Ran 7,000 Miles. Putin Still Got Them.
The Bitkovs had their lives and fortunes destroyed after they crossed Putin’s people, but they believed they’d be OK in Central America. Wrong.
Igor and Irina Bitkov thought they were safe in Guatemala.
The Russian couple had passed six happy years with new lives and new identities in Central America, convinced that their troubles were well behind them. But on January 15, Igor, Irina and their 25-year-old daughter Anastasia were arrested in their home just outside Guatemala City. They’ve spent the last five months locked up in pretrial detention, initially spending several days in cages located in the parking garage beneath the city courthouse sleeping on a concrete floor. All three are charged with the illegal possession of identity documents and face possible extradition to Russia. There, Igor and Irina are wanted for alleged financial crimes including fraud, theft and deliberate bankruptcy—charges which they insist are politically motivated inventions.
Contrary to the Russian media’s portrayal of them as robber-baron fugitives brought to heel in another hemisphere, the Bitkovs insist that they are the luckless quarry of a state capitalist system that has grown up under 13 years of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic rule. Like many who have come before and will no doubt follow them, they say they are the victims of reiding. This is a fairly common scheme whereby agents of the Russian government, organized crime, and rival financial interests (these categories are not always mutually exclusive) conspire to expropriate a successful business and then use a bought-and-paid-for judiciary to railroad the former owners.
Igor and Irina Bitkov spoke exclusively to The Daily Beast via Skype from a hospital in Guatemala where they’re being kept under 24-hour prison guard. Igor is being treated for ailments that developed during his captivity, including a kidney condition. Irina is there with Anastasia, who suffered a nervous breakdown during the early part of her incarceration after she was deprived of her prescribed medication for bipolar disorder, a condition she was first diagnosed with after suffering the gruesome ordeal that prompted the Bitkovs to decide to leave their homeland close to a decade ago.
In 1993, Igor and Irina Bitkov founded Lesinvest, a timber company in Novodvinsk, a city in the Archangel region of Russia. The country at the time was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dysfunction of former state enterprises unable to meet growing demand for natural resources. Many erstwhile Soviet-run manufacturing giants had gone bankrupt or were underperforming because of outmoded equipment or mismanagement by “red directors.” A fortune was there to be had by hungry, Western-focused capitalists who purchased foundering factories at cut-rate prices and modernized them. The Bitkovs were of that ilk.
“By the end of 1996,” Igor said, “our company’s revenue was about $100 million. Because we adopted a complex approach, we supplied not only timber but equipment to different industries.”
Husband and wife did so well that a year later they relocated to St. Petersburg and rebranded Lesinvest as the North-West Timber Company. Igor became director and Irina board chairman. They also acquired one of the oldest paper-and-pulp factories in Russia, in Kammenogorsk close to the Russian-Finnish border. They proceeded to overhaul it, and their ambition was matched by their success. By 2003, the Kammenogorsk factory was the largest manufacturer of scholastic exercise books in Russia. Two years later, in 1999, the Bitkovs purchased a second major plant, the Neman Cellulose-Paper Factory, in Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.
To help finance the refurbishment of both plants, North-West Timber took out a sizable loan from Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned financial institution, in the amount of €450 million, or well over half a billion dollars. Igor said that loan was never paid out in full—such were the caprices of Russian banks—and North-West Timber had to seek additional loans to make up the shortfall. The largest came from Gazprombank and VTB, also controlled by the government. “We’d been working with all three banks since 2000. We never had any late payments or problems. Nothing,” Igor said.
Nor did he and Irina face any political pressure or harassment from greedy officials during the first 10 years of North-West Timber’s expansion. “In fact, we were supported by authorities at the regional and city levels in both St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.” That changed in 2003.
The Bitkovs say that beginning that year, government officials began urging them to participate in electoral fraud on behalf of the ruling United Russia party. “We were supposed to make mandatory payments to those candidates. It was a kind of ‘request’ in the Russian way,” Igor said. Factory workers at the Kaliningrad plant were were told to vote for designated candidates and were offered free transportation to and from the polls on Election Day.
