The story of Ivan Savvidis, owner of PAOK FC: From Russia with Love?

22:00 27/5/2020 - Πηγή: In.gr

Ivan Savvidis plays an increasingly important in Greek football and Greek business. His family, within which he is the indisputable leader, owns and controls PAOK FC, one of the biggest football clubs in Greece. The Savvidis family owns and controls a series of companies, most of them Cyprus

based, such as Belterra Investments Ltd and Dimera Group Ltd that play an important role in both Greek business and Greek media. Savvidis and the Savvidis family in the past controlled Donskoy Tabak, one of the biggest cigarette makers in Russia and Ivan Savvidis is the chairman of the Board of Directors of the “Agrokom Group” of companies in Russia. But what’s the real story behind Ivan Savvidis’s many business and sports endeavours.

For many Ivan Savvidis is one of the best examples of the entrepreneurial potential of the Greek Diaspora and in particular the Pontic Greeks, exemplified in both his business success in post-Soviet Russia and his subsequent arrival in Greece and involvement in both Greek football and Greek business and media. However, the story is not just as simple.

Born in a village in Soviet Georgia, Ivan Savvidis started as a factory worker at Donskoy Tabak in Rostov-on-Don, while studying economics at the city’s university. His studies enabled him to become the vice-director of the factory and during the transition he entered the board of the corporation, which was privatized in 1993, with Savvidis becoming the owner. Not much is known about how he managed to acquire the company, although it has to be noted that Rostov is one of the strongholds of the Russian mafia.

Donskoy Tabac became one of the biggest tobacco industries in Russia. Savvidis did not limit his business energies to the tobacco industry but also expanded into the food and food packaging industry by means of the Agrocom group, described as an agroindustrial complex. Savvidis becomes a typical representative of the new generation of Russian oligarchs that emerged in the post-Soviet era.

Savvidis also engaged in politics, first in local politics in Rostov and later national politics. He was elected to the Russian Duma in 2003 and 2007 as a member of Vladimir Putin’s Party. His personal website (savvidi.ru) still has a picture of Savvidis with Putin. His political career in the 2000s is the reason that his wife, Kyriaki Savvidi and his son George Savvidis appear as owners and shareholders of most of his businesses. This political career was also the reason Savvidis renounced the Greek citizenship he had acquired in the 1990s as en ethnic Greek, since Russian law prohibits dual citizenship for members of parliament. He reclaimed his Greek citizenship in 2013 by means of a special decision of the Greek government.

Savvidis first attempted to come to Greece in 2006, when he first examined the possibility to buy PAOK FC. In 2007, he made an offer to buy MEGA channel, one of the biggest TV stations in Greece, but his offer was rejected. Savvidis in the 2000s also worked hard to present himself as the representative of the Pontic Greeks. In 2010 he used his political connections to make sure that Turkish authorities would give permission for an Orthodox sermon at the Panagia Sumela monastery, an historic point of reference for Pontic Greeks that came to Greece as refugees.

In 2012 Savvidis finally made the big move. Dimera Ltd a company owned and controlled by his family bought PAOK FC. The biggest football club in Thessaloniki, PAOK is not about much more than simple football. In a city that is made up of descendents of refugees from Asia Minor and the Pontus, PAOK is part of the local identity. And whoever is in charge of PAOK and PAOK’s fans, can also influence local politics, something that Savvidis was well aware of.

Savvidis also started investing in Greece. In a country ravaged by the consequences of austerity and high unemployment, he was welcomed as a hero. Through Dimera, a company owned and controlled by his family, he bought Macedonia Palace a big and historic hotel in Thessaloniki and when Donskoy Tabak acquired SEKAP, a co-operative tobacco company in Xanthi was put for sale, Savvidis was persuaded to come to the rescue, especially since the government of that period, led by Antonis Samaras, made the terms of the sale especially favourable for Savvidis.

However, SEKAP had been involved in cases of cigarette smuggling before its sale to Savvidis and in 2015 a fine of €38 million was imposed. It was the SYRIZA government in 2017 and 2019 that passed legislation that ensured that this fine was never paid.

In 2018 Donskoy Tabak was sold Japan Tobacco for $1,6 billion, the sale also included SEKAP.

