Saturday

19th Jun 2021

Investigation

Who cares about EU sanctions on Crimea anyway?

  • The 62-year old Ivan Savvidi (c) was born in Georgia in Soviet times (Photo: Facebook)

A gun-toting Greek billionaire, Ivan Savvidi, is making a mockery of EU sanctions on Russia, but no one in Athens or Brussels seems to care, posing the question: Is the EU regime a paper tiger?

The sanctions were imposed in 2014 over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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They banned EU nationals from doing business in Russia-occupied Crimea and blacklisted people who harmed "the territorial integrity" of Ukraine.

But the Savvidi family is involved in Crimea food-supply, according to a paper trail seen by EUobserver and by the EU foreign service.

Savvidi has also had business dealings in the Russia-occupied Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukrainian authorities.

And he has openly funded pro-Russian occupation propaganda events.

The 62-year old was born in Georgia in Soviet times.

He made his fortune in the tobacco industry and served as an MP for Russian president Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

But he is of Pontic Greek origin, became a Greek and Russian dual national, and moved to Thessaloniki in Greece, where he now lives.

He is known to Greek authorities, not least because he once stormed the pitch armed with a gun during a football game by PAOK FC, a Thessaloniki soccer club which he owns.

But also because he organised protests designed to stop North Macedonia joining the EU and Nato, according to The New York Times and other leading media.

And because he co-owns the Thessaloniki Port Authority, a strategic asset, together with an obscure German firm called Deutsche Invest Equity Partners.

"Savvidi, in general, is a controversial figure," a Greek diplomat told EUobserver.

"He has invested heavily in northern Greece. He owns a very popular football club ... There is also a mystery about his business in Russia," the Greek diplomat said.

Savvidi co-owns Thessaloniki's port, a strategic asset (Photo: rongorongo)

Crimea trail

The EU sanctions on Crimea "apply to EU persons" and prohibit "participation in ownership or control of [any] entity" in the Russia-occupied zone.

But a paper trail links Savvidi to Russia's Assorti group of companies, which owns more than 25 supermarkets in Crimea, in what amounts to a pillar of Russian occupation infrastructure.

Savvidi's wife, Kiryiaki, owns 50 percent of a Russian-based firm, Troya, whose Russian director has stakes in five Assorti-group firms, according to corporate documents seen by EUobserver.

His son, Georgis, co-owns Russian firm RKO, whose Russian co-owner has stakes in six Assorti firms.

And Savvidi's cousin, Daniel Savvidi, co-owns two firms, Assorti Express and Region Logistik, whose Russian co-owner also controls three Assorti entities.

To top it off, the Russian co-owners - Boris Shapovalov, Sergey Yurchak, and Viktor Lyashko - are, in each case, Savvidi associates.

Yurchak, for instance, used to be Savvidi's aide when he was a Russian MP.

But if the trail was meant to obscure his Crimea activities, then Savvidi has made no secret of his wider support for Putin's occupation project.

He has been thanked for his "financial and moral support" for Crimea's annexation at official events involving the Russian president.

His charity in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, the Ivan Savvidi Charitable Foundation, has openly funded propaganda events in Crimea.

Its Crimean Beacon festivals, in 2016, 2018, and 2019, for instance, invited Russian children to the occupied territory to celebrate its annexation, according to Russian think-tank and media reports.

And Savvidi has publicly used his ties to EU-blacklisted individuals, such as Crimea's Russia-puppet prime minister Sergey Aksyonov, to lubricate his construction business.

"We ... contacted Aksyonov, and he immediately 'accelerated' the paperwork process with his personal call, because he understood that our housing project was socially significant. We build houses for state employees, schools, kindergartens," Savvidi told Russian newspaper Kultura in 2017, for instance.

Crimean prime minister Sergei Aksyonov (l) with Russian president Vladimir Putin (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Donbas integrity

A second set of EU sanctions is supposed to impose asset-freezes and visa-bans on people "responsible for undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine".

But Savvidi also used to supply cigarettes to Russia-occupied Donbas, according to Ukraine.

The Ukrainian foreign ministry blacklisted him for his Donbas tobacco operation in 2016 and 2018.

The fact he could move cigarettes across Russia's heavily-militarised Donbas border meant he had close ties with Russian intelligence services, a German security expert, who asked not to be named, said.

The Ivan Savvidi Charitable Foundation even invited people from Donbas on holiday to Greece, according to the Stambulzhi Fund of Donetsk Greeks, a Donbas-based organisation.

And Ukrainian intelligence considered Savvidi to be a "high-value" Russian "asset" who can be "activated at any time," according to a senior Ukrainian source, who also asked not to be named.

Savvidi's law and PR firms did not pick up the phone when EUobserver called.

PAOK FC, his Greek football club, and Agora, his Russia-based holding company, did not reply to EUobserver's emails.

But they did read them and pass them round internally, according to open-source mail-tracking software.

