Author: Luke Harding
The oligarch who met Arron Banks to discuss a lucrative gold deal is one of 700 wealthy Russians whose “tier one” visas are being reviewed after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Siman Povarenkin is entitled to residency in the UK, and eventual citizenship, through his wife Irina’s visa. She moved to Britain in 2013 with their two children after investing at least £2m. Povarenkin travels regularly from Moscow to visit his family.
In November 2015 Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, introduced Povarenkin to Banks, the Brexit campaigner and Leave.EU donor.
Banks had insisted his contacts with Yakovenko amounted to one “boozy six-hour lunch”. In fact, Banks had three meetings with the ambassador, two in the run up to the EU referendum.
Yakovenko suggested Banks might be interested in investing in Povarenkin’s mining business. The deal could potentially have netted him billions of dollars, according to documents.
Banks denied wrongdoing on Tuesday in a bad-tempered session with the culture, media and sport select committee. He said the deal did not happen. “I met with him [Povarenkin], I’m a businessman, why shouldn’t I?” Banks said, adding that he had “no business” in Russia.
On 17 July 2016 Banks tweeted: “I am buying gold at the moment & big mining stocks.”
Povarenkin is a successful entrepreneur with top-level Kremlin contacts. According to people familiar with his business affairs, the state entity involved in the potential deal was Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank.
Sberbank’s CEO is Herman Gref, an influential former economics minister. In 2013 Gref had dinner with Donald Trump during the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Moscow, which Sberbank co-sponsored. Trump “had a good attitude towards Russia”, Gref said afterwards. In 2014 the US imposed sanctions on Sberbank over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The documents suggest further meetings and discussions took place between Povarenkin and Banks, after the initial introduction, including a trip by Banks to Moscow in February 2016, the Observer reported. Banks told CNN reports of the trip were not true.
On 5 July 2016, less than two weeks after the referendum, Sberbank announced it was upping its stakein Povarenkin’s company GeoProMining, from 25.75% to 31.5%.
Povarenkin became rich while still in his 20s, contemporaries say. One described him as a diminutive figure with long, dark curly hair. He speaks English well and with a strong Russian accent, they said.
“He was a young and wealthy guy. It wasn’t very clear what the source of his wealth was. There were literally hundreds of such people in Russia during this period,” said one Moscow businessman who met him socially.
Povarenkin was born in the Siberian city of Omsk. He later worked for the Moscow private equity company Industrial Investors Group. Its boss, Sergei Generalov, was a deputy in the state parliament and energy minister under Boris Yeltsin. Generalov is in turn close to Sergei Kiriyenko, Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff.
Povarenkin’s home is a six-bedroom mansion in Gribovo, a village set amid pine forests seven miles (12km) west of central Moscow. The area is favoured by Russia’s political and business elite. One of his neighbours is Vladislav Surkov, a personal adviser to Putin.
One person familiar with the Moscow business world said of Povarenkin: “He’s a typical ‘minigarch’ guy who managed to cobble together a bunch of assets, deploying the typical Russian means of doing it.”
The person said Povarenkin had good krysha, from the Russian word for roof, meaning a powerful patron deep inside Russia’s ruling structures. “Who his krysha really is I don’t know,” the person said.
Between 2005 and 2008 Povarenkin set up GeoProMining, buying gold mining enterprises in Armenia, Russia and Georgia. The purchase would have involved substantial borrowing. Like other businessmen, including Banks, Povarenkin makes extensive use of offshore vehicles.
In 2013 Irina Povarenkin and the couple’s two children moved to London, according to legal documents. She was able to do so after buying a tier one investors’ visa, available to well-off foreigners who invest at least £2m in government bonds. Povarenkin is classed as his wife’s dependent.
The Home Office is currently reviewing the status of about 700 Russians, including the Chelsea FC owner, Roman Abramovich, who made use of the scheme before rules were tightened in 2015. The review follows the poisoning in March of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.
In 2015 the Povarenkins purchased an £11.3m flat in Ebury Square in Belgravia, west London, documents show. Typically the gold tycoon spends about 70 days a year in the UK, flying in regularly from Moscow to see his family. Summers are spent at a luxury chateau in Normandy that was owned by the late Yves Saint Laurent.
In February 2017 the oligarch flew to London to celebrate his wife and son’s birthdays. At Heathrow airport he was served with a writ from a disgruntled former business partner, Ruslan Bestolov. Bestolov alleges that Povarenkin owes him $7.5m (£5.6m), arising from two joint mine projects in the Russian republic of Yakutia. Povarenkin denies this.
In 2017 the case went to the high court, when Bestolov successfully argued that the dispute should be heard in London and not Moscow. A judge ruled that Povarenkin had a “substantial connection” to the UK, in contrast to other Russian oligarchs such as Oleg Deripaska whose visits are more fleeting.
It is unclear why Yakovenko introduced Povarenkin as a potential business partner for Banks, who gave £12m to the Brexit campaign, becoming the biggest political donor in UK history.
The ambassador and the oligarch appear to have a good working relationship. In 2011 the pair visited the London Stock Exchange, together with a delegation from Yakutia.
A Moscow financial source described Povarenkin’s international assets as “complicated”. Asked why he might have been interested in investment from Banks, they said: “Personal, state and business interests can all be combined in Russia.”