A MYSTERY woman and her even more mysterious 1 billion, alleged to be "dirty money" from the Russian mafia, are holding Bulgaria in thrall. The Sofi a prosecutor's offi ce is investigating Elisabeth Elena von Messing, a shadowy Russian businesswoman travelling on a Finnish passport and trading in the Bulgarian capital, for alleged money laundering on an eyewatering scale. A Bulgarian Justice Ministry offi cial said that "the scale of the investigation was unprecedented in the European Union".
Von Messing's company, Optima, registered in Sofia a few years ago as a financial services and estate agency with an initial capital of 5000 leva (about GBP2300), cleared a staggering 1bn (about GBP895 million) last year.
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The Sofia daily newspaper 24Chasa has been investigating the sources of the company's curious cash flow, and claims it was "hot Russian mafia money" originating from St Petersburg.
The money, 24Chasa alleges, was part of the notorious St Petersburg Tambov gang's proceeds from drug trafficking, prostitution and protection rackets.
Von Messing, the owner and manager of Optima, and Dmitry Abramkin, who styles himself its executive director, were arrested last May on suspicion of money laundering. She has been bailed, but the police took her passport away.
Ambramkin was refused bail.
A disgruntled von Messing told 24Chasa that the money was her company's turnover for the previous year and that "she did not understand what all the fuss was about".
However, the Bulgarian media have information exposing the von Messing company's alleged connections with Russian money linked to shady international deals. According to 24Chasa, von Messing had once been married to a "St Petersburg mafia soldier" and both she and Abramkin were "known to the St Petersburg authorities".
Von Messing rejected the St Petersburg mafia link claim, telling the Sofia daily that her former husband had worked for the Russian intelligence service, the FSB.
However, she did not try to rebut 24Chasa's claim she was convicted of tax fraud in Helsinki in the mid-1990s.
Disentangling the way the money had been transferred from Russia, with the aid of fake documentation and phony business deals, is complex. One of the ascertainable facts is that all the money had come from Russia.
24Chasa claims that the 1bn of dirty Russian money was first transferred to Optima Co in Sofia. Close on 500m of this was then moved to Estonian finance company AS Tavid in Tallinn.
The laundered money was then drained through a series of large cash withdrawals. These eventually flowed back to Russia through legal channels.
The other half of the Russian mafi a's millions was subsequently transferred to accounts in Dubai, Cyprus, Hong Kong and offshore.
In response to questions from BBN, the Tallinn business paper, a spokesman for AS Tavid denied any involvement in the Russian/ Bulgarian money-laundering scam. He added, however, that "one cannot exclude the possibility that, unknowingly, our financial services had been made use of by gangsters".
BBN noted that the Estonian authorities have been investigating AS Tavid's alleged role since last summer and that the investigation was ongoing.
In spite of the zeal with which the Bulgarian authorities are investigating the von Messing firm, Bulgaria holds Europe's record in unresolved financial and other criminal activities. In the two decades since the fall of communism there have been 120 unsolved mafia murders in the country - Russia's ultrarich "Wild Western" investors flocking to Bulgaria with suitcases full of money are allegedly part of the problem.
Last week, Sergey Stanishev, Bulgaria's beleaguered prime minister, admitted that "shady business blooms in times of economic hardships".
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