Sanctioned Russian Banker Andrei Kostin, Head of ‘Putin’s Piggy Bank,’ Uses Canadian Man as Proxy For Vast Holdings

A man named Eric Whyte controls offshores that own luxury properties and investments worth millions. Clues suggest he is acting as a proxy for Andrei Kostin, a sanctioned Russian banker with strong Kremlin ties.

Key Findings

  • Eric Whyte, a Canadian citizen, appears in documents from the Pandora Papers as the beneficial owner of companies set up in the British Virgin Islands that owned luxury properties in Russia and Europe.
  • Some of these firms appear to have been used to hide Andrei Kostin’s ownership of an international portfolio of high-end real estate.
  • The companies are connected to others, mostly registered in Cyprus, that own assets worth an estimated $130 million.

The son of a globe-trotting Canadian communist, Eric Whyte moved to the Soviet Union as a boy in 1966, and was educated at a prestigious school outside Moscow. Those are nearly all of the scant details publicly available about his life –– even “Champagne and Meatballs,” a book-length memoir by Whyte’s late father, Bert, only mentions his birth.

But while Whyte maintains a low profile, leaked corporate documents offer a clue about his activities over the past decade or so: He appears to be a frontman for sanctioned Russian banker Andrei Kostin.

Whyte owns companies registered in secretive offshore financial jurisdictions that hold luxury properties across Russia and Europe. Many of these assets have links to Kostin, a key Kremlin ally and head of the state-owned bank VTB.

A larger corporate network of firms with connections to Eric Whyte’s companies owns more properties, as well as investments and stakes in Russian retailers and restaurant chains — including Burger King and KFC — worth some $130 million.

“It looks very compelling that Whyte has been acting as a proxy for Kostin,” said Tamara Makarenko, a veteran of the business intelligence sector with extensive experience investigating oligarchs.

“The pieces of the puzzle… are reflective of how we know oligarchs have been hiding their wealth,” she said after reviewing OCCRP’s findings.

Kostin has good reason for wanting to disguise any riches he might have accrued during his 20 years as chairman of VTB: He is sanctioned in the U.S. and EU for his support of the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Whyte, Kostin, and VTB all declined to comment for this story. But Kostin did give a frank interview to CNBC in 2018 about the impact the sanctions were having on him personally.

He had been unable to travel to Bali for an International Monetary Fund meeting, he said, nor could he go skiing in Colorado. “Which is very unfortunate. The best snow [is] in Colorado –– a very good mountain,” he said.

Whyte Winery

During the Soviet years, members of the ruling elite often had summer houses in the sunny seaside town of Foros, on the Crimean peninsula.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, a new breed of elite Russians rushed in. Multiple media outlets at the time reported rumors that Andrei Kostin had snapped up a luxury villa in Foros, along with a winery in the Alma Valley, 70 kilometers to the north.

“Winery executives won’t reveal who it belongs to, although the Russian media have speculated that it’s the president of one of Russia’s most powerful banks,” wrote Meinenger’s Wine Business International in 2015.

A grape vine at Alma had been personally planted by Vladimir Putin, the article reported, before noting that the winery’s Petite Arvine white was a “pleasant surprise.”

While the links to Kostin were never definitively proven, the European Union cited his ownership of the estate and winery when it imposed sanctions on him in 2014, saying he had backed “actions and policies that undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine” and benefitted from the annexation.

Both the winery and the villa, it turns out, were kept in Whyte’s hands for years. One of Whyte’s offshore companies, Vargas Properties Ltd., controlled the Russian company that owns both the house and the winery.

But on March 14 this year, not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked another round of sanctions against prominent Russians, including Kostin, ownership of the properties was transferred to a Russian company whose owner remains secret.

That’s far from the only example of Whyte’s companies holding assets linked to Kostin. Whyte also owns two British Virgin Islands firms that have been involved in swapping Moscow properties linked to Kostin.

In a blockbuster investigation that made headlines around the world, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny showed how two luxurious apartments had been transferred to Kostin’s girlfriend, the glamorous pro-Putin TV host Nailya Asker-Zade. One was gifted to her by a senior VTB executive, while the other came from the bank itself.

But there was a middleman in the VTB transfer.

The year before Asker-Zade received the apartment in 2014, it was transferred to an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands, Erelson Investments Ltd.

Erelson Investments, it turns out, was owned by Eric Whyte.

Another offshore company owned by Whyte also acted as an intermediary in the transfer of a Moscow residence from VTB — this time to Kostin himself.

VTB transferred ownership of the property — a luxurious three-story townhouse in Moscow — to Whyte’s Laroy Enterprises in 2006. Laroy then transferred the property to Kostin in October 2015.

Kostin subsequently sold it to yet another offshore company, Angerston Holdings, in April 2016. Angerston financed the purchase by borrowing $7 million from VTB’s former subsidiary in Cyprus, RCB.

Anna Stylianou, an anti-money-laundering expert from Cyprus, said that until rules were tightened in 2018, many wealthy Russians transferred their properties to Cypriot companies, which offered secrecy as well as the opportunity to avoid taxes.

