Days before the European Union imposed sanctions on Belarusian oligarch Aliaksei Aleksin over his links to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, his family sold its Cyprus-based company along with a bank to a Lebanese businessman, this way saving both entities from the sanctions-related asset freeze.
Aleksin was among dozens of Belarusian tycoons and officials hit by sanctions in response to the grounding of a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania. Once the plane was diverted to Minsk, Belarusian authorities arrested a dissident journalist and his girlfriend who were on board.
The Aleksin family sold MTB Investments Holdings, the Cyprus-based company that according to a press release held “more than 99%” of MTBank on June 16. The EU announced its sanctions five days later.
According to its annual report for 2019, the Cyprus company held assets worth 61.81 million euro (US$73.35 million). After the change in ownership, it will most likely avoid the asset freeze.
In a short telephone interview Aleksin told OCCRP that the sale was not related to the sanctions and it was “planned a long time ago.”
The new owner of MTB Investments Holdings is Stoneva Limited, a company based in Dubai, a jurisdiction which has attracted significant Belarusian capital. According to MTBank’s official statement, Stoneva Limited belongs to Abdo Romeo Abdo, a Lebanese businessman who is the owner and director of BNK-Engineering and BNK-Holding, businesses with a major presence in Belarus.
In 2007, Romeo Abdo joined forces with Nepalese investors and has done several construction projects in Belarus, including a shopping center and business centers – Rubin Plaza and Silver Tower.
Their BNK-Holding also built a water park, the Hyatt Regency Hotel and several large residential areas in Minsk. The total value of the group’s projects in real estate in Belarus is estimated at $1 billion.
Some Belarusian media suggested that Romeo Abdo might be affiliated with two more sanctioned individuals – Aliaksandr Shakutsin and Mikalai Varabei. He was also mentioned in a major money laundering scandal in Nepal.
In its statement released two days after the EU blacklisted Aleksin, MTBank stated that the sale was the “result of more than a year of work in search of a potential investor.”
Amra Džonlić and Maria Matušević contributed research to this story