The Transnistria connection

Savvidis often presents himself a as a model of business success. However, some aspects of the business endeavours of the Savvidis family draw a shadier picture.

Take for example the case of cigarette sales to Transnistria. This small breakaway state, which the international community still recognises as part of Moldova, is also considered to be one of the ‘black holes’ of Europe in regards to smuggling, and in particular smuggling of cigarettes. That is why neighbouring Ukraine and Moldova asked the help of the European Union within the context of the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM). Later it was the Attorney General of Romania that took the initiative for the Strategic and Proactive Efficient Financial Investigation of Cigarettes Smuggling (SPECIFICS) project, in cooperation with Hungarian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian representatives. The results of this investigation shed light to the forms and extend of cigarette smuggling through Transnistria.

The report describes how cigarettes were exported to Transnistria, in quantities that represented many times the potential local consumptions, suggesting that they were subsequently smuggled to other countries. It is interesting that Donskoy TabaK is figure among the main exporters to Transnistria.

‘It was observed that during a period of twelve months, from 01 December 2012 to 30 November 2013, 8 billion cigarettes were exported to the Transnistrian part of Moldova. The cigarettes were exported mainly from the producers located in Russia (Donskoy Tabak CJSC in Rostov-on-Don and Baltic Tobacco Factory Ltd in Kaliningrad) and in Belarus (Tobacco Factory Neman in Grodno). Relatively smaller quantities originated in Moldova (Tutun CTC in Chisinau) and other countries (China, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, and the UAE). The quantity of the exported cigarettes is twenty times higher than the estimated demand in TN. The surplus of cigarettes, if smuggled to Ukraine, could cause financial loss of EUR 150 million in the budget of Ukraine, due to unpaid customs duty, VAT, and excise tax. If the cigarettes were smuggled to Moldova, it could cause financial loss of EUR 100 million; and if smuggled to the EU, the financial loss would amount to almost EUR 700 million.’

To get a sense of proportion at that period the production of Donskoy Tabak was 18 billion cigarettes a year. As much as 6 billion of its cigarettes were exported to Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, three regions, all them breakaway state entities not recognized by the international community, with a total population of 800.000.

Another investigation in 2012, by an investigative journalism group called Centrul de Investigatii Journalistice (  https://www.investigatii.md/ro/investigatii/drepturile-omului/transnistria-centrul-de-contrabanda-si-trafic-al-europei ) again on cigarette smuggling to Transnistria, stressed that ‘the companies that bring cigarettes to the small separatist republic are either important Russian producers with political ties, or obscure offshore companies or small companies established in England with business also in Romania. Most types of cigarette brands that one can buy in Transnistria are made by Donskoy Tabak, a company registered in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.’ According to the same report, ‘Until the end of 2003, Donskoy Tabak’s leader was Ivan Ignatevich Savvidis, the current member of the State Duma on the lists of the United Russia party led by Vladimir Putin. Savvidis is closely linked to two other companies that export cigarettes to Transnistria: Innovation Tobacco Company Ltd and Richmond Tobacco Trading, both in London. Innovation Tobacco is owned by Belterra Holdings Ltd, an offshore company from Nicosia, Cyprus, which in turn has the Russian deputy’s son and wife as shareholders, the latter also being a shareholder in Richmond Tobacco Trading’

Research revealed that Innovation Tobacco’s share were eventually transferred to Donskoy Tabak. It is also interesting that apart from Innovation also RFA, a company related to the Savvidi family, had transactions with Belterra. On the other hand, Richmond Tobacco was transferred to Dimera Ltd, another Savvidis’ affiliate company. Dimera Ltd was the company that actually bought the shares of PAOK. Actually the transfer of Richmond Tobacco took place some days before Savvidis announced that he was taking over PAOK.

Consequently, we have RFA, the company involved in the PAOKXanthi multi-ownership scandal, to be part of complex transactions that included Innovation Tobacco and Belterra, and Dimera Ltd, the company that actually bought PAOK, to have Richmond Tobacco as a subsidiary.  This connection between developments in Greek football and the business dealings by Savvidis affiliated companies in what is one of the epicentres of cigarette smuggling in Europe cannot go unnoticed.

