Bracing for US sanctions, Russian financier in Budapest was busy securing personal offshore assets, leaked documents reveal

April 27. 2023. – 11:03 AM


Bracing for US sanctions, Russian financier in Budapest was busy securing personal offshore assets, leaked documents reveal
Illustration: Péter Somogyi (szarvas) / Telex


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Until April 12, 2023, it looked as though Nikolay Kosov, former chairman of the Russian-dominated International Investment Bank (IIB) in Budapest, had avoided the fate of many other influential and wealthy Russians—i.e. getting sanctioned by the United States. However, he knew that his situation could change at any time and so, late last year, took steps to ensure that he did not lose his accumulated wealth of some £14 million, or almost €16 million.

According to internal bank documents obtained by Direkt36, Kosov and his family planned to move their assets, held in tax havens in the British Isles, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He and his wife had been corresponding with an investment adviser in Dubai and an accountant in Jersey who had been handling their offshore company affairs for decades. This all happened as Kosov’s workplace, IIB, was already in a critical financial situation and trying to fight bankruptcy.

Since then, events around the bank have accelerated. On April 12, not only Kosov himself but also IIB were placed on a US Treasury sanctions list. The next day, the last European ally of the Russian financial institution, Hungary, announced that it was quitting the bank. Subsequently, IIB decided to leave Hungary and move its headquarters back to Moscow.

The bank has been in a constant state of crisis since Russia’s attack on Ukraine last year, managing both to become undesirable in the West and to some clear support from the Russian state. In this situation, the Hungarian government remained one of the last supporters of the Budapest-based financial institution. (Direkt36 has previously published a detailed article on this based on hundreds of IIB’s leaked internal documents).

Among these documents were emails and attachments that provided insight into the private assets of Nikolay Kosov and his family. They also show that, during this turbulent period, Kosov lost his job as head of IIB, as he was not re-elected as acting chairman, and that the IIB tried to hide this information from the public.

Kosov may have been using offshore companies since the 1990s. There is evidence of this from years ago: in the offshore leak known as the Panama Papers, Direkt36 found dozens of documents featuring correspondence between Kosov’s family and their accountant. These documents revealed that, around 2015, the family had at least six offshore companies operating, all founded in the 2000s. Through these offshore companies, the Kosovs owned properties, mainly in London. The Jersey accountant whose name appears in the Panama Papers is the same one who helped the Kosovs late last year.

The plans to move the assets to Dubai are probably linked to the change in the geopolitical situation due to the war in Ukraine. Andrea Binder, a German political scientist who studies offshore business, told Direkt36 that Dubai is still doing business with Russian investors who have been excluded from some of the world’s other major financial centers. Moreover, Dubai also offers a safe haven from Western sanctions.

Nikolay Kosov is a prominent member of the Russian financial elite, having served on the boards of several banks, a career path that his son Pavel followed. The family also has a KGB background: Nikolay Kosov’s parents were members of the top elite of Russian intelligence. His father, for example, was a KGB liaison in Budapest in the 1970s. Because of this, Kosov spent his youth in Hungary before returning to Budapest in 2019 as IIB’s chairman of the management board.

Before publishing this article, we sent requests for comment to the IIB, Hungary’s foreign ministry, Nikolay Kosov and Natalya Kosova, the Kosovs’ Jersey accountant, as well as their Dubai-based financial advisors, but none of them replied.

14 million pounds sterling

On 15 December 2022, IIB’s management and Nikolay Kosov, whose term as chairman of the IIB had expired, received really bad news: the director-general of the Belgian Treasury informed them that the funds they had frozen would not be released. He justified this by saying that several members of the IIB’s governing bodies were linked to the Russian government, specifically mentioning the Russian deputy finance minister, who is a member of the bank’s board of governors.

