Secrecy for sale: Post-Soviet billionaires invade UK, via British Virgin Islands

Questions arise as mega-rich from Russia and former Soviet republics descend on London

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Vladimir Antonov, 36, center, leaves the Westminster Magistrates' Court in London after his extradition case hearing Dec. 16, 2011. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

Britain’s friendly regime of offshore secrecy has tempted an extraordinary array of post-Soviet billionaires to descend on London, sometimes to the sound of gunfire.

These billionaires justify their use of British-controlled secrecy jurisdictions because they say they must protect themselves from corporate predators and political enemies in their home countries.

Vladimir Antonov fled permanently to Britain after his father, Alexander, was gunned down in a Moscow street in 2009. Another associate, German Gorbuntsov, narrowly survived a volley of shots in London last March.

When Antonov bought a luxury yacht in Antibes, the Sea D, he was careful to register its ownership to an anonymous British Virgin Islands (BVI) entity, Danforth Ventures Inc.

He also got his hands on enough cash to try to take over the ailing Swedish car manufacturer Saab, though he did not take control. He did succeed for a while in owning Portsmouth FC, the even more ailing British football club.

Antonov is currently on bail in Britain. Lithuanian authorities are trying to extradite him for allegedly looting their collapsed bank Snoras, which he denies.

The allegation that oligarchs exploit Britain’s offshore secrecy regime to shift assets out of their own countries is not an uncommon one. Another refugee from the law is the Kazakh billionaire Mukhtar Ablyazov, who was last seen in February allegedly heading out of London on a coach to France.

Ablyazov has been sentenced to 22 months in jail for contempt of a UK court as the BTA Bank in Kazakhstan attempts to pursue his maze of offshore assets. The bank’s lawyers claim Ablyazov, who denies it, has made off with an astonishing £4 billion using BVI and Seychelles companies, nominee directors and layers of front-men.

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