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‘Money laundering’ probe bank linked to Inverness-Moscow flight firm

The private jet which took off from Inverness bound for Moscow despite a ban
The private jet which took off from Inverness bound for Moscow despite a ban

The owner of a private jet which controversially flew from Inverness to Moscow despite a Russia flight ban is linked to a bank at the centre of an Estonian money laundering probe, we can reveal.

Charter company Panaviatic took a family of three from Inverness Airport to Moscow on its Learjet 60 on February 26 this year.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps were quizzed about the flight after we revealed it was approved by the UK authorities, just hours after they introduced sanctions.

The SNP demanded to know who was on board and why the jet was allowed to depart the Highland capital for Vnukovo airport.

Our investigation has found that Tallinn-based Panaviatic is ultimately owned by multimillionaire tycoon Andrei Zhukov, who has Estonian political connections and Russian business interests.

Panama Papers

According to reports in Estonian media, Mr Zhukov was named in the Panama Papers leak, which exposed millions of financial records of secretive offshore companies in 2016.

Private jet operator Panaviatic is owned by another of Mr Zhukov’s firms, Leonarda Invest, which is also the largest shareholder in TBB pank, formerly known as Tallinn Business Bank or Tallinna Äripank.

The bank’s 2020 annual report showed that Leonarda Invest owned 48.45% of its shares, while other Estonian shareholders accounted for 32.1%, and Russians held the remaining 19.45%.

Several banks in the Baltic state have come under the spotlight in recent years amid claims they were a route for money leaving neighbouring Russia.

TBB pank, one of the oldest banks in Estonia having been established in 1991, was once described by regulators as having a high money laundering risk because of the way it was structured and its large proportion of foreign customers.

Tallinn, Estonia from above.
Tallinn, Estonia.

A restructure was carried out at the bank, but months later in 2019 police swooped to make three arrests, reportedly including the bank’s anti-money laundering chief.

Corruption allegations

The Estonian prosecutor’s office confirmed to us this week that there are currently nine suspects in the case. Two of them relate to “private sector corruption” allegations, and four are linked to claims of “illegal economic activities”.

Two separate proceedings are under way in relation to the allegations, while no final decision has been taken on the preliminary investigation into three other suspects.

Mr Zhukov has not been directly linked to the allegations in local media reports.

Igor Novikov, chairman of Tallinn Business Bank’s management board, told Reuters in 2019 that the investigation was directed at employees and not the bank itself.

“During the last nine to 10 months, the number of accounts of non-residents has been decreased very substantially,” he said, referring to foreign customers.

“Money laundering controls have been adjusted.”

Panaviatic and its key directors have not replied to our requests for comment.

The front of Inverness Airport.
Inverness Airport.

Panaviatic jets regularly fly around Europe. Flight tracking data shows the same Learjet 60 that left Inverness for Moscow on February 26 was in Aberdeen twice in the last week alone.

It is not known whether Mr Zhukov has any knowledge of specific charters or any involvement in making the arrangements.

Aviation industry sources suggested the flight from Inverness may have been organised at short notice.

Where did the jet go?

The plane left the Highland capital just two days after Russia invaded Ukraine and only 12 hours after a ban on Russian flights came into force.

The jet travelled from Moscow to Geneva then onto Amsterdam on February 25.

It flew to Inverness, Moscow and back to Geneva on the following day.

The Swiss cities of Geneva and Zurich have long been used by the bankers of rich Russians as their “financial clearing houses”, according to the Financial Times.

Data published as part of the Panama Papers shows a Tallinn-based businessman called Andrei Zhukov is a shareholder in Nica Enterprises Asset Corp, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands, but is also linked to a Geneva address through an intermediary.


Estonian financial newspaper Äripäev reported it was the same Mr Zhukov who is a major shareholder in TBB pank.

In the same 2019 article, it was claimed that Mr Zhukov and fellow TBB pank shareholder Sergei Eloshvili received 3.73 million euros in transfers from an offshore company registered in Cyprus and active in Russia.

Multiple connections to Russian businesses were detailed by the daily.

Mr Zhukov also has close links to senior political and policing figures in Estonia.

At the end of 2010, Panaviatic announced its new chief executive would be Jüri Pihl, a former interior minister and previous head of Estonia’s internal security service, who later died in 2019.

Mr Zhukov was previously reported to have been a donor to Estonia’s Social Democrats, and later the Centre Party.

His business interests have also included a stake in a security services company, as well as one of the largest milk producers and farming subsidy recipients in Estonia.

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