The Lewben Arrangement
The investments Aleksin and Zaytsev made in Lithuania were structured in a similar fashion, perhaps because the two oligarchs used the same company to help them do it: a prominent local wealth management firm called Lewben.
🔗What Is Lewben?
The company boasts a wide array of corporate social responsibility initiatives, including its own art foundation that repatriates great artworks from the Lithuanian diaspora and once staged a major traveling exhibition of Litvak Jewish paintings.
But Lewben’s public image was shaken in 2018, when Lithuanian intelligence suddenly put the brakes on its plans to buy up a district in central Vilnius known as the “business triangle.” The Lithuanian State Security Department said only that a government body halted the deal due to “risks caused by affiliations with people from non EU and non-NATO countries”.
In the end, the deal went through and Lewben became the proprietor of the “business triangle.” he Lithuanian Supreme Administrative Court concluded in a later ruling that the intelligence information on “affiliations” with the interests of non EU and non NATO countries was substantiated.
The two companies that moved $46 million into Lithuania, named Paralama and Corami, were registered on the same day in 2013 at the Vilnius flat purchased by Lexie Ventures, Aleksin’s consulting firm “based” in the ruined building.
Both had the same unusual ownership structure, which appears to have been set up by Lewben. They shared one co-owner: a firm based in Cyprus that is owned by Lewben.
Both companies also had another co-owner, each with a matching name: Stichting Paralama and Stichting Corami. These were both private foundations registered in the Netherlands and managed by Lewben. (Dutch foundations do not have shareholders but only managers, and can be used to hide ownership and redirect profits to avoid paying taxes.) And both are connected back to Aleksin by the fact that they issued powers of attorney to his current business partner, longtime Lewben affiliate Marius Girzadas.
The squalid apartment where Aleksin registered his first business also had ties to Lewben. Until mid-2019, it was owned by a Lithuanian company called Amber Realty Investments, which was owned by a Lewben board member.
On paper, Paralama was a wholesaler of car parts. It had no employees, but business appeared to boom. In 2014 and the first nine months of 2015, it reported sales worth 42.3 million euros. Then it was quickly liquidated.
Corami, which also claimed to trade car parts, moved 4 million euros through its bank accounts before being liquidated in 2015, on the same day as Paralama.
Together, these unstaffed companies moved more than 46 million euros through their Lithuanian accounts in under two years, though financial records give no hint of where the money came from or where it went.
Sergiu Nicolae Brega
Sergejus Muravjovas, head of Transparency International Lithuania, said the companies showed telltale signs of money laundering.
“If several companies are registered under the same address, not to mention businesses registered in dilapidated premises; if they have no websites; if they’re controlled by offshore entities; if they have no employees and reach large sales — these are bright red flags that should attract the attention of AML [anti-money laundering] officers,” Muravjovas told OCCRP.
Far less money was involved in Zaytsev’s Lithuanian venture, but it opened at around the same time.
In 2012, he registered a Lithuanian company called Sohra, the same name he would later use for his Belarusian group of companies.
The Belarusian Sohra would go on to become a major player in exporting vehicles made by state-owned factories. But the Lithuanian Sohra had a different trajectory.
Within a couple of years, it had accumulated assets worth some 300,000 euros, nominally from freight transport and international logistics. Then, in 2015, it abruptly stopped trading.
🔗The Sheik From Brest
The buyer was presented to the public as a United Arab Emirates-based company helmed by a Lebanese sheikh.
It wasn’t until two years later, when football legend Diego Maradona was hired to manage the club, that Zaytsev was revealed as the man behind Sohra.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve been a UAE resident for 10 years already. I have several companies registered there,” he told
local media website TUT.by when asked to explain the confusion about its ownership.
However, Lithuanian football legend Valdas Ivanauskas, the general manager of Dynamo Brest when Maradona arrived, told OCCRP that Zaytsev’s real role at the club was always meant to be kept secret.
“It was one of the conditions in the contract. Not to mention his name,” said Ivanauskas.
He said he didn’t know why Zaytsev was so intent on secrecy. But “he wanted to do it quietly, and he succeeded.”
Those watching carefully would have spotted a Lithuanian connection even in this publicity stunt: Maradona was flown in on a jet owned by a transport company run by Lewben.
Zaytsev sold it in 2017. The buyer was a Cyprus-based company called Litenburgo Investments, which was set up and managed by Lewben, but owned by a Dutch foundation, also managed by Lewben.
Zaytsev (center, blue shirt) made a splash in Belarus when he purchased a major stake in FC Dynamo Brest, a football club there, and flew in football legend Diego Maradona (center, wearing backpack) to manage it. Maradona arrived in Belarus on a private jet (seen at right) owned by Lewben’s transport company.
Belarusian state media
In 2018, Zaytsev became the sole owner of Litenburgo and Sohra started trading again the following year, recording annual sales of 224,000 euros.
It’s unclear why he would have sold the company to an offshore firm linked to his wealth managers, then taken direct control again less than a year later.
Asked for comment, Lewben told OCCRP it did not have any Belarusian PEPs (politically exposed persons) among its clients, but declined to comment in greater detail.
Jurkonis, the political scientist from Vilnius, says both Aleksin and Zaytsev should be considered PEPs due to their proximity to the Lukashenko regime.
Political scientist Vytis Jurkonis, who studies Belarus, says both Aleksin and Zaytsev should be considered "politically exposed persons" due to their proximity to the Belarusian regime.
Countries like Belarus have “a clear power vertical, and there’s no proper system of checks and balances the way we understand this in a functioning democracy,” Jurkonis explained. “Thus even if you don’t hold a public office, you might be receiving preferential treatment, privileges, which distort the normal competition.”
Lewben said it strictly adheres to all anti-money-laundering laws and procedures, and conducts appropriate due diligence to screen its clients for sanctions, political connections, or reputational risks.
As for the companies registered at 2 Giedraiciu Street, Lewben said there had once been plans to turn the building into an office space.
“However,” it added, “the plan was never developed.”
Aleksin’s Lithuanian company, Lexie Ventures, no longer owns the flat where Paralama and Corami were registered. Today it operates from a lush, upscale neighborhood in northern Vilnius.
But Aleksin is still a stakeholder, unscathed by the sanctions that ensnared his business partner and other associates of Lukashenko’s regime.
Amra Dzonlic (OCCRP ID) contributed research to this story.
NOTE: This is an expanded English-language version of a story originally published in Lithuanian (Siena) and Belarusian (Belsat) that was supported by JournalismFund.eu.