In 2005, Irina said, she was prevailed upon by one official to both join United Russia and the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists, headed at the time by Yevgeny Primakov, a Soviet-era official who, under Boris Yeltsin’s government in the 1990s, served as director of foreign intelligence, foreign minister, and prime minster. Primakov himself met with the Bitkovs and “invited” Irina to become the head of United Russia’s local branch in Kaliningrad in 2007. She declined, mainly because by this point she and Igor had grown wary of Putin’s politics and had begun discreetly backing elements of the then-inchoate Russian opposition.
Then 16-year-old Anastasia was kidnapped. “She went on a date and didn’t come back for three days,” Igor remembers. “We were very worried and we tried to determine her whereabouts but failed. I called the police and also my friends in the local police department [in St. Petersburg] because we needed to act very quickly. My friends found out where she was and even contacted her abductors. I received a message that I had to pay $200,000.” Igor gave the money to his contacts in the St. Petersburg police department. “They released my daughter, but we found out she had been raped and was in a very traumatized psychological state.”
Anastasia grew anorexic and distant; once devout, she abandoned her faith and refused to go to church. She’d eventually be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which her family says was brought on by her trauma. The doctors who examined her also told them that she’d been drugged during the three-day disappearance, accounting for her short-term amnesia about what had transpired. And the St. Petersburg police filled in more relevant details for Igor and Irina.
Their daughter, the officers said, had been taken by a notorious criminal gang in the city, one that specialized in industrial espionage and the collection of kompromat, or embarrassing, blackmail-able information on high-value targets. The gang was known to drug its victims, just as it had done to Anastasia. It also had conspicuous ties to the FSB and would not have kidnapped the daughter of a rich paper magnate without the agency’s say-so. Igor’s contacts in the police asked him if he’d had any run-ins with the Russian services in the past. He hadn’t. “After that,” he said, “I made up my mind to evacuate my family from Russia.”
The Bitkovs first took Anastasia to Tibet for three weeks because she’d always wanted to go there. They then checked her into a medical clinic in Israel where she could recover physically and psychologically from her trauma. She stayed until September 2007, then moved to Britain and enrolled in school. She has never returned to Russia.
Igor and Irina, meanwhile, did travel back to oversee their two big development projects. The climate in Russia had now changed for them. “The people in the banks started to keep a distance from us,” Igor said. “It became impossible to get new credits.” There were several break-ins at North-West Timber’s offices at night, with corporate documents and digital data stolen. Each time, the night watchmen professed not to have seen untoward activity. The Bitkovs also allege that they were personally spied on. “Our house was even bugged,” Igor said. “We even found the wires in the power sockets in the bathroom.”
In March 2008, they received another ominous warning, this time from a confidant in Russia’s Interior Ministry. They claim they were told they might be arrested for a host of trumped-up financial crimes, no doubt using whatever had been confiscated from their company’s offices. A month later, the warning appeared ever more real as the three major state-owned lending banks which had issued North-West Timber its €450 million credit lines suddenly called in the outstanding amounts, plus interest. Igor said that North-West Timber had repaid about 70 percent of this already, but the difference was still around $100 million. Loans that had been signed with 15-year lifespans—and still plenty of years to go—suddenly had to be satisfied in 48 hours, otherwise North-West Timber and its subsidiaries would face bankruptcy and asset forfeiture.
The Bitkovs had no way to repay that kind of money, and now realizing that their problems with powerful, vested interests were much greater than they’d feared, they let their business and its subsidiaries go under. “The assets were sold for a song to a number of companies, though we don’t know the details,” Igor says. He and Irina went to Austria, and then to Turkey, only returning to St. Petersburg in late May 2008. They were met at the city’s Pulkovo Airport by the same friend from the Interior Ministry who told them that there was now no question as to what would happen next: Igor and Irina would be arrested. They had to flee Russia for good.
