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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uneximbank Exec Arrested for Theft

The Interior Ministry on Thursday arrested a top executive of Uneximbank, one of Russia's top banks, on charges of theft of state property.

Unexim deputy chairman of the board Grigory Koshel was seized at Sheremetyevo-2 airport as he was about to board a plane to Switzerland for what a Uneximbank spokesman described as a few days' vacation.

A statement issued by the Interior Ministry's investigating committee said Koshel was accused of "large-scale theft," namely the "illegal appropriation" of a state-owned stake in the chemical factory Azot in Cherepovets in northern Russia. The investigators estimated the stake was worth $27 million.

Uneximbank vehemently denied the charges Thursday.

Uneximbank had purchased the 41 percent stake from the state through First National Bankers Trust, or PNBT, a company it owned on par with Bank Menatep, in a September 1994 investment tender. The two other competitors were also reportedly fronting for Unexim. They withdrew their bids, both significantly higher than PNBT's investment offer of $100 million, one hour before the tender.

Menatep bailed out of PNBT in mid-1996, making Uneximbank the owner of the 41 percent stake as well a further 18 percent, which another Uneximbank unit, Inroskapital, received for Azot's debt. Shortly afterward, Uneximbank put yet another of its subsidiaries, Interkhimprom, in charge of the stake.

Under the terms of the tender, PNBT had to invest $100 million in Azot over 1994 and 1996, but the run-down factory never saw a cent of the money. Uneximbank has said the payment was made in full but all the money was spent on covering Azot's debts. By 1996, Uneximbank had struck Azot off the list of its strategic projects, dashing hopes of any further investment.

In September 1997, the Interior Ministry brought criminal charges against PNBT for failure to make the investment.

In October, investigators questioned Vladimir Potanin, then president of Uneximbank and now head of the Interros industrial holding, on the Azot matter, and confiscated Uneximbank's documents concerning the factory.

Unexim spokesman Sergei Chernitsyn said Koshel was also questioned about the case last year. However, Chernitsyn could not say exactly what Koshel's role was in purchasing and managing Azot.

Earlier the same year, Vyacheslav Pozgalyov, governor of the Vologda region where the factory is located, demanded that the government reverse the sale of the 41 percent stake to PNBT, saying Azot was speeding toward bankruptcy under the company's management.

In April, the Federal Property Fund moved to retrieve the shares through the Moscow Arbitration Court and finally succeeded in September.

Chernitsyn said Thursday that since the shares had been handed back to the state, the bank was "bewildered" by Koshel's arrest.

"We have absolutely no idea why [he] is again trying to turn a business matter into a criminal one," Chernitsyn said in a statement.

The Azot case was first brought into the spotlight by Sergei Dorenko, then host of the weekly current affairs show "Vremya" on ORT television, who accused Uneximbank of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars at Azot.

ORT is controlled by a powerful foe of Uneximbank, financier-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky waged a media war against Potanin last year after the controversial sale of 25 percent of the state telecommunications company Svyazinvest to a Uneximbank-led consortium.