The devastating effects of the decision were detailed in an internal briefing for the bank’s management. It said that in 2022, the IIB had used up almost all its liquidity reserves, so that if it did not have access to funds, the bank would face insolvency or would have to restructure bonds in May 2023. According to the document, the bank was facing a cash shortage so severe that it could not make up for it even by selling the loan portfolio. In the days that followed, bank staff corresponded about what could be done about the situation, including the possibility that the bank would have to leave the EU.

But Nikolay Kosov’s attention was on something else: he was taking steps, with the help of his wife, to move his private assets to Dubai.

This is shown in documents that are among the internal IIB files originating from a 2023 February leak. Among the hundreds of emails and other documents, mainly about the bank’s internal affairs, there are some that do not concern the bank’s business, but rather Nikolay Kosov and his family. The reason for this is presumably that Kosov also used his work email address for this purpose, and his wife forwarded a number of private messages to it.

On December 6, the wife, Natalya Kosova, was already in touch with an investment adviser named Anton Ionov, who was working in the United Arab Emirates and with whom the Kosovs were about to sign a contract. Kosova also sent a draft of this contract to her Swiss lawyer and her Jersey accountant, Jackie Ollerenshaw. The latter made a few comments on the draft, one of which reveals that the family may have owned two Jersey-based trusts and a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Other leaked documents suggest that the Kosovs were planning to transfer some or all of their assets to the United Arab Emirates. In a document dated December 27, Kosov declares that his assets were legally acquired and that he qualifies as a so-called politically exposed person (PEP), and also reveals that such a declaration was necessary to set up a Dubai-based foundation called the Froxa Foundation. The text says that the capital of the foundation, which will be registered with the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), will be paid in by Kosov.

Another document, which the file name suggests is dated December 14, 2022, also sheds light on how much money could be involved. This document is a so-called KYC, or “Know Your Client” form, which is designed to help financial service providers find out about their clients’ financial backgrounds to make sure their assets come from clean sources. The form, which is among the leaked documents, says that Natalya Kosova will be the prospective beneficial owner. The scanned, hand-filled document shows that Kosova is a Russian citizen, but also a Swiss resident and has a Swiss tax number. Handwritten notes on the paper also say that the “total asset value [is] approx[imately] £14 million” (almost €16 million). The source of the assets is described as “from existing trust structure in Jersey” and “c.v. of husband enclosed.”

The Dubai-based wealth management firm mentioned in several documents is M/HQ, which, among other things, provides wealth management services for wealthy families and specifically recommends the creation of trusts to manage family assets smoothly, to control inheritance, and to provide asset protection against “creditors, hostile takeovers.”

It is unclear whether the process has come to an end or is still ongoing, but at the time of publishing, there is no record of the Froxa Foundation or any entities in the name of Kosov or his family members in the Dubai company registers.

Unlike the big Western financial centers and Hong Kong or Singapore, Dubai has not yet stopped doing business with the Russians, so it is logical that money from Russian big investors flows there, Andrea Binder, a Berlin-based political scientist and researcher who has studied the offshore world, among other things, told Direkt36. On the other hand, Kosov could have expected to be subject to sanctions himself sooner or later. As both the British Virgin Islands and Jersey belong to the British Crown, they are not independent of its jurisdiction, Binder explained, adding that Dubai is, so the West’s hand does not reach there as easily.

From earlier investigations, we know that Kosov is no stranger to international investment and has been involved in offshore companies for decades. The huge internal dossier known as the Panama Papers, leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which set up and ran offshore companies, contains numerous references to Nikolay Kosov. These documents date back to 2015. Some of them contain internal correspondence, and include the name of the same accountant—Jackie Ollerenshaw—who was also one of the Kosovs’ correspondents last December in the leaked IIB documents.

Those older documents from the Panama Papers show, among other things, that in 2015 Kosov had six offshore interests, all registered in the 2000s in the British tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. An email from Jackie Ollerenshaw from that time also shows that the offshore companies owned mainly London properties, one of them being used by the “client family” themselves. Others were occupied by tenants.

