Last week, Belterra Investments Ltd took control over the port of Thessaloniki – one of the largest Greek ports, IGTDS reports. In 2017, a 67% stake in the port was held by no less than two companies – Deutsche Invest Equity Partners GmbH (DIEP), which had a 47% stake, and Belterra Investments Ltd (20%). Now, Belterra Investments owns the German shareholder’s stake.
The company belongs to Russian businessman Ivan Savvidis, linked to SAVVIDIS Group of Companies - so if the deal is completed in favour of Belterra Investments, 80,3% of the port’s voting shares will come under direct or indirect control of the person who has been fully engaged in Russian influence campaigns.
Ivan Savvidis was a deputy of Russian State Duma. In 2013, he was given Greek citizenship, thus, he kept close ties with the ruling United Russia party and with members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
A decade ago, almost no one in Greece heard Savvidis’ name, he made his fortune outside of the country and is now investing in it - in quite suspicious manner.
For instance, in May 2014, Russia’s state-owned railway company (Russian Railways) has shown interest in acquiring shares of the port of Thessaloniki. At the same time, Russian Railways is in the list of U.S. sanctions imposed on Russian officials and entities. The list was updated at the end of April over the ongoing military conflict in Ukraine. Thessaloniki’s port is one of the largest in Greece, situated in the Aegean Sea basin and considered as an important hub leading into the Balkan Peninsula hinterland.
Probably Russian Railways allocated funds into the Savvidis’ deal, thus hiding the fact that Russian state business participates the purchase of strategic assets in Europe as private entity. If Russia takes possession of the port, it monitors NATO missions in the Balkans, given the fact that NATO troops in Bosnia and Kosovo are supplied via the port of Thessaloniki. The purchase of the port will cut off NATO navy from the interior of the Balkans, a region at the convergence of American and Russian spheres of influence.
The interest of Russian Railways in purchasing Thessaloniki’s port facilities – and Greece’s railway companies - is also derived from the opportunity for Russian carrier to enter the European market, to increase cargo transportation and cargo throughput. However, the political prospects of the deal are much more convincing than economical ones. The control over the port might unlock Crimean ports that are in fact blocked for trade and any services with European ports following Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Russia has been active ever since in setting up routes from city of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea to Thessaloniki, as well as from Sevastopol to Libya with intermediate location in Thessaloniki. Russian Railways also trumpeted to arrange for a ferry service from a city of Novorossiysk to Thessaloniki.
In addition, Russia has already a strong presence in Greece with the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon in Mount Athos. The monastery has its own non-commercial port facilities and is situated in perfect geographical location, enabled to monitor any activities.
Ivan Savvidis has also assisted Russia when it put pressure on Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in order to obstruct granting the Tomos of autocephaly to Ukraine’s Orthodox Church.
Savvidis has ties with the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church and is involved in financing of their projects. In 2018, he put the pressure on the bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church persuading them to drop support of Patriarch Bartholomew.
Savvidis has sway over the channel for excisable goods smuggling (tobacco products illegally manufactured in Montenegro under Brooks Greek trademark nonexistent for 10 years) from the ports of Montenegro to the Middle East. He owns a tobacco factory in Russia and supplies goods to unrecognized republics of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is likely the Kremlin gave Savvidis permission to do business in these areas in exchange for financing campaigns Russia is highly interested in. In 2015, Savvidis controlled the SEKAP tobacco plant in northern Greece – his company smuggled the cigarettes into Libya.
EU and Greek authorities believe that a part of cargo, would have wound up on the black market, likely in duty-heavy countries such as the UK or Ireland, evading six million euros in taxes and netting the smugglers an estimated 3.4 million euros in profits.
Thessaloniki port was repeatedly used to smuggle the cocaine from South America to Europe. During a decade (2011-2021) several shipments loaded with the drug were intercepted in the port – the volume of cocaine exceeded 300 kilograms transported at a time.
The Greek port therefore is likely to be used as smuggling hub for cocaine and will strengthen Russian influence in Greece. Moreover, this port, considering the specifics of its owner, will be safely deemed a transshipment base and a stronghold for Russian intelligence.
NYT refers to the data provided by U.S. intelligence (2018) and reports that Ivan Savvidis, a former Russian MP, as a mediator, was involved in Russian campaign aimed to undermine the agreement of joining North Macedonia to NATO.
Russia is interested in taking control over North Macedonia. The Kremlin has previously used intelligence officers in Belgrade (Serbia) and Sofia (Bulgaria) in its influence campaigns. According to the reports of U.S. special services, Russian consulates in the Macedonian cities of Bitola and Ohrid are called intelligence hubs. Savvidis was suspected of paying 300,000 euros to far right Macedonian nationalists and football hooligans linked to the Vardar club. This club belongs to the Russian millionaire Sergei Samsonenko - he lives in Skopje and is an honorary consul in Bitola.
To expand his influence in Greece, Savvidis has taken control over media outlets, weakened by heavy debts. Later he funded a social media campaign in order to sabotage turnout for the referendum on changing the country’s name. He also set up Internet sites that urged Macedonians to boycott the vote.
The U.S. special services provided Greece with available evidence of spying by Ivan Savvidis. Based on the given information, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and charged them with funding protest groups.
The intelligence reports suggest that Savvidis has allocated funds for pro-Russian players in Cyprus. The fact that he could have withdrawn money abroad through the Bank of Moscow and the Swiss Proper Investments GmbH, headed by his son and wife, was indirectly confirmed by the arrest of his nephew, businessman Mikis Savvidis, who later was imprisoned for fraud.
Eventually, the Greek anti-monopoly regulators are expected to interfere with the deal which promises the Greek port of Thessaloniki be kept under entire control of Russia. If the Greek regulators fail, the Kremlin gains certain advantage in the area of great strategic importance.