Advising them not to arouse suspicion by leaving the same way they came in, the official suggested they drive to Belarus. The Bitkovs entered Latvia and boarded a flight back to Turkey, where they remained for about a year. “Everything that had ever belonged to us in Russia was instantly stolen from us,” Igor said. “Our houses, cars, companies—everything. We didn’t even have time to take family [photo] albums.”
In the summer of 2008, the Bitkovs claim, they received a message from two people who introduced themselves as representatives of Putin: Come back to Russia and pay 10 million euro and all will be forgiven. They didn’t find this a particularly attractive offer, given what had happened to their business and their family already. In April 2009, they emigrated to Guatemala. To their surprise, they found that their Russian passports were still valid.
A law firm Igor found had originally told the Bitkovs that it could acquire them citizenship in Panama, but they chose the more northern country because the firm had its offices there and Guatemala wouldn’t require entry visas. At the advice of their attorney at the firm, who had been informed of their difficulties back in Russia, the Bitkovs changed their names; twice, in Igor’s case. First he became Gregorio Igor Benitez Garcia and then, after deciding he didn’t want to abandon his Russian identity completely, Leonid Zaharenco. Irina was now Maria Irina Rodriguez Germanis.
They were happy. They learned Spanish and bought a house. Igor taught math, and Irina taught drawing and handicraft at a local children’s home. Before long, they welcomed their second child, a son they named Vladimir.
By 2009, the first Russian charges against them started to percolate into the Russian media. Igor, it was reported, was accused of large-scale fraud and theft related to his alleged default on the loans from Sberbank, Gazprombank, and VTB. North-West Timber’s subsidiary in charge of the Kaliningrad factory, according to the allegations, deliberately went bankrupt in order to enrich itself through what Kommersant, Russia’s main commercial newspaper, called “dubious machinations.” But as Kommersant reported without explaining why, “A subsequent application to place the Bitkovs on the Interpol database failed.”
Igor is adamant that the “dubious machinations” are in fact dubious fabrications and part of a Russian media smear campaign against him and Irina.
“If there’s evidence that we’ve stolen something, I’d be very interested in seeing it,” he said. “We’ve never engaged in any fraudulent activity. As for deliberate bankruptcy, this was provoked by the impossible demand by Sberbank, Gazprombank, and VTB that we return all the credits including interest within 48 hours in April 2008. They’re the ones who should answer for deliberate bankruptcy, not us.”
There is indeed evidence that Igor had at least once been the victim of corporate fraud. He sent The Daily Beast a judgment by the Gagarinsky District Court in Moscow which found, based on forensic handwriting analysis, that his signature had been forged on a guarantee agreement (although the judgment doesn’t say by whom). The agreement increased Igor’s responsibility as a borrower to Sberbank.
Anastasia joined her parents in Guatemala in 2010, although she didn’t adopt a new identity as they did. She had, however, dyed her hair and undergone plastic surgery to alter her appearance. “She was unrecognizable from the 16-year-old she’d been in Petersburg,” Irina said. Anastasia was doing successful modeling under the runway name of Anastasia Aven and soon grew interested in a career in television. Working with INGUATE, Guatemala’s tourism bureau, the family started production on a domestic travel reality series, Anastasia’s World, which would feature the expat touring the country’s hot spots in a kind of Kardashians-meets-Bourdain high concept, the better to entice foreign visitors.
“It isn’t in our character to live in the shadows,” Irina said when asked why she and Igor assented to Anastasia’s career in show business given the family’s precarious status as exiles, not to mention what Anastasia had been through. “We had confidence in our new passports and identities,” said Irina. “We traveled around the world with them and we had no contact with any Russians. Also, the Guatemalan government was sponsoring this show, and what greater vote of confidence in new immigrants is that?”
Evidently not enough.
The VTB bank’s lawyers claim that they were the ones who tracked down the Bitkovs in Guatemala and prompted local authorities to arrest them. “In February 2014,” Kommersant reported, referring to the bank’s counsel as having embodied “real detectives,” “[VTB] applied to open a criminal case against the Bitkovs in Guatemala. Already, within a month, an investigation began into the use by the Russians of false documents and the presence of their assets and bank accounts in this Central American country.”