And in a 2014 email, the accountant mentioned that financial services firms in Jersey— another tax haven—had been handling Kosov’s offshore affairs since 1994. “At all times we have been happy with the information held for him and at no time have any regulatory issues been raised. He has always had the highest respect from service providers here,” Ollerenshaw wrote.

The exact origin of the Kosov family’s wealth, beyond the fact that senior bank executives are usually well paid, is unclear, but it has been previously revealed that they are indeed wealthy. A tabloid scandal in 2007, for example, gave an insight into this. Nikolay Kosov’s son Pavel was getting married at the time, and performers of his Moscow wedding included Mariah Carey (who has sung at multiple private events for Russian oligarchs) and Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke. However, Rourke drank too much vodka, became aggressive and was thrown out of the wedding party, according to media reports.

Kosov didn’t leave at his own will

At the end of last year, Nikolay Kosov had the headache not only of relocating his offshore assets, but also of losing his senior position at the IIB. His mandate as bank chairman expired on September 17, 2022 and, according to the bank’s official website, no one has taken his place since then. The IIB has not made any public announcement about Kosov’s departure or his successor.

News of Kosov’s disappearance from IIB reached Direkt36 last year, when we asked the bank when and for what reason Kosov left the bank’s leadership. “In accordance with the Statutory Documents of IIB the term of the mandate of the Chairperson of the Management Board ended on September 17, 2022. Appointment of a new Chairperson lies within the responsibilities of the Board of Governors. The Bank shall await a decision on that matter. Until then responsibilities inside IIB are divided between existing members of the Management Board,” the bank wrote in response to our request at the time.

The leaked documents show that there were attempts by IIB’s management to keep Kosov as head of the bank, but these were unsuccessful. Indeed, at last year’s IIB board of governors meeting, Kosov, whose mandate which started in 2012 had expired, was to be re-elected as acting chairman for another two years. However, the proposal was defeated by opposition from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia, which announced their withdrawal from the bank because of the war in Ukraine.

According to a December 2022 document—minutes of a meeting of the board of governors—Russia, Hungary, Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam voted in favor of Kosov’s re-election, while the four countries that left voted against it. Although this still gave Kosov 68.5 percent of the vote, the bank’s rules required a three-quarters qualified majority. Kosov’s unsuccessful re-election follows a letter from last September in which Romania formally indicated that it did not want a Russian president at the helm of the bank. “That statement by Romania is racist. They […] are against anyone who has a Russian nationality. I find it utterly disgusting, and unfortunately not surprising,” IIB’s chief financial officer Elliott Auckland commented on Romania’s position.

According to internal emails from September, bank staff then wondered whether they could hide the fact that there was no bank chairman, or if they had to make the news public. According to the correspondence, the bank was aware that this news would have a negative impact on the bank’s financial prospects. “We didn’t just change our CEO but failed to elect a new one,” a senior Russian IIB official wrote. “From the point of view of corporate governance it should be considered as a major event. However, I propose to avoid the announcement of the event, if there are no direct obligations,” wrote another staff member.

“It looks horrible for us. If we don’t have to legally publish, I am against publishing. We will create a media storm most likely, and ratings will come under pressure at a sensitive time. Our task is to not draw attention to ourselves, and quietly manage our problems,” argued Elliott Auckland. One of the bank’s Hungarian managers agreed with him and urged others to remain silent. “If we announce, there will be noise around us again. It is not good for our rating discussion,” he wrote.

A KGB family

According to the leaked files, a formal document was forwarded to Kosov from the bank on November 28, informing him of the cancellation of his powers as bank chairman. Kosov wrote that he needed this to remove himself and his wife from the list of diplomats accredited to Budapest. This list is maintained by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFA) and includes persons with full diplomatic immunity. These are the people who, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, enjoy a number of advantages when traveling, shopping (tax exemption) and, most importantly, have immunity from investigations and criminal proceedings in the host country.