“Rental income from a property could be presented as dividend income in Cyprus, and thus non-taxable,” she said.

Cyprus was also a popular option because, until just last month, it didn’t have a publicly available database of ultimate beneficial owners — “so it was easy to hide Russian ownership,” Stylianou said.

Another Cyprus company owned by Whyte owns half of a luxury hotel in the Austrian Alps which has long been linked to VTB bank and Kostin. (Read OCCRP’s story about the hotel.)

And yet another offshore company, Bramsen Trading Limited, provides even more evidence tying Whyte to Kostin.

Bramsen was set up in the British Virgin Islands in 2010 by Kostin’s son, also named Andrei, who died the following year in a quad biking accident on a country road outside Moscow. At some point after that, Whyte quietly became Bramsen’s beneficial owner.

The transfer of the firm strongly suggests that “Eric Whyte is a proxy for Kostin,” said Florian Horcicka, an Austrian anti-money laundering expert.

🔗From the British Virgin Islands to the Upper Volga

Bramsen Trading was liquidated in 2017, but before that it was the subsidiary of a Cyprus firm named Naderbord Trading Limited, according to Naderbord’s financial statements.

Since Whyte is listed in corporate documents as the full owner of Bramsen Trading, this means he must also be the owner of Naderbord.

“There can only be one beneficial owner,” said Martin Woods, an anti-money laundering expert, after reviewing documents related to Bramsen and Naderbord.

“There is a clear inference, if he is the beneficial owner of the BVI company, he has to be the beneficial owner of the Cypriot company.”

And if Whyte owns Naderbord, that also links him to a valuable property near Moscow, a multi-million-dollar countryside resort in the Tver region called Verkhnyaya Volga (“Upper Volga”).

The complex is operated by a Russian company, Sezon Oxoty (“Hunting Season”), which was part-owned by a company in Cyprus, Egern, that declared itself in corporate filings to have connections to Naderbord.

That company sold its stake in Sezon Oxoty for $58 million in 2016 — but the new owner is another Cyprus firm, Castelor Investments Limited, that also has links to the network of companies around Eric Whyte.

Whyte’s portfolio also includes two valuable properties in France, one of which also has a tie to Kostin.

He owns a luxury villa near St. Tropez through Cypriot company Gedsea Holdings Ltd and a French subsidiary. Gedsea acquired the property in 2009 from Roger Markus Ingold, a Swiss businessman reported to have been Kostin’s adviser, who also served as a director of the Swiss subsidiary of another Russian state bank led by Kostin.

French corporate records show Whyte owns a Paris property on the banks of the Seine — worth 6.2 million euros in 2010 — through another Cyprus firm, Hundbern Investments Ltd.

And he is the director of a Russian branch of a Cyprus company that owns a centuries-old merchant’s townhouse in Moscow that has been converted into high-end offices.

Click to explore some of the properties that have been owned by Whyte’s companies, or those in his network.

Kostin also owned another apartment in Moscow, inside a luxury building known as “Embassy House” due to its proximity to Russia’s foreign ministry.

In 2016, Kostin transferred this $3.8-million property to a shell company in Cyprus, Eralmor Holdings.

Eralmor’s owner was hidden, but in his investigation into Kostin’s assets, Navalny suggested it was linked to the VTB chairman.

Now, OCCRP has found clues that Eralmor was part of a broader network of offshore companies linked to the ones owned by Eric Whyte — companies holding far more valuable assets than just the Embassy House apartment.

Some of these companies were owned by another person with links to Andrei Kostin and VTB bank: Natalia Solozhentseva, who was once a director at VTB’s former subsidiary in Cyprus. (In an investigation published in April, OCCRP showed how VTB appeared to have shifted the bank’s ownership to opaque Cyprus companies to evade sanctions. Solozhentseva could not be reached for comment.)

Others declared themselves in corporate filings to be “related parties” to Whyte’s companies. This is a business term that means two companies share a common owner or shareholder, or exert control over each other. In most jurisdictions, including Cyprus, a company must declare in its financial statement when it does business with a “related party.”

By examining such statements, OCCRP was able to map a corporate network linking Eric Whyte’s offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands to around 10 more, mostly in Cyprus — including the mysterious Eralmor, which owned Kostin’s apartment.

Every one of these companies was set up by the same person: Christodoulos Vassiliades, a Nicosia-based lawyer whose offices are a stone’s throw away from the Russian Embassy in Cyprus.

🔗Christodoulos Vassiliades

Christodoulos Vassiliades, a Cypriot lawyer who is also the honorary consul for Belize in Cyprus, has long had a reputation for catering to Kremlin-linked clients. His known clients include oligarch Alisher Usmanov and the former wife of Semen Mogilevich, a notorious organized crime figure.

Vassiliades also set up every company OCCRP identified as being owned by or linked to Eric Whyte.

The companies in Cyprus were set up directly by his office, while the ones in the British Virgin Islands were done by Aleman, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, a Panamanian law firm known as Alcogal.

Vassiliades was described by ICIJ in its Pandora Papers investigation last year as a key intermediary who brought many clients to Alcogal, as well as a personal friend of Jaime Aleman Healy, the firm’s founder.

