The Carousel: How a Moscow Bank Made Big Loans to its Serbian Owners

Bank documents and a secretly made tape show how Serbian shareholders of a Moscow-based bank funnelled Serbian central bank deposits to their own companies.

Three Serbian businessmen – shareholders and board members of a Moscow-based bank founded in the 1990s to help Belgrade bust international sanctions during Yugoslavia’s bloody collapse – channelled at least 26 million euros of deposits into their own businesses between 2012 and 2015, BIRN can reveal.

According to BIRN’s findings, Vojin Lazarevic, Toplica Spasojevic and Obrad Sikimic used a system of double booking to avoid Russian Central Bank scrutiny of the fact that the bulk of the bank’s loans – paid for out of deposits of the Serbian National Bank, NBS – were going to their own companies.

Euroaxis had its licence in Russia revoked in 2016, stranding 3.6 million euros of Serbian National Bank deposits in the bank. Russian authorities put its assets up for sale and in 2019 a court ordered the seizure of property belonging to Lazarevic, Spasojevic and Sikimic, as well as seven other people involved in the bank, including Jelica Kurjak, a former Serbian ambassador to Russia, and Ivan Maricic, the bank’s last president.

According to the latest figures, Euroaxis still owes clients close to 12 million euros, though it is unclear how much of that, if any, will fall on the 10 individuals, whose property – at least that which is available to Russian authorities – has yet to be formally seized.

“You’re not supposed to start a bank to gather resources from the financial market and finance your own businesses,” Maricic told BIRN in an exclusive interview. What the owners of Euroaxis did “is not normal from a professional aspect, nor is it allowed by law,” he said, insisting that he had objected to the practice but was pressured into “breaking the law.”

Veteran economic journalist Milan Culibrk, the editor of the Serbian NIN weekly, said: “It obviously wasn’t a real bank, and it wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be a self-service supermarket: you go in and take as much as you need.”

‘Completely abnormal’ lending practices
Euroaxis was originally called Wexim Bank, created during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s in order to help Slobodan Milosevic’s then rump Yugoslavia circumvent international sanctions.

Culibrk likened it to a “public-private partnership”, founded by several state-owned banks in collaboration with well-known Serbian businessmen.

The purpose was to secure the flow of money and pay bills for Russian oil and gas, but some of those involved subsequently “thought the bank could become a good business,” he told BIRN.

With Milosevic’s overthrow in October 2000 and the lifting of sanctions, Wexim became Euroaxis. Its purpose changed too – to store NBS deposits as financing for the business deals of its owners, who later came under legal scrutiny in Serbia.

Maricic became president in January 2015, summoned to save the bank despite having just steered Belgrade-based Srpska Banka into bankruptcy.

He said he quickly realised the gravity of the situation facing Euroaxis.

“Loans were given to companies that were under the control of the bank’s management, which is a completely abnormal thing,” said Maricic, who was arrested in December 2017 and later charged with abuse of office over loans made by Srpska Banka to prominent Serbian businessman Miroslav Bogicevic.

According to Russia’s Deposit Insurance Agency, DIA, which now controls the bank, Euroaxis issued more than 40 loans to 15 different companies totalling more than 32 million euros.

At first glance, the companies appear to have no connection. But a separate lending list kept by the bank, and seen by BIRN, shows that a majority were tied to Lazarevic, Sikimic and Spasojevic.

Companies linked to Lazarevic profited the most, with nine companies that received 24 loans worth a total of around 20 million euros. Those linked to Sikimic received three loans worth 2.8 million euros while 3.7 million was disbursed in three loans to companies tied to Spasojevic.

The trio incriminated themselves on a secretly-made audio tape of one of the last meetings of the board of directors, convened in 2015 in a last-ditch bid to save the bank from imminent meltdown. A source provided BIRN with a copy of the recording.

At one point, Lazarevic is heard explaining why their companies are not returning the loans.

“You know that Obrad works on the realisation of his things, me on my own, Toplica on his own,” he is heard saying. “Unfortunately, things are not unfolding according to the dynamic we hoped for.”

Regardless of the efforts of Euroaxis management, the Russian Central Bank revoked the bank’s licence in May 2016.

Rudnap, ITM Group, and Diners Club International, the companies owned by Lazervic, Sikimic, and Spasojevic, would all go bust over the next few years. Neither Lazarevic, Sikimic nor Spasojevic responded to repeated requests for comment on this story.

Euroaxis already flagged for wrongdoing

The 2016 decision of the Russian Central Bank effectively trapped the bank’s capital and the deposits of all its clients. Significant part of those deposits was held by the NBS.