When the IIB’s headquarters relocated from Moscow to Hungary, the biggest controversy was caused by the fact that the Orbán government would have granted the institution and its staff extensive diplomatic immunity. The United States and other NATO allies feared that the IIB’s diplomatic immunity could have been used to allow Russia to deploy intelligence officers in Budapest. Direkt36 has previously revealed that the Orbán government, bowing to US pressure, eventually agreed to a compromise to limit the diplomatic privileges granted to the bank.

No concrete information has been published on the active relationship between the IIB and Russian intelligence, but the institution is often referred to as a “spy bank” in Hungarian and international media. Apart from the controversy surrounding diplomatic immunities, the main reason for this is the family background of Kosov himself: the former bank chairman’s parents were members of the Soviet Union’s intelligence elite and spied, among other places, in the United States. Kosov’s mother, Yelena Kosova, was officially the first female Soviet diplomat at the Soviet mission to the UN in New York—unofficially, she in fact helped steal US nuclear secrets.

Kosov’s father, Nikolay Kosov Sr., worked alongside her as a Soviet newspaper correspondent in New York, but he was in fact a spy too. Later, when the 1956 revolution was crushed, Kosov was part of a KGB task force sent to Hungary. KGB chief Ivan Serov directed agents to Budapest who, because of their previous Western contacts, could be involved in uncovering the alleged Western conspiracy behind the Hungarian revolution. Later, in the 1970s, Kosov Sr. became the KGB’s liaison officer in Budapest, so Kosov Jr. also spent his youth in Hungary.

Nikolay Kosov Jr. later became a diplomat himself in the 1980s at the Soviet Union’s embassy in London, where he worked—and became friends—with Andrey Kostin, who influenced him to switch to banking. As Direkt36 has previously reported, Kostin, a leading figure in the Russian financial elite, became chairman of Vneshekonombank and later VTB Bank (formerly Vneshtorgbank), while maintaining a close working relationship with the Kosov family. In 1998, for example, he took Nikolay Kosov as first vice-president of Vneshekonombank and then, as head of VTB, became the boss of Nikolay Kosov’s son, Pavel Kosov, who also became vice-president.

Pavel Kosov is not on any Western sanctions lists, but, as of October 2022, he is under sanctions by Ukraine’s National Security Council and its anti-corruption authority. Pavel Kosov is under sanctions because of his position as a state official—he is currently CEO of Russian state-owned agricultural lender Rosagroleasing. He was personally received and praised by Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin last June for the work of Rosagroleasing, including how they are helping to replace European imports.

Nikolay Kosov was exempt from Western sanctions until April 12, when the Treasury of the United States placed him on the sanctions list along with the IIB and two of its executives. This means that if the former bank chairman had any movable or real estate property in the US, he would no longer have access to it, nor would he be allowed to do business with US persons or entities.

Kosov was added to the US sanctions list despite the fact that he has not been officially a bank chairman since September last year. But it is not at all clear what his current role is, and internal emails show that he was still using his official bank email address at the end of last year.

Moreover, in the aforementioned document in which Kosov was asked to reply to the Dubai wealth adviser on whether he was a politically exposed person, he made contradictory statements about his own position. In one place, he referred to no longer holding a high position at the IIB, and in the next line he described himself as an active bank chairman.

In addition to Kosov, last Wednesday the IIB was separately placed on the US sanctions list.The decision was announced at a press conference by US Ambassador to Hungary David Pressman, who described the IIB as a tool for Moscow to increase its influence in Hungary and the region.

The day after the announcement, the Hungarian government announced that Hungary would also leave the bank—the last of the EU member states to do so. In response to this, the IIB announced on April 19 that it would leave Budapest and move its headquarters back to Russia, as its operations had become impossible.

This article is part of a partnership between Telex and Hungarian investigative journalism center Direkt36.