Russia banking: The Yugra illusions

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On a recent visit to the Russian central bank on a wintry day, Euromoney’s eye was caught by a chap holding a large and surprisingly professionally produced billboard.

Yugra-Russia-banking-protest-600

Bearing the logo of recently defunct Yugra Bank, it read: “CB RF [Central Bank of the Russian Federation] – give the money back! MVD [Ministry of the Interior] – put the thieves from CB in prison!”

This one-man protest was the latest in a series of attacks on the central bank following its forced closure of Yugra last July. 

Over the summer, a deluge of stories – at one point, more than 1,000 a day – appeared in the more flexible parts of the Russian media. They accused the central bank of defrauding Yugra depositors. 

Several D-list celebrities went on TV to say they had lost money as a result of the bank closure. A group claiming to be Yugra depositors staged a sit-in at the central bank. 

All may not, however, be quite what it seems. Sources close to the central bank say none of the vocal celebs featured in the list are Yugra customers. Several of the protestors were apparently unaware of the name of the bank in which they are supposed to have lost their cash. 

In fact, the number of depositors who suffered from Yugra’s closure was tiny. The bank certainly had a large retail deposit base, thanks to its habit of paying above-market rates, but nearly all its customers kept their exposure just under the threshold for the state’s deposit insurance scheme. 

Mysterious

This was sensible, given Yugra’s reputation. For years, locals in Moscow had raised questions about the bank, which seemed to many to exist solely to funnel money to its owners, the mysterious Khotin family. 

Originally from Belarus, the Khotins have built a business empire in Russia – including Exillon Energy and the Four Seasons Moscow – and are said to be extremely well-connected, but have almost never been seen in public. 

Central bankers shared concerns about Yugra but were powerless to act without evidence of specific legal infractions. Sources describe an 18-month battle between CBR investigators and an army of lawyers employed by Yugra to massage the bank’s figures. 

Victory duly went to the central bank last summer, but the Khotins vowed to keep fighting. An array of court cases has been launched by both sides. Many also see the hostile media barrage and public protests as part of this continuing conflict.

Euromoney attempted to contact the Khotins through another company associated with the family but was asked – politely – not to pursue the request.