There are, however, ambiguities and contradictions as to exactly what role the bank played in either prompting or expedited the Bitkovs’ arrest. According to Diego Fernando Alvarez, the press officer for the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—an internationally underwritten anti-corruption monitor that works within the confines of the Guatemalan legal system—the case that snared the Bitkovs began in 2010 after suspicions were raised about certain state officials working in the General Direction of Migration and the National Registry of Persons (RENAP). They were allegedly issuing bogus passports and IDs to immigrants in exchange for cash in hand. In emails to and phone calls with The Daily Beast, Alvarez explained: “The case of CICIG against the Bitkovs does not have any relationship with any fact that could have happened in a country outside of Guatemala. There are different parties interested. One is CICIG, the strongest one is the [Guatemalan] Attorney General’s office, another is RENAP and the other that is allowed by the judge—not by CICIG—was VTB. We are not related by any means with the [Russian] bank, we don’t have any communication with them.”
Yet the above-mentioned Kommersant article contradicts this claim of non-cooperation between CICIG and VTB, noting, ““Last year VTB lawyers brought into the investigation the International Commission Against Impunity operating under the aegis of the UN (CICIG). This organization requested information about Igor and Irina Bitkov from its Guatemalan branch after a preliminary check of all the documents in the the Guatemalan Embassy in Moscow.”
Furthermore, subsequent to the magazine’s exchange with Alvarez, The Daily Beast acquired pages of the CICIG complaint against the Bitkovs, which clearly refer to “lawyer Augusto Penados Grajeda, representing the Russian bank VTB, which submits a denunciation against Igor V Bitkov…and Irina V Bitkova…for crimes of false ideology (sic), use of falsified documents and perjury contained in the Penal Code and for the crime of money laundering as provided for by the law on money laundering and other activities…”
Alvarez claimed in an emailed response that CICIG was here only citing a police report found in the database of the Public Ministry and not in any way relying on VTB to build its own case, which started five years earlier. “What happened was that in the interests of procedural economy, the complaints were grouped since crimes are the same,” he wrote.
Repeated attempts to contact VTB for comment were unsuccessful.
In the early morning of January 15, 2015, the Bitkovs’ house in the “Casa y Campo” condominium on El Salvador Road outside Guatemala City was raided by around 60 police and law enforcement officials. The authorities confiscated the family’s passports as well as $100,000 in cash. The entire family—Igor, Irina, Anastasia, and Vladimir—were detained in their home for 24 hours as the search and interrogation commenced. Anastasia had a panic attack, though she could neither call her psychiatrist nor see her fiancé, who lived across the street. Eventually she had to be sedated.
A day later, at 5 o'clock in the morning, Igor, Irina, and Anastasia were all taken to pretrial detention in a temporary facility located in the parking garage beneath the Guatemalan City courthouse. According to Irina, “the cages were full of smoke from the cars which were constantly coming in and leaving the parking. There was a leaky toilet and no sink. There was no furniture, so everyone was sitting and sleeping on the floor. The food and water was brought in for other inmates but not for the family. We were told that only family members could bring us food or water, even though the authorities knew full well that our closest family members were still in Russia.”
In all, around 40 people were rounded up in a dragnet involving what the state alleges was a long-running corruption scheme. It bears noting, however, that the charges against the Bitkovs state that they conspired directly with RENAP officials to obtain the documents, yet they are the only recipients of such documents to be indicted; no other clients or beneficiaries of RENAP’s allegedly crooked passport-minted scheme have been arrested.
They deny vehemently they had anything to with any sham naturalization racket in Guatemala and are equally convinced that Moscow, via its intelligence and financial arms, is behind their plight. “We obtained our passports in good faith from the relevant government offices,” Igor said. “We went to the immigration office, lined up and gave our fingerprints—everything according to custom. We had no reason to assume anything illegal had taken place. If there was some mafia-style operation involving the Guatemalan authorities, we had no knowledge of it.”