In December 2000, the NBS had some $10.7 million parked in Euroaxis. By June 2003, that figure had grown to almost $59 million, during a period when the governor of the NBS was Mladjan Dinkic, one of the pro-Western ‘reformers’ who took power after Milosevic’s fall. BIRN was not able to reach Dinkic.

In 2004, the Serbian government’s Anti-Corruption Council criticised the practice.

“This is probably the only case in history in which a central bank of one state invests foreign-currency funds, legally collected from domestic commercial banks, with a foreign private bank in order to improve its liquidity,” it said.

According to the Council, Euroaxis played a key role in the business operation of Serbia’s National Savings Bank, which itself would become embroiled in scandal.

“No one had ever heard about Euroaxis until the National Savings Bank scandal broke,” said Culibrk. “It was only then that it became known that they [businessmen] used Euroaxis money to lend money to themselves to buy stocks in the National Savings Bank.”

The Savings Bank was founded by a number of private companies in Serbia and granted privileged status, including offices owned by the state.

In a series of financial transactions via Euroaxis, the ownership of the Savings Bank was partly passed to companies owned by Lazarevic, Sikimic and another prominent businessman and Euroaxis owner, Vuk Hamovic.

Kori Udovicki, who succeeded Dinkic as NBS governor, told a parliamentary investigation into the affair that Euroaxis acted as a “carousel”. The parliamentary probe was headed by Aleksandar Vucic, the current president of Serbia. Vucic did not respond to questions from BIRN regarding the findings of the investigation or what steps he has taken in relation to the scandal.

“State acts like a drunken millionaire, without a care for its own money,” said Culibrk. A decade later, Lazarevic, Sikimic and Spasojevic were still siphoning off the Serbian central bank.

Serbian central bank still out of pocket

The Euroaxis bankruptcy proceedings are administered by Russia’s DIA and the Moscow Court of Arbitration.

The bank was ordered to return around 17 million euros to clients. According to a DIA report issued in May, some 13 million euros are still outstanding, plus 3.6 million euros of NBS deposits.

The NBS confirmed this in a written response to BIRN, saying that between July 2012 and end-May 2016 the Serbian central bank “managed to withdraw another $3.26 million despite the apparently insolvent operations of that bank.”

The NBS declined to deliver documentation that would show what steps the bank took to return the 3.6 million euros still stuck in Euroaxis, citing confidentiality.

Around six million euros was raised from the sale of Euroaxis property.

Most of the money was raised from the sale of the Euroaxis HQ in downtown Moscow, snapped up for some 5.7 million euros by Gorizont Apartments. The owner of the company is Andrei Matalyga, who is also a director of Yantar 96, a firm owned by Sergey Mefyedov, himself a business partner of Artem Dyumin whose brother, Alexei Dyumin is a former bodyguard and long-time confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mefyedov and Dyumin own a company called Liteks – S, where Mefyedov is also a director.

‘I never got a dinar’

Before the Moscow Court of Arbitration there is a case open against Sikimic, Lazarevic, Spasojevic, former ambassador Kurjak, former bank president Maricic as well as Mario Frleta, Nikolai Fomin Ivanovich, Drago Skulic, Natalia Popkova and Blagica Stanojevic, who are all listed as having been involved in the management of the bank.

Under a 2019 decision by the court, the individuals are obliged to pay whatever is left after the bank’s property is sold, though how much they are liable for remains unclear.

Maricic said he “heard unofficially” about the case in Moscow and that, rather than any criminal acts, it concerns the conduct of the bankruptcy. He said both the bankruptcy trustee and DIA have his contacts but that the Court of Arbitration “did not invite me to any trial or hearings, absolutely nothing.”

“As far as I know, under Russian laws, it is the bank’s shareholders who are obliged to compensate for damage that occurs during the liquidation of the bank,” Maricic told BIRN.

“Since I am not a shareholder of the bank, but a director, I do not know how it will be managed further. I didn’t get any invitation from the court… and formally I don’t know that it [the case] exists.”

Kurjak, who was Serbia’s ambassador to Russia between 2008 and 2012, also said she had not been contacted by the court.

“I was never informed,” Kurjak told BIRN. “I was a board member for about three months and I don’t have anything to do with that bank in terms of business or money.”

Kurjak said Maricic had enlisted her help as a translator. “I never got a dinar from it nor did I attend any board meetings,” she said.

Stanojevic declined to comment, while Frleta did not respond to calls. BIRN was not able to find Skulic’s and the Russian members of the board contacts.

The DIA told BIRN the issue of notification of the accused had been looked at. “The legality and validity of the court’s decision, including the issue of proper notification of the parties, was examined by the Ninth Arbitration Appeal Court and the Arbitration Court of the Moscow District,” it said. “Neither court found grounds for the cancellation or amendment of the judicial act.”

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