A Latvian-based consultant, who has managed offshores for the wealthy and politically influential in Russia, has emerged as an intermediary in helping arrange a Russian loan for the political party of Marine Le Pen, one of two candidates vying for France’s highest political office.
Vilis Dambiņš, a director of an intermediary company managing assets related to the family of Vladimir Putin’s special representative for relations with Russian organisations abroad Alexander Babakov, has personally met with at least two high-ranking officials of Le Pen’s Front National (FN) to discuss options for the party to get a Russian loan, a joint investigation by the Baltic center of investigative journalism Re:Baltica and French online investigative journal Mediapart.fr has found.
On March 17, 2016, in Geneva, Switzerland, Dambiņš met Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, a member of the European Parliament who – together with Babakov – was a key figure in helping FN obtain its first loan from Russia. Schaffhauser confirmed that they discussed possibilities for FN to borrow money from another Russian bank and Dambiņš proposed Strategy Bank and several others.
“Vilis proposed the next banks [after the FN loan from First Czech Russian bank, FCRB – ed.]. As we could not get new loans from the most prominent Russian banks after the first deal as it would have been perceived as too political, we were in unknown territory. I did not want to get involved in it myself,” the MEP said to Mediapart.fr. He admitted that, although Dambiņš was a businessman on his own accord, in this case the instructions were given by Babakov. “I have an obligation to work with people who represent the public power, and Babakov is a patriot”.
Jean-Luc Schaffhauser claimed he did not know what happened after his meeting with Dambiņš, as he gave the files to his lawyer to follow-up the developments regarding new banks in Russia. In reality a day later, on March 18, 2016, the FN loan from FCRB was sold to a little known company called Conti. Jean-Luc Schaffhauser claims that the party in an official letter asked Russia’s Central bank what to do, and it has advised not to repay the loan to Conti as “the decision to sell a loan was fraudulent”.
Internal documents from FN show that three months later – in June 2016 – the party decided to borrow 3 million euros (with a 6% annual interest rate) “to finance election campaigns” from the Moscow-based Strategy Bank. A month later the bank lost its licence: a scenario familiar from the first FN 9 million euro loan from FCRB in Russia. Sources have suggested that after the collapse of Strategy Bank discussions about a loan began with another Russian bank, NKB, which also eventually lost its licence in December, 2016.
FN treasurer Wallerand de Saint-Just stated to Mediapart that the loan from Strategy Bank never came through, it was just a plan which was not followed up on, and hung up the phone after questions about discussions with NKB.
Wallerand de Saint-Just was a second FN politician who met the Latvian intermediary Dambiņš a few months later. The meeting took place in the five-star Paris hotel Peninsula on November 4, 2016.
De Saint-Just refused to answer questions about the meeting. Dambiņš, citing the professional ethics of a financial consultant, refused to discuss his business meetings and declined an interview request from Re:Baltica. In an e-mailed answer Dambiņš wrote that he had not acted as an intermediary to help FN obtain loans from Russian banks and was not representing Babakov (E-mails requesting comment from Babakov remained unanswered)..
“I have not acted, either personally or indirectly, as a legal entity, as an intermediary in the transactions you refer to, and in this regard neither have I done so on behalf of Mr. Babakov. I would like to add that neither Mr. Babakov nor any legal entity of any jurisdiction of which Mr. Babakov would be the beneficiary are my clients,” he wrote.
The statement contradicts documents from the Panama Papers, a leaked giant database of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records from the law firm Mossack Fonseca (MF) which exposed a system of secret offshore companies that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing.
Link to Babakov
In an unpretentious building on a central street of the Latvian capital resides the office of the Luxembourg-registered company, Financiere Egine.
Until mid-2015 it was officially managed by the son of a well known Russian businessman Evgeny Giner. (The son, named Vadim, is also the legal owner of the famous CSKA football club). Then management of Financiere Egine was passed on to Dambiņš and his companions.