Anastasia’s alleged offense rests on what her parents claim was a spelling error: one of the s’s in her name was printed with a Cyrillic “c.” She stands accused of having purposefully falsified her name to hide her true identity. As for 3-year-old Vladimir, on the same day the Bitkov residence was searched, he and his nanny Veronica Gonzalez were taken to civil court where a judge named her and Rolando Alvarado, a family friend, the boy’s joint legal guardians. Vladimir spent a month in Gonzalez and Alvarado’s care and did relatively well considering his separation from his parents. Then, in February, another judge overturned the decision and consigned him to a state orphanage. He spent 42 days there before the Bitkovs successfully appealed to have him returned to Gonzalez and Alavarado’s custody.
Vladimir fared horribly as a ward of the state, according to Irina. He developed conjunctivitis, broke a tooth, and now has a mysterious scar above his eyes. He was deeply traumatized.
“Our biggest fear is for Volodya,” she said, using the boy’s nickname. “The state structures are fighting to put him back in the orphanage. Guatemala is working against his interest even though he’s a natural-born citizen.” A corollary fear is that Vladimir may actually face “repatriation” to Russia because Pavel Astakhov, Putin’s ombudsman for children’s affairs and a man made infamous by his blanket ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, tweeted about Vladimir: “Parents of the 3.y.o Russian boy arrested on suspicion of committing crime in Guatemala. Child with maid for the moment.” Astakhov has also stated that the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian embassy are in talks with the Guatemalan government about the boy’s fate. Russia’s ambassador, Nikolai Babich, has also said that, if necessary, the embassy will involve itself in Vladimir’s custodianship.
Bail has been denied the Bitkovs owing to their status as flight risks—never mind that they can’t leave Guatemala, since they have no passports (their Russian ones expired years ago). They could well be sent back to Russia, where they’ll no doubt disappear into the black hole of an authoritarian legal system, where defendants have almost no chance of being acquitted.
Russia has no extradition treaty with Guatemala, but it may not need one. “Under Guatemalan law, they could be expelled to the country of origin, if they are found guilty or not,” CICIG’s Alvarez said. “In any case, it is an exclusive decision of the judges.”
The Bitkovs counter that the prerogative of a government with expanding and lucrative ties to Moscow cannot be discounted in what happens to them if they’re found guilty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Guatemala in March and, in a joint press conference with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Carlos Raúl Morales, spoke of “bright prospects in trade, and investment is growing substantially.” He was being modest. Russia is the third-largest investor in Guatemala’s economy after Colombia and Canada. Much of this owes to an enormous nickel mine and processing facility being built in Izabal, eastern Guatemala, by Compañia Guatemalteca de Níquel (CGN), a holding company 92.8 percent owned by the Solway Group, a Russian metals firm. (The minority shareholder is the Guatemalan government.)
Lavrov told ITAR-TASS in 2013 that the amount of Russian money being invested into CGN was $450 million. “This was one of the most major investments in the economy of this country, and we are confident that it is far from the last,” Lavrov said. As of this month, Solway has invested $550 million—equivalent to 1 percent of Guatemala’s GDP.
Are the Bitkovs telling the truth about their persecution at the hands of state-run financial behemoths, or are they fraudsters on the lam? Are they the unintentional but unfortunate participants in an illegal migration racket run by crooked Guatemalan officials, or were they willing accomplices in it? At this point, there’s no definitive proof one way or the other. But what is indisputable is that the Russian banks apparently involved in hunting the Bitkovs down—Sberbank, Gazprombank, and VTB—have deep ties to the Kremlin. Those bonds are so tight that all three have been sanctioned in the last year by both the United States and European Union for their role as state organs of Russian foreign policy and, by extension, their complicity in the invasion and occupation of Ukraine. And the Bitkov story certainly follows a well-scrutinized paradigm of how even apolitical businessmen who refuse to comply with top-down instructions are dealt with. Whatever the facts of their case, if Igor, Irina, and Anastasia are extradited to Russia, there is no chance they will face impartial justice. There is every chance that they will never see Vladimir again.