Anonymous UK company owned Viktor Yanukovych’s presidential palace compound

The private residence of the newly-toppled president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, has come to be seen as a monument to decadence.[2]  When Yanukovych fled, the security personnel around the palace also left, and hundreds of ordinary Ukrainians were, for the first time, able to see the extravagance of the place for themselves.  It seems that the shredding of secret documents was taking too long for the fleeing president and his staff, so they chose to dump them in a lake, where they were found by a group of investigative journalists.  The documents are now being dried out and published online at www.yanukovychleaks.org.

What’s not so well known is the links between this palace and the UK.  Work by the Ukrainian investigative journalist, Sergii Leshchenko and the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Centre has revealed that the palace compound was, until September last year, one-third owned by an anonymous UK shell company and two-thirds owned by an Austrian bank.  In other words, the ownership structure of the palace hid the identity of the true owner.

Global Witness worked with the Ukrainian NGO to get this story out in the UK press; it was published today by the Daily Mail.

Yesterday, Yanukovych gave a press conference from Russia in which he said that he owns 2.7 hectares of land at Mezhyhirya, including the palace itself, and that he’d bought this for $3.2 million.  He said however, that the rest of the land was rented out and didn’t belong to him or to his son.[3]

Over the last twenty years, Global Witness’ investigations have shown time and time again how corrupt politicians, arms traders and tax evaders can hide their identity and their assets behind anonymous shell companies.  It is quick, easy and cheap to create complicated company structures that span multiple countries that make it extremely difficult for anyone to find out who owns a house, or the money in a bank account, or any other valuable asset.

This is why Global Witness is campaigning for an end to anonymous companies.  We want countries around the world to create publicly accessible registers of the real living people who ultimately own and control companies and trusts.

The UK has committed to putting the information about the ultimate, ‘beneficial’ owners of British companies in the public domain after a campaign by Global Witness and other groups, including business associations.

The fact that Yanukovich’s palace compound was in part owned by an anonymous British company is a near perfect, topical example of why this is so important.  Had this already been in place, the people behind the UK company would have had to reveal who was the true owners.  Similarly, the EU is in the process of trying to clamp down on anonymous companies.  It should require all European governments to put the ultimate owners of companies and trusts in the public domain.

Yesterday, the Austrian and Liechtenstein authorities announced that they will block any assets that may have been hidden by Yanukovych.[4]  The UK should do the same, if there are grounds to do so.

Photo: Ordinary Ukrainians queue to see their ex-President’s private residence, 23 February 2014.  Photo credit: Aleksandr Andreiko, licensed under the Creative Commons attribution-share-alike license[1]

Here’s the full evidence chain for those of you who want the details

Yanukovich’s official private residence is known as Mezhyhirya.  Before September 2013, this is how the palace was owned:

  • The palace used to be state owned and used by the president – a so-called ‘dacha’;
  • Ukrainian sources tell us that while Yanukovych was Prime Minister (but a few months before he became president) the palace was acquired without any competitive tendering process by a Ukrainian company called MedInvestTraid which immediately resold it.
  • The palace was bought by a Ukrainian company called Tantalit.
  • After acquiring the residence Tantalit was granted permission to rent 129 hectares of land from the local government council[5] for a nominal rent (4 UAH (22 pence) per 0.1 hectare[6].  Ukrainian sources tell us that the market price of that land, to buy, would be between $3,000 and $10,000 per 0.1 hectare).  Tantalit has a 49 year lease, with rights to buy after the lease finishes.[7]
  • Between 2007 – 2011 there was a lot of construction at Mezhyhirya.  The old houses of the former state-owned residence were demolished and new buildings were constructed.
  • Tantalit is in turn 99.97% owned by an Austrian company called Euro East Beteiligungs GmbH[8]
  • Euro East Beteiligungs is 35% owned by a British company called Blythe (Europe) Ltd and 65% owned by an Austrian bank called Euro Invest Bank AG. [9]
  • Blythe (Europe) Ltd is a dormant company.  According to its latest accounts sent to Companies House (from June 2012), its balance consisted of the issuance of £1000 of shares and nothing else.[10]  In Global Witness’ view, this makes it a shell company.
  • The director of Blythe (Europe) Ltd is an Austrian called Dr. Reinhard Proksch. His address is Stocklerweg 1, Vaduz, Liechtenstein.[11]
  • Blythe (Europe) is 100% owned by a Liechtenstein trust P&A Corporate Services Trust.  The address of the trust is Stocklerweg 1, Vaduz, Liechtenstein (the same address as the director of Blythe). [12]
  • There is, of course, no information available on who’s behind the Liechtenstein trust.

Ukrainian sources tell us that in Sept 2013 Euro East Beteiligungs sold Tantalit to a Ukrainian MP from the same party as Yanukovych called Sergey Klyuyev for 147 million UAH (£8.7m).  This raises questions about where this money is now.

[3] Video of press conference with Yanukovych [in Russian] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26380336

[5] Ukraine state agency for land resources, resolution re Tantalic LLC, 26 December 2007

[7] Ukraine state agency for land resources, resolution re Tantalic LLC, 26 December 2007

[8] Annual accounts of Euro East Beteiligungs, from Austrian corporate registry

[9] Annual accounts of Euro East Beteiligungs, from Austrian corporate registry.  Blythe (Europe) Ltd was misspelled as Blythe (Europa) Ltd, but the company numbers of these entities are the same.

[10] Annual account of Blythe (Europe) Ltd, from UK corporate registry

[11] Annual account of Blythe (Europe) Ltd, from UK corporate registry

[12] Annual return of Blythe (Europe) Ltd, from UK corporate registry