Front line with Russian-occupied Donbas

EU summit

For their part, EU leaders will discuss Russia at a summit on Monday (24 May) and Tuesday.

The talks come at a low point in relations after Putin threatened to re-invade Ukraine by massing troops on its border.

They also come amid tit-for-tat sanctions over Russian assassination plots and human-rights abuses.

The EU is expected to extend its Crimea business ban for another year in June, even if Russia relations were to warm up.

It has blacklisted 177 Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians and 48 entities said to be feeding Russia's Ukraine occupation, in measures due up for discussion in September.

The asset-freezes and visa bans already cover two Russian oligarchs - Konstantin Malofeev and Arkady Rotenberg.

It would be a novelty if the EU blacklisted one of its own citizens, such as Savvidi, over a foreign conflict.

It would mean Greece and all other EU countries would have to freeze his assets, an EU official explained.

And he could stay in Greece, but not go to any other EU states.

But it would not be entirely novel, because that is how EU countries and institutions already treated EU nationals on their counter-terrorist register, the EU official said.

And unlike the vast majority of the 177 individuals on the EU's Russia blacklist, who do not keep money in Europe, Savvidi is wide open to a European broadside if Brussels opened fire.

His Russia-based business empire has branches in 21 EU states, including Cyprus, the Netherlands, and Poland, as well as Germany and Greece.

Athens: Savvidi is known to Greek authorities (Photo: Gerard McGovern)

EU regime

The Greek case poses the question: Is the EU sanctions regime as strong in reality as it looks on paper?

And the answer is that EU implementation lacks teeth.

Under EU law, it is member states' primary responsibility to enforce sanctions.

But Greece has never so much as discussed its "controversial" and "mysterious" business baron with its colleagues in the EU Council, according to three EU diplomats.

Greek authorities issued boiler-plate statements on EU sanctions, when asked by EUobserver what they knew about Savvidi.

"Greece is steadfastly committed to the rules-based international order," the Greek foreign ministry said.

"The ministry of foreign affairs has been duly informing all the relevant Greek authorities about international decisions, including the restrictive measures decided by the European Union, regarding Crimea," it said.

The EU "import/export restrictions/prohibitions" on Crimea were "fully applicable in Greece", the Greek customs authority added.

But the Greek ministry and its EU embassy declined to answer questions on Savvidi's Crimea links.

They also declined EUobserver's offer to show them the documents on the Crimea supermarket trail.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell's staff received tip-off (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Paper tiger?

The EU institutions in Brussels are meant to make sure member states comply with sanctions decisions.

But they showed a similar attitude.

A senior EU official close to EU foreign-affairs chief Josep Borrell was tipped off about Savvidi's Crimea links in January.

The tip-off came from a "concerned citizen" in one of the EU states where Savvidi does business, who requested anonymity.

And it contained a treasure trove of material on his Crimea and Donbas activities, according to internal emails seen by EUobserver.

Under due process, Borrell's staff should have passed the information to the European Commission.

The commission vice-president, Valdis Dombrovskis, has a special unit on sanctions compliance.

"Whenever the EEAS [EU foreign service] hears about allegations of sanctions violations, it shares the information with the Commission's services," a commission official told this website.

But four months after Borrell's staff heard the Savvidi allegations, they had still not shared anything, Dombrovskis' official confirmed.

"The commission is not aware of the [Savvidi] allegations mentioned," he told EUobserver on 22 April.

The EU institutions, like the Greek ones, also declined EUobserver's offer to show them the Crimea supermarket files.

But even if they wanted to crack down on compliance, Dombrovskis' unit would have its work cut out to ensure EU states were applying sanctions law across the board.

The 27 EU capitals have blacklisted hundreds of individuals and entities over conflicts, terrorist attacks, and other horrors in more than 25 countries round the world.

Dombrovskis' unit has 14 staff.

European Commission in Brussels handles sanctions compliance (Photo: European Commission)

Gentlemen's agreements

The due process on sharing tip-offs is not written down anywhere.

And the commission gets meta-data only from EU capitals, instead of hard facts.

"The notifications received by the Commission from member states are aggregate, hence they do not specify the identity of the EU party possibly concerned," a commission source told this website.

On paper, Dombrovskis can initiate "infringement proceedings" against EU capitals who fail to implement sanctions.

And the commission routinely launches legal action, which can lead to fines, against member states for non-compliance with EU decisions in a host of other areas, from air pollution to state aid.

But when asked if Dombrovskis had ever acted on sanctions, the commission official said: "To date, the commission has not launched an infringement procedure against a member state for breach of EU sanctions".

Asked if EU officials had ever sent a formal "letter of notice" to an EU capital on sanctions violations, the official said: "No."

That did not mean the commission had never wrangled with an EU capital over compliance, the official said.

But all past disputes were settled bilaterally at the "pre-litigation stage", he said.

And he declined to quantify or estimate how many pre-litigation disputes there had been, on grounds this "could undermine the protection of the purpose of inspections, investigations, and audits" that Dombrovskis' unit was doing.

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