Two Brussels-based non-profit organisations figure prominently in the network of Russian super-oligarch Oleg Deripaska. One of these non-profit organisations was at the centre of a money laundering investigation that was surprisingly dropped. European Commissioner Didier Reynders (MR) belongs to the "circle of friends" of this non-profit organisation.
In the investigative dossier 'The Russian connection', Apache will show in the coming days how the Belgian political world rolled out the red carpet for Vladimir Putin and his oligarchs for years.
The non-profit association was at the centre of an investigation into the money laundering of Oleg Deripaska's millionaire investments in real estate and art. The swift dismissal of the investigation by the Brussels prosecutor's office was necessary for the oligarch to buy a "golden" Cypriot passport that would guarantee him access to the European Union.
The other non-profit organisation was funded by the corrupt clan surrounding the pro-Russian Ukrainian ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Through the non-profit organisation, millions were funnelled from Brussels unmolested for years. Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, also used the non-profit organisation to lobby for Yanukovych.
2 August 2016. Paul Manafort, then Donald Trump's campaign manager, has agreed to meet in New York at the Grand Havana Club for dinner with his close associate Konstantin Kilimnik. Kilimnik is a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant who, according to the FBI, works for Russian intelligence services.
On the table is a plan that resonates with us today: the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas is to become an autonomous republic under the leadership of the Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych. The Russians, through Kilimnik and Manafort, are hoping for Donald Trump's presidential support for their plan.
Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik worked for years in the service of Oleg Deripaska and former Ukrainian pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
The meeting is described in detail in the report that special prosecutor Robert Mueller completed three years ago on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Mueller's report also mentions how Manafort passed secret internal polling results from the Trump camp to Kilimnik. The latter, in turn, provided the results to a former business contact of Manafort's: Oleg Deripaska.
Deripaska is a stone-rich Russian oligarch and very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In recent decades he has acquired a gigantic fortune, especially in aluminium. Together with Roman Abramovich, until recently the strongman of the football club Chelsea FC, Deripaska was at the base of RUSAL, Russia's largest aluminium producer.
Manafort and Kilimnik worked for years for Deripaska, but also for Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions. According to Mueller, Manafort earned "tens of millions of dollars". According to Mueller's report, the Russian oligarch hired them primarily for "political risk analysis" and "to install the right pawns in countries where Deripaska had business interests".
Manafort did not only work for Deripaska and Yanukovich. Through Deripaska, Trump's former campaign manager was also introduced to another oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. He is known as Yanukovich's main financier.
Like Deripaska, Akhmetov hired Manafort as a political advisor in the service of the so-called "Donetsk clan". This corrupt pro-Russian elite with a power base in Donbas held power in Ukraine until the Maidan revolution in 2014.
In Belgium, Akhmetov briefly entered the scene when he was supposed to save the SK Lierse football club in 2006 through a partnership with Shakhtar Donetsk, the Ukrainian football club of which he is president. In the end, the deal did not go through. The Belgian media described the oligarch as a mafioso shortly before the planned press conference.
In particular, the name of Oleg Deripaska is ringing in Belgium. On 14 June 2016, the Brussels Public Prosecutor's Office dismissed a money laundering investigation into Deripaska's purchase of artworks and real estate in Belgium for tens of millions of euros. This investigation was initiated by the Financial Information Processing Unit (TIF). This "anti-money laundering cell" identifies suspicious money flows.
On 14 June 2016, the Brussels Prosecutor's Office closed a money laundering investigation into Deripaska's purchase of artworks and real estate in Belgium for tens of millions of euros.
At the centre of the alleged money laundering operation is the non-profit organisation Bruno Lussato et Marina Fedier, based at Villa Clairval on Denneboslaan in Uccle. The large Art Deco house has been converted into a museum where mainly Japanese Mingei art is exhibited. There is also space for lectures and symposia.