It is just one of the companies residing in the address. In reality, it is the office of two financial consultants, Vilis Dambiņš and Valts Vīgants, whose main business is to manage the assets of wealthy people who desire anonymity.
Schoolmates Dambiņš and Vīgants came to prominence in Latvia in the beginning of the 90ties as president and vice-president of one of the many Latvian banks, Lainbanka. They were briefly – and dramatically – detained in 1995 on suspicions of the fraud, but the case never reached the trial and they denied any wrongdoing. The scandal proved lethal for the bank which, among other things, was holding the money of Russia’s Ministry of Defence, meant to be paid out to Soviet military pensioners in Latvia. The duo later continued successful careers in banks and servicing offshore companies.
Dambiņš has been named as a director of V.D. Nominees Limited, a company with a registration address in the offshore-loving Marshall Islands. According to data from the Panama files, V.D. Nominees Limited was managing the British Virgin-islands registered companies AED International Ltd. and NYX Management Limited.
NYX Management Limited was co-owned by Russian businessmen Mikhail Voevodin and Evgeny Giner who, apart from CSKA football club, has a massive interest in the Ukrainian energy sector.
The original shareholder of AED International Ltd. was Babakov. Later the company was transferred to his daughter, Olga. Babakov did not deny that AED International was registered under his name, but at the time it was not illegal for Russia’s parliament member to have shares in a foreign company. His official income declaration portrays him as one of the poorest members of the Russian parliament, but the Panama files and other official registries show that the Babakov family owns both foreign companies and luxury real estate abroad, including a luxury mansion not far from the former residence of the French kings and an apartment in Paris.
Babakov and Giner are suspected to be among the actual owners of a holding company that manages large energy assets mostly in Ukraine. The headquarters of the managing company, VS Energy Latvia, is – again – in the address of Dambiņš and Vīgants office in Riga.
The company is managed by Vīgants, but two owners are Cypriot companies whose true beneficiaries are hidden in the Seychelles. In the latest available annual report from 2015 VS Energy Latvia states that the company has invested about 97 million EUR in its subsidiaries. The Ukrainian business is run via a subsidiary, VS Energy International N.V., which is registered in the Netherlands and where Babakov was a board member until 2005.
Babakov was a key figure in helping FN obtain its first 9.4 million euro loan from FCRB, which was de facto owned by Roman Popov, a Kremlin-connected oligarch, and went bust in the summer of 2016. Bloomberg reported that it left the party struggling to find another 20 million euros to fund Le Pen’s presidential bid and parliament elections in 2017.
Babakov is also on the EU’s sanctions list which bans him from freely travelling in the EU and that might be a reason why a convenient and discreet intermediary was necessary.
The Panama files also reveal another British Virgin islands’ registered company managed by a Riga-based duo: Spencerdale Limited. From its account in a bank in Riga the payment was made for documents requested from MF by Vīgants.
According to information obtained by Re:Baltica and Mediapart.fr, in 2014 and 2015 Spencerdale via the Luxembourg-registered East West Communication Group paid 250,000 euros to the think tank Académie Européenne where Schaffhauser is one of the founders (Dambiņš claimed he had no knowledge of the payment).
Schaffhauser, who has never hidden his favourable views on cooperation with Putin’s Russia and was one of the international politicians legitimising Crimea’s so called referendum allowing it to join Russia in 2014, admitted previously that he received 140,000 euros for arranging the previous loan to FN from Russia via a Luxembourg-named company which he refused to name.
Marie Le Pen met Russian president Vladimir Putin in March 2017 in Moscow. Putin claimed he was not seeking to influence French presidential elections, but met her as she represents a “fast growing element” in European politics. Le Pen called to lift EU sanctions against Russia, arguing they are “counterproductive”.
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This is joint investigation by RE:Baltica and Mediapart.fr
Written by Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica
Reporting from France Marine Turchi, Agatha Duparc, Mediapart.fr
Illustrations by Lote Lārmane, Re:Baltica