In exchange, ICIJ reported, he was given the privilege of “not submitting certain documents that reveal the true owners and directors of companies and where money flowing into those companies comes from.”

Among the clients referred by Vassiliades was Mogilevich’s ex-wife, Galina Telesh, who opened a company for her in the British Virgin Islands.

In an email to OCCRP, Vassiliades declined to respond to detailed questions about his work setting up companies for Eric Whyte.

“The only comment that is of any value is that any attempt to link, connect, or in any way associate our Law Firm with a sanctioned individual and/or any companies is entirely wrong and malicious,” Vassiliades said.

Some of these related companies or those owned by Solozhentseva hold vast stakes in major Russian businesses, including the Russian franchises of Burger King and KFC.

In 2013 and 2014, Landshut Ltd. — a related party to Whyte’s company Vargas — bought $38 million worth of shares in the CIS Opportunities Fund, which invests in former Soviet states. In January 2014, the fund bought a $25-million stake in the Russian franchise of Burger King, according to corporate filings.

Whyte’s offshores also have links to Kresorco Enterprises Limited, which owns Russia’s Hoff furniture and home goods hypermarket chain.

A Cyprus-based company called Volkeburg Limited is a related party of Globular Holdings, which in turn is a related party to three different firms owned by Whyte. In 2011, Volkeburg took a 20 percent stake, according to Cyprus corporate records. As of 2020, this stake was worth $62 million.

Then, in 2015, Naderbord — which seems to be directly owned by Whyte — loaned Kresorco $41 million.

In other words, one company linked to Whyte took a significant minority stake in Kresorco, while another funded it.

Another Cyprus company set up by Vassiliades — with the unwieldy name IFG Fund AIFLNP V.C.I.C. — is a full subsidiary of Woldern, owned by Natalia Solozhentseva. This company acquired a huge stake in KFC’s franchise in Russia in 2018; $49 million worth of shares in Russia’s leading ecommerce marketplace, Ozon.ru, in 2021; and a stake in Russia’s leading discount retail chain, Fix Price, at its IPO in 2021.

Who is Eric Whyte?

Despite this staggering list of offshore holdings, Eric Whyte’s onshore life is not easy to track. He doesn’t have a public profile as a businessman, or in any other career. Most of what reporters learned about him was gleaned from two short dispatches from Whyte in the newsletter of the private school he attended in Moscow.

In Soviet times the school, known as Interdom, educated children of prominent Communists. Whyte’s attendance appears to have shaped the rest of his life.

After graduating, he stayed in Russia to study history at Moscow State University. He also co-founded a Russian NGO that supports Interdom. The organization, linked to Putin’s “Russian World” concept of weaponizing influence, is championed by nationalist politician Sergei Baburin and former Soviet chess star Anatoly Karpov.

In an interview on the school’s website, Whyte praised schools like Interdom for their role in spreading Russian power.

“I believe any country aiming to be a world power should have a school attended by children from the whole world [like Interdom],” he said. “When they return to their own countries, they get good positions in important state institutions, they become influential people with influential friends.”

Of his own career, he said only: “Now I work in business in Russia and Cyprus.”

Although OCCRP could not find traces of Whyte’s business activities outside the network of offshore companies he owns, he did become a Cypriot citizen in 2015 through Cyprus’s citizenship-by-investment program.

At the time, the Mediterranean nation allowed wealthy people from around the world to essentially purchase a passport by investing at least 2.5 million euros, including in real estate.

Whyte’s address in Cyprus is a villa near Limassol, on Cyprus’s southern coast. Next to its front gate, it reads: “The Whyte House.”

The Whyte House exterior
Credit: Tatiana Tkachenko “The Whyte House,” a villa near Limassol in Cyprus.

The Whyte House sits directly next door to a house listed as the address of Vladimiros Popov, a former senior executive at RCB. Both homes were built on a plot of land originally bought by former RCB head Mikhail Kuzovlev in 2008.

Eric also has a son, Kevin, who has worked for VTB’s investment banking arm since 2009. Photos posted online show that he celebrated his wedding at The Whyte House in 2016.

Reached at VTB’s Moscow office, Kevin Whyte denied that Eric Whyte was his father and said he was French. Asked why his LinkedIn profile says he is Canadian, he said he didn’t know.

“I created a profile a few years ago but … for many years I have not looked at it so I don’t know what it says.”

Eric Whyte declined to comment, but in his article for Interdom’s magazine, he offered the school’s current students some career advice.

“Success requires two things: work and luck. You need to work, but luck helps,” he wrote, adding: “Life is not a cakewalk.”

As for his father, Bert, he died in a Moscow hospital in 1984. It’s impossible to know what he would have thought of his son’s apparent embrace of Russian-style crony capitalism. But Larry Hannant, who edited the leftist journalist’s memoir, “Champagne and Meatballs,” noted that the younger Whyte’s transition was not particularly rare after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“Many of the opportunists who took hold of public assets at the collapse of the USSR were ostensibly communists, and they were joined with great zeal by outside capitalists,” he said.

Graphics by Edin Pašović (OCCRP). Tatiana Tkachenko contributed reporting.

Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID. Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

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