The non-profit organisation has a "circle of friends" who support the initiative and, in return, enjoy a number of privileges when new exhibitions or lectures are held. The most prominent member of the circle of friends is undoubtedly the current European Commissioner Didier Reynders (MR).
The former state security inspector, Nicolas Ullens, has already pointed out that Reynders and his right-hand man, Jean-Claude Fontinoy - against whom several judicial investigations are underway - listen closely to the Russian secret services.
Didier Reynders (MR) is the most prominent member of the association of which the super oligarch Oleg Deripaska was director.
Didier Reynders (MR) is the most prominent member of the association of which the super-oligarch Oleg Deripaska was director (Screenshot from the website of the non-profit association Bruno Lussato et Marina Fedier).
Deripaska himself resigned as president of the non-profit organisation on 15 June 2018. Co-founder Tatyana Monaghan, secretary general of the Russian Chamber of Commerce in Belgium, remains a director, along with Frenchman Abraham Daniel Danino.
A few months after Deripaska's departure as president, Danino founded the Multipolar World Institute at the same address. This non-profit organisation's social objective is to 'promote world peace, namely by facilitating rapprochement between the old Cold War enemies, post-Soviet Russia and the Western world'.
However, Multipolar World Institute co-founder Marc D'Anna - better known by his pseudonym Alexandre Del Valle - is not immediately known as an advocate of that higher goal. Del Valle is an extreme right-wing publicist with close links to the identitarian movement and the Nouvelle Droite. Also in Flanders they provide the intellectual basis for cooperation between the extreme right and Vladimir Putin's Russian regime.
Didier Reynders thus appears as a member of the "circle of friends" of a non-profit organisation that places the anti-money laundering unit at the centre of a possible operation to launder tens of millions of euros by a Russian oligarch who is very close to Putin. It does not immediately help to contradict the picture painted earlier by Nicolas Ullens. The fact that one of Reynders' former cabinet advisors has been appointed director of the non-profit organisation does not help either.
The swift dismissal of the money laundering investigation opened the door to a 'golden' Cypriot passport for Deripaska.
Barely a year after the business newspaper De Tijd first reported on it, the Brussels public prosecutor's office closed the investigation into the laundering of tens of millions of euros. According to the CTIF-CFI, this money came, at least in part, from illegal activities related to organised crime.
This swift dismissal had a notable advantage for Deripaska. It opened the door to a "golden" Cypriot passport. This coveted document allowed him to travel freely within the European Union.
In early March 2018, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and The Guardian uncovered evidence that Deripaska's initial application for this passport was rejected because ... Belgium was investigated for laundering "tens of millions through the purchase of homes and art".
Only when Deripaska presented the Cypriot authorities with evidence that the investigation in Belgium had been shelved in the meantime, Cyprus accepted the (renewed) application at the end of March 2017.
The millions invested by Deripaska in Belgium in art and real estate passed through bank accounts in Cyprus, among other places.
The problem of Cypriot (and, to a lesser extent, Maltese and Bulgarian) passports has been known for some time. The Cypriot government sells citizenship to immensely wealthy businessmen in exchange for a lot of money and large investments in Cyprus. This brings billions into the Cypriot treasury. In addition, and not least, it also guarantees the oligarchs, mainly Russians, who use the system free passage within the European Union.
In late 2019, Russian media reported that Cyprus would have revoked the citizenship of Deripaska and some of his family members again, following Deripaska's inclusion on the US sanctions list for oligarchs in 2018. It is unclear whether this is true.
Trivial detail: the millions that Deripaska invested in art and real estate in Belgium went through bank accounts in Cyprus (and Liechtenstein). This is what emerges from the file dismissed by the Brussels prosecutor.
Let us return for a moment to the meeting in New York between Paul Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik in August 2016. That meeting took place at Kilimnik's request, according to Mueller's report. Klimnik wanted to "personally discuss a peace plan for Ukraine" with Manafort. That "peace plan" was to put Yanukovych on the throne of the independent state of Donbas.
