Serbia: National Bank intervenes in Universal Bank

The National Bank of Serbia has stepped in to monitor Universal Bank’s daily operations, National Bank Governor Dejan Soskic, told the Serbian news agency Beta.

Soskic did not give a precise reason for the action but said  “Individuals can’t be above the interests of the country, and about that, there can be no compromise.”

The National Bank started an investigation of Universal after a 2010 story by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Center for Investigative Reporting in Serbia (CINS) showed that offshore companies connected to Serbian tycoon Miroslav Miskovic took a large stake in the Belgrade bank. In each case the companies, based in locations such as Cyprus and the British Virgin  Islands, bought between 4.7  to 4.9 percent of the bank’s shares, just below the 5 percent threshold  that triggers disclosure of ownership and requires National Bank approval. If the companies were ultimately controlled by one owner, it would have circumvented banking laws.

The series showed that Miskovic’s Delta Insurance owned 4.9 percent of Universal Bank Stock, and another affiliate of his Delta Group, Delvel Pro, also owned 4.9 percent of the bank. Additionally, Miskovic’s Belize company, Vanity International, had borrowed about €8 million in 2007 from three Virgin Island based companies. Those companies and their affiliates, including Luce international investments and Right Start Technology, also took 4.9 percent stakes in Universal months after loaning money to Miskovic and Vanity.

In 2011, the four offshore companies gave up their voting and management rights in Universal bank, after a bank shareholder complained to the Serbian Securities Commission, referring to the OCCRP and CINS investigation.

The National Bank confirmed its investigation in an interview last year, but has not publicly commented on Miskovic’s involvement.

But in June, prosecutors in Banja Luka introduced wiretapped conversations and testimony directly linking Miskovic to Universal Bank. Zoran Copic, a Serbian businessman on trial in Bosnia for laundering  money for accused drug trafficker Darko Šarić, testified that he tried arranging a loan from Universal, which he said Miskovic controlled. He testified that Miskovic's son Marko arranged meetings for him with bank officials and Saric’s lawyer Nebojsa Jestrovic. Copic said he never got the loan.

Mišković and Universal Bank were also mentioned in a phone conversation between Copic and Nuo Stanaj, the brother of Anton Stanaj who was sentenced in Serbia to six years in prison for organizing a cigarette smuggling operation. Police recorded the  phone conversation in March 2009. On the tape, played in open court, Nuo Stanaj pressed Zoran Ćopić for money. Ćopić responded:

‘’We are chasing Cane for money and Mišković is helping them to get a €5 million loan at Universal (bank) then, because I told them I was dead if that doesn’t happen.’’ Cane is the nickname of Serbian businessman Stanko Subotic, who is living in Geneva after being charged in Serbian courts with a variety of crimes.

As part of its investigaton. OCCRP and CINS asked the National Bank for a list of all banks it currently has under supervision. The National Bank refused to provide the information, and CINS filed an appeal. On June 18, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance sided with CINS and sent the case back to the National Bank of Serbia. The bank will now decide whether to comply with the ruling or give reasons for not turning over the document.