of each square meter, the owners had to pay up to several tens of thousands. It also affected “Almond Grove”, which since December 2015 has been renting two land plots from the actual authorities of Alushta.
In Novaya Gazeta, a 13% stake in which owned by Lebedev, there were three articles on inflated land rental prices, which “drive Crimean sanatoriums into debt bondage” – in July 2017, in February 2019 and in November 2019. In the latest article, the story was told only on the example of the financial problems of “Almond Grove”. Neither the first nor the second article spoke of Lebedev’s connections with either the complex or the newspaper. In the third article, this information appeared.
Scolopendras and “More”
The aforementioned Lebedev’s company Sogern Investments owns the Crimean OOO “Eustace-Crimea” through another Cypriot company – Gurbax Holdings Limited. It owns the tourist complex of the same name near the “Almond Grove”. Until July 2014, Gurbax Holdings, like Lebedev’s previous Cypriot asset, was owned by Belizean Allium Management Limited and Cypriot Rinkler Holdings Limited.
In December 2016, the land on which “Eustace-Crimea” is located was leased from the Russian municipality of Alushta for 40 years. The director of the company is Oksana Vladimirovna Panova, she is the current director of “Almond Grove” and OOO “Morskoy”.
In September 2018, “Eustace-Crimea” hosted the actors of the Orenburg State Drama Theater under the government contract worth 300 thousand rubles.
Compared to other Lebedev’s hotels in the annexed Crimea, “Eustace” is showing modest success. According to the reviews on TripAdvisor and in the VK group of the hotel complex, some visitors were satisfied with their vacation, others said that the rooms were damp, the bedsheets were “ruined by washing”, and in some rooms there were scolopendras.
In 2017, the Russian Distribution Directorate of Property in Crimea sued “Eustace-Crimea” over its debts for renting a beach. The amount of the claim is 220 thousand rubles.
Until August 2017, the management company of “Eustace-Crimea” was AO “Pansionat «More»”, which owns the eponymous spa hotel on one of the slopes of Alushta. Through it, “Eustace-Crimea” signed into several dozens of government contracts “for the provision of sanatorium and health services” to various subsidiaries of “Transneft” and “Krymtelecom” worth a total of 50.6 million rubles (about $ 770 thousand).
On the premises, there are seven bars and restaurants, four conference rooms, five outdoor and one indoor pool, and the hotel has over 230 rooms. The guesthouse provides “health spa services”: from visiting baths and steam rooms to drawing up a personal treatment plan. Lebedev with his wife and children sometimes stop at “More” themselves.
The “More” boarding house itself was registered in Russian jurisdiction in mid-August 2014 – then it was still being constructed. Due to the structure of company management, there is no information on the founders in the Russian business register, but Alexander Lebedev has repeatedly said that the hotel complex belongs to him.
Until August 2019, a certain Aleksei Vladimirovich Kuznetsov was listed as the general director at the Unified State Register of Legal Entities. The hotel is now run by Russian citizen Maxim Chastkovsky, who previously managed one of the premium fitness clubs in Novosibirsk.
The general directors of the boarding house “More” at different times were Alexander Gomenyuk, a former deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of Crimea, and Alexander Anatolyevich Glukhov. The latter worked with Rosatom and “Power Machines”, which appeared in the case of the supply of Siemens turbines to Crimea in violation of the sanctions in 2017.
In response to an inquiry by Current Time regarding a possible violation of sanctions by Alexander Lebedev’s companies, the Cyprus Ministry of Finance Committee responsible for enforcing the sanctions regime advised to contact the companies directly. Officials also emphasized that they fully comply with EU sanctions legislation.
Current Time has been seeking an interview with Lebedev for several months, but each time Artem Artemov, the director of external communications of his former head enterprise, “National Reserve Bank”, said that “Alexander Evgenievich has not yet decided [whether to give an interview]” On the eve of the publication of the investigation, the journalists were denied any comment.