The privatization of the Port of Thessaloniki

One of the biggest investments of Savvidis in Greece was his participation to the consortium that in 2017 won the bidding contest for the privatisation of the Port of Thessaloniki, a deal that was concluded in 2018.

The consortium that bought 67% of the shares of the Thessaloniki Port Authority (OLTH) was comprised of Terminal Link, a subsidiary of the French CMA, one of the biggest port operators and a member of the Ocean Alliance, Belterra Investments Ltd, a company owned and controlled by Savvidis’s family, and Deutsche Invest Equity Partners GmbH, a German fund, which represented 48% of the consortium.

Deutsche Invest Equity Partners GmbH is a Munich-based venture capital private equity investor, also linked to Deutsche Invest Capital Partners, also based in Munich. The Company is controlled by TransConnect Unternehmensberatungs-und Beteiligungs AG, which is controlled by Dr Stephan Goetz, of Goetzpartners, a well known consulting firm that has dealt with investments in Russia.

According to an article by Tassos Telloglou, a Greek reporter, Goetzpartners acted as consultant to Arkady Rotenberg’s tentative bid to buy a fertilized plant in Kavalla, in Northern Greece in 2012.

Arkady Rotenberg is a well known Russian oligarch and very close to Vladimir Putin. Rotenberg co-owns with his brother the Stroygazmontazh group, a large construction company which among other projects constructed the Crimean Bridge. After the annexation of Crimea, sanctions were imposed upon the Rotenberg brothers by executive order of the then US President Barak Obama and we placed on the Specially Designated Nationals List.

In the Greek Press there have been various references to the possibility that Deutsche Invest Equity Partners GmbH actually represents Russian capitals. This seemed also to be the opinion of the US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt who stressed that ‘we have seen the difficulties privatization faces in Greece, as in the Thessaloniki port, where it’s unclear who the private investors actually are and where their money comes from’.

The ‘Macedonia question’ and Savvidis

In 2018 the Greek government, led by Alexis Tsipras entered into negotiations with what is now the Republic of North Macedonia in order to resolve the ‘name issue’. This success of this negotiation was a prerequisite for North Macedonia’s joining the NATO. The US government was particularly supportive of this agreement (named the ‘Prespa Agreement), which would ensure strong NATO presence in the West Balkans. This is the reason Russia strongly opposed the deal and attempted to use any means possible to undermine the agreement. FYROM prime minister accused at that time ‘Greek businessmen’ sympathetic to Russia’s interests of fomenting unrest in the country over its proposed name change.

In July 2018, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project published a story accusing Ivan Savvidis of funding opposition to the agreement. According to the report:

‘Interior ministry documents seen by the Investigative Reporting Lab Macedonia, a partner of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), reveal the source of at least some of the payments: At least 300,000 euros were given to opponents of the renaming by Ivan Savvidi, a Russian billionaire living in Greece who was formerly a member of the Russian parliament.

These payments were made to over a dozen Macedonian politicians from various parties, members of recently founded radical nationalist organizations, and soccer hooligans from the Vardar club who participated in recent riots.’

The report also insisted that ‘documents seen by reporters show that Savvidis transferred the funds to Macedonia in a series of payments. Some of these were made in cash and carried over the Greek border by hand; other methods were also used. Police sources who asked to remain anonymous say an investigation of the transfers is ongoing, along with a separate investigation of businesses who may be undermining the peace and security of the region.’

After this story broke Savvidis was contacted by BuzzFeed new but did not respond directly to requests for comment. However, company released a statement to Greek media after this article was first published that said, ‘We make it absolutely clear that businessman Ivan Savvidis has nothing to do with the allegations of this totally false and highly slanderous report. That is why, in the next few hours and making use of all legal resources available to us, we will file a lawsuit against the medium and the authors of this unsubstantiated report.’

In October 2018 an article appeared in the New York Times which called Ivan Savvidis ‘the Kremlin’s man in Greece’. According to the article ‘United States officials say they intercepted communications in June showing that Mr. Savvidis was working as Russia’s conduit to undermine an agreement between Greece and Macedonia that would have paved the way for Macedonia to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’.