The plan did not come from Kilimnik himself, of course. He acted as an errand boy for Deripaska and Yanukovych. This is clear from the coded language of the email correspondence that preceded the meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik. That correspondence is also in the Mueller report:
In an email titled "Black Caviar," Kilimnik wrote: "I met today with the man who gave you the biggest box of black caviar in history a few years ago. For five hours we talked about his story and I have several important messages from him to you. He has asked me to talk to you and report back on our conversation (...) It has to do with the future of your country and it is very interesting."
The "man who gave you the biggest box of caviar in history" is a reference to Yanukovich. In 2010, after his election victory, he gave his then advisor Manafort a gigantic box of black caviar. Its value was estimated at between 27,000 and 35,000 euros. A huge amount for a gift, but a pittance compared to the many tens of millions of euros that were channelled between the Russian-Ukrainian oligarchs and Manafort.
A series of indictments Mueller brought against Manafort on 23 February 2018 makes clear that Manafort spent and embezzled tens of millions of euros, from Yanukovych's entourage, for the US Treasury. He did this through a tangle of Cypriot companies and accounts and through shadow loans.
This financial network was used by Manafort not only to finance the luxurious lifestyle of his entourage. It was also used to lobby in the US and Europe for Yanukovych and his party, supported by corrupt oligarchs.
An important role in this, as Mueller's indictments show, was played by a Brussels-based non-profit organisation that was able to operate unmolested from our country for years.
Paul Manafort used a Brussels-based non-profit organisation as a vehicle to mount lobbying campaigns in the West in favour of Yanukovych.
Already on 14 March 2014, Apache published an article on that shady non-profit organisation: the Brussels non-profit's hub between Yanukovych and the United States. It revealed how high-level politicians from Yanukovych's immediate circle created the non-profit organisation European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU). From this non-profit organisation, unexplained financial transactions were conducted between the Yanukovych regime and Washington's top lobbyists.
Four years after the publication of that article, Mueller's indictments made clear exactly what happened: Manafort used the Brussels-based non-profit organisation as a vehicle to mount pro-Yanukovych lobbying campaigns with Western powers. The campaigns were commissioned by the ECFMU, but paid for through Manafort's Cypriot accounts, which were supplied by the Ukrainian kleptocratic clique around Yanukovych.
By having a seemingly innocent non-profit organisation commission lobbying campaigns, but paying for them through the Cypriot accounts, the clan circumvented the US ban on lobbying by and for foreign powers and political parties. Although the individuals involved in the non-profit organisation continue to deny the allegations, Mueller has presented compelling evidence to the contrary. On 1 January 2016, the non-profit organisation was dissolved.
Oleg Deripaska himself was also involved in the financial carousel between Manafort on the one hand and Yanukovich on the other, who acted as a stooge for Putin and the pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. This is clear from documents showing that Manafort, through one of his foreign companies, received a 10 million euro loan from Deripaska when he started working as an advisor to Yanukovych and his party.
Although the burden of proof has only increased in recent years, there remains, certainly on the European continent, a lot of goodwill towards (Rubles') Deripaska. Russia's invasion of Ukraine changes this.
Sanctions announced by Western powers in recent weeks are damaging Deripaska's financial empire at great speed.
In London earlier this week, opponents occupied one of Deripaska's homes. His giant yachts - the Queen E and the Sputnik - and his private jets are no longer welcome everywhere. Sanctions imposed by Western powers in recent weeks are rapidly damaging his financial empire.
The contrast with the Western benevolence of recent decades is stark. This was clearly also the case in Belgium: the Brussels prosecutor's office closed a money laundering investigation at a time when Deripaska needed a Cypriot passport, the Belgian Eurocommissioner belongs to the "circle of friends" of the non-profit organisation that was at the centre of the investigation, and a shadow non-profit organisation, funded by the corrupt clan surrounding Yanukovych, was able to carry out toxic lobbying activities unmolested for years.
We have asked European Commissioner Didier Reynders to react, but he has not responded so far.
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