Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades denies any knowledge of his former law firm’s alleged involvement in hiding assets of a controversial Russian billionaire, as revealed in a joint project conducted by international media.
The report focuses on false information that was allegedly used to conceal the true identity of beneficial owners, raising alarm bells at the financial regulators in the Caribbean where the companies were registered.
The alleged connection between Anastasiades’ former law firm and the Russian billionaire made headlines over the weekend, as the story was taken up by the UK’s ‘The Guardian’.
According to the newspaper, an investigation into what has been dubbed the Pandora Papers, a massive leak of documents reveals how the rich and powerful use offshore companies to hide their wealth.
The Pandora Papers link dozens of world and public leaders to secret financial dealings.
The data were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in collaboration with a number of major media outlets and revealed on Sunday.
According to the investigation, a law firm found the President, carrying his name, Nicos Chr. Anastasiades and Partners “appears in the Pandora Papers as a key offshore go-between for wealthy Russians.”
A Panamanian offshore company broker, Alcogal, said that the Cypriot law firm Nicos Chr. Anastasiades & Partners had claimed that four of the offshore companies it was managing were beneficially owned by its staff.
However, in a report filed with financial regulators in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) on 8 June 2015, the service provider said it had come to believe it had been misled, and that the true owner was Russian businessman and former Duma senator Leonid Lebedev.
From politics to Hollywood
Lebedev fled his home country in 2015 after being accused of failing to declare his assets. He denies the allegations and has since become a Hollywood film producer.
Anastasiades & Partners is alleged to have advised the Russian on procuring Cypriot citizenship via the island’s legal, though controversial, “golden passport” scheme, whereby wealthy applicants could invest in the right to live and work in the EU, in 2011. Citizenship was granted that year.
Lebedev has been a client with the president’s former law firm for the past 20 years, the media report alleged.
The law firm founded by the Cypriot president has, however, strongly denied filing false information to the broker, while Anastasiades himself has washed his hands of any dealings with the firm.
In a statement to the Guardian, Anastasiades said: “I have no knowledge and it would be impossible for me to know and be in a position to respond to any allegations concerning the handling of the affairs of my ex-law firm.”
The Guardian noted that, “There is no suggestion that Anastasiades was involved in the firm’s activities. However, the response raises questions about the president’s wisdom in allowing a legal firm, over which he apparently had neither oversight nor control, to operate under his name, while he served as a prominent politician”.
Meanwhile, a search into the law firm’s structure, reveals that the President’s two daughters Elsa and Ino Anastasiade are listed as partners of the firm.
No longer a shareholder
Anastasiades as he claimed, had offloaded his remaining share in the firm when he became president of Cyprus in 2013.
He has also argued in the past that he has not had any active role in the firm when he was the leader of the now ruling Democratic Rally, between 1997 and 2013.
Cyprus media have reported of ties between Anastasiades and Lebedev, who appears to be a close friend of the president.
According to Sigma TV, a few months after Anastasiades was elected to the presidency in 2013, he flew to Paris on a private jet belonging to Lebedev.
Anastasiades had also come under fire in 2018 when he had accepted a free flight on a Saudi businessman’s jet for his family’s vacation in the Seychelles.
Anastasiades had said at the time in a written statement that his family’s use of the jet “could have been avoided” to prevent what he called a “needless commotion” over the August 2018 trip and “groundless” claims.
The Saudi businessman and his family had also obtained Cypriot passports through the investment for citizenship scheme.
Meanwhile, the European People’s Party, of which the ruling DISY is a member, has said that the Pandora Papers issue has proved that the fight against tax havens is making but limited progress.
Markus Ferber MEP, EPP Group Spokesman on Economic Affairs, commenting on the Pandora Papers said that, “even after years of scandals, the EU list of tax havens has no teeth. The plan of EU Finance Ministers to further water down the EU blacklist this week is precisely the wrong signal.
“If you want to fight tax havens effectively, being on the EU blacklist must come with tough sanctions. The Pandora Papers prove that the current approach of exchanging nicely-worded letters simply doesn’t cut it”.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington, D.C.-based network of reporters and media organisations, said the files are linked to about 35 current and former national leaders, and more than 330 politicians and public officials in 91 countries and territories.
It did not say how the files were obtained, but that information was used from documents of more than a dozen financial services providers.