The man with a gun in a football field

It was one of the most telling images of the crisis of Greek football. On the 11th of March 2018, during a PAOKAEK football match, Ivan Savvidis stormed the pitch to protest a decision by the referee. What shocked everyone was that a pistol was clearly visible in its holster attached to Mr Savvidi’s waist belt. The image made headlines and the Greek government suspended the championship. Savvidis apologized later for this and insisted that he had a proper license for the gun, but the uproar. For many this image was symbolic of a certain arrogance and disregard not only legality but also civility, especially in a country where with the exception of the police, the armed force and security personnel it is uncommon for citizens to curry firearms.

The biggest scandal of Greek football

Savvidis is also involved in what has been described by many as being the biggest scandal in the history of Greek football, namely the common ownership of both PAOK and Xanthi FC, despite it being forbidden by Greek football regulations.

According to a December 2019 investigative report by One Channel, in 2018 Ioannis Kalpazidis, the nephew of Ivan Savvidis from Kilkis, bought the facilities of Xanthi FC through the Cyprus based RFA company. This company bought the Vialand company, which belonged to Panopoulos and Syggelidis, leading figures of Xanthi.

Kalpazidis did not just fall from the sky. Starting in 2008 at the age of 29 and for more than ten years he has appeared to be part of companies affiliated to Savvidis, including SEKAP. However, his appearance one year ago was different from the others, because he appeared with €10 million and bought almost the entire city of Xanthi.

RFA is not just another company. As the investigative report by One Channel stressed, for six years it has served loyally the interests of the Savvidis family and has acted as a shell company in almost all its business dealings. RFA appears to be connected to PAOK and Dimera Ltd, the Cyprus based corporation that bought the shares of the Thessaloniki based football club in 2012.

RFA has received loans from Dimera, in the same manner as other Savvidis affiliated companies. Another example are the loans to the also connected Belterra Holding, whose shareholders included in the past Giorgos Savvidis, today a member of the board of PAOK FC and now his mother Kyriaki Savvidi and his brother Nikos.

RFA was in 2016 part of at least 140 transactions of behalf of the Russian tobacco corporation Donskoy Tabac, which at that time was the jewel in the crown of all Savvidis’s businesses, and has now been bought by Japan Tobacco International.

RFA has also dealings with Atlantis Pak, another of Savvidis’s companies, which owns Souroti and other assets. RFA also owns Paralot, which is well known for funding OPEN TV productions and is the sole owner of the SDNA sports website, which is owned by Ivan Savvidis.

All these point to how RFA functions as a shell company and is an important part of the wealth accumulating mechanism of the companies affiliated to Savvidis, with tens of millions of euros in its balance sheets. And now it has been revealed that RFA has bought the shares of Vialand, the company that owns the facilities of Xanthi FC.

The disciplinary organs of the Greek Superleague and the Greek Football Association ruled that this was indeed a case of multi-ownership in violation of Greek football regulations.

It’s a long way from Rostov

Savvidis has insisted that he currently has no political ambition in Greece, although many have suggested that the mixture of nationalism and Orthodoxy that he could represent along with the emphasis on the Northern Greek / Pontic identity could offer significant political base.

However, he early on realized the importance of mass media. As he stated in a 2017 interview: ‘if you do not have a presence in the Media, you cannot go into big business’. And indeed Savvidis has now very strong presence in Greek media. Dimera, a company owned and controlled by the Savvidis family, is the owner of Open Channel, one of channels that have a national broadcasting license and of Ethnos, a newspaper that is currently only running a Sunday edition.

During the period of the Tsipras government, SYRIZA hoped that Savvidis would be the oligarch that could create a more favourable media landscape, with the acquisition and new edition of Ethnos newspaper –that started with a pro-SYRIZA line– and the attempt to buy a series of historic newspaper titles and Mega Channel. However, media affiliated to Savvidis gradually distanced themselves from SYRIZA.

Savvidis has suggested that his current plans include more investment in Greece, especially in tourism. Belterra Investments, a company owned and controlled by the Savvidis family, acquired a big luxury hotel complex in Chalkidiki. However, there are still open questions in regards to his previous business dealings and of course the way he has been part of the current crisis of Greek football. Rostov is indeed a long way from Greece and perhaps what Greece needs in this difficult time is not the particular business ethos of post-Soviet Russian oligarchs.

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