By Jelena Radivojević
Nenad Popovic, a nationalist Serbian minister known for his ties to the Kremlin, took part in a dubious privatization that drove a major electrical transformer manufacturer into bankruptcy and left over 300 of its employees jobless.
Workers at the Minel Transformatori factory in an outlying part of Belgrade submitted criminal complaints against Popovic through their union in 2012. But for almost seven years, various prosecutors have passed responsibility back and forth while blaming the police for not providing sufficient evidence. The case remains in “pre-investigation,” with no charges filed.
Meanwhile, Popovic’s influence has only grown. The outspokenly pro-Putin politician — known in Serbia as “Russia’s man” within the government — was named minister without portfolio in charge of innovation and technology in June 2017.
Privatization agency documents obtained by reporters show that Popovic’s leadership was a litany of disasters for Minel Transformatori. He violated his privatization contract with the state, accrued large debts, failed to make promised investments in new equipment, neglected to pay into workers’ pension and health insurance funds, and missed dividend payments to small shareholders.
Even as Minel Transformatori sank into insolvency, it appeared to make unexplained payments to two companies connected to Popovic that were owned by Cyprus offshores. Then, just before the Serbian state took over once again, Popovic transferred control of Minel away. It has since declared bankruptcy, and proceedings are ongoing.
Meanwhile, Serbia’s Anti-Corruption Agency has urged prosecutors for years to investigate without any result.
Privatizations in Serbia have been a disaster. Over the past 15 years, many Serbian state companies were cheaply sold to politically connected persons who then stripped them of their assets, piled on debts, and then relinquished the businesses back to the state.
Experts weren’t surprised that Popovic hasn’t suffered repercussions, citing political interference in the justice system.
“In our country, everything depends on political will. And there is no will to have an independent prosecution,” said Dusan Slijepcevic, a member of Serbian Anti-Corruption Council, a government advisory body. “While Popovic is in power, the case will not be prosecuted.”
A spokesperson for Popovic said that the minister did not have time to talk to reporters for this story. Though he has long since left the company, many workers there still fear the influential politician. Even the head of the company’s union declined to comment, citing possible retribution.
Things looked very different just 10 years ago.
The state-run Minel Transformatori was a successful and profitable company with a 36-year history. But Serbia in the 2000s was in a period of transition, and privatizing large state enterprises was an important part of its effort to build a healthier market economy.
Having already purchased five related companies within the Minel Koncern, Popovic now set his sights on Minel Transformatori and promised to lead it into the future.
“I can significantly contribute to the further development of this factory,” he promised in a January 2006 letter to the country’s privatization agency, urging it to sell in the shortest possible time.
Popovic bought the company almost three years later through a public tender, having submitted the highest bid of 17 million euros (US$ 19.3 million). He added “ABS” — the symbol of his business group — to the company’s name, and set up a complex new ownership structure involving several Cyprus-based offshores.
The first signs of trouble appeared shortly after Popovic signed the contract with the privatization agency in October 2008. First, he was two months late in making the payments, which were due in January 2009. The privatization agency extended the deadline, allowing him to pay in March.
This concerned the company’s workers, who already had suspicions about Popovic’s intentions. That same month, their union sent several letters to the privatization agency complaining that one of his companies had failed to repay debts to Minel Transformatori. They also highlighted their own company’s strong performance, pointing out that 2008 ended with a profit, and remarking that, with the wrong owner, Minel Transformatori could easily flip “from being a good company to a problem for society.”
As it turned out, the workers were right to worry.
Over the next few years, records from the privatization agency show, Popovic violated his contract with the state on many levels.
His broken promises included failing to invest in the company, failing to maintain the required levels of production, failing to make the required payments to state pension and health funds, and failing to pay dividends (see box for details).
Privatization agency records analyzed by reporters show that Popovic failed to invest 7 million euro ($8 million) into Minel Transformatori within five years of purchase, as the contract required.In fact, he was required to invest 2 million euros ($2.3 million) in equipment in the first year alone. To cover this requirement, he transferred two production halls worth this amount from one of Minel Transformatori’s sister companies, presenting it as fresh investment. This scheme was described by Ivan Zlatic, a privatization fraud specialist, as a “fictitious investment.”The contract also obliged Popovic to maintain the company’s production of electrical transformers at previous levels for four years after purchase. But between 2009 and 2012, production dropped by 77 percent, as shown by the company’s financial records.Though privatization agency documents show that Popovic regularly paid his workers’ salaries, he failed to make the required payments to the state pension and health funds. Over the course of his ownership, Minel Transformatori accrued debts of about 840,000 euro ($1 million) to the Republican Pension and Disability Insurance Fund.Popovic also failed to pay dividends to Minel Transformatori’s minority shareholders in 2009 and 2010, as shown by privatization agency documents and the company’s financial reports.
Ivan Zlatic, a privatization fraud specialist who reviewed documents collected by reporters, said that the privatization agency should have cancelled the contract with Popovic as soon as the violations were discovered.
“The agency completely failed to react appropriately and in a timely way in order to fulfill its own goal, which is to improve the economy through privatization,” he said, describing prosecutors’ work as “scandalous.”
“This is a characteristic situation for a captured state. People of influence can realize their interests and there’s no institutional way to stop them,” he said.
(The privatization agency no longer exists, having completed its work and been folded into the economic ministry in February 2016.)
Minel Transformatori’s financial records show that insufficient investment in new equipment led to growing production costs and ever-worsening finances. Even as Popovic was breaking his promises to the state, the company was heading towards bankruptcy.
In 2008, when Popovic took over Minel Transformatori, the company had over 10 million euros ($14 million) in revenues and reported a small 180,000 euro ($253,000) profit, according to its financial reports.
Minel Transformatori was founded in Yugoslavia in 1972. Located on the outskirts of Belgrade in a small settlement called Ripanj, it found willing customers in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and other regions. It even found ways to continue its sales during the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its loyal customers also included many Serbian state firms, and it enjoyed a monopoly on the regional market for electrical transformers.
But after nearly four years of his leadership, the company had accrued almost 13 million euros ($16.3 million) in debt to banks, other companies, and a state business development fund; as well as unpaid taxes and electric bills.
During this time, Serbia’s economy sank into recession, spurred by the the global financial crisis. The nation’s gross domestic product contracted by 3.1 percent in 2009 compared with 5.4 percent growth the previous year, according to the World Bank, and the economy shrank again in 2012 and 2014. But Minel Transformatori’s problems can’t be solely attributed to the broader economy. Under Popovic’s leadership, claim the workers, the company did not fufill prior sales agreements signed before he took over.
Furthermore, within the same period, Minel Transformatori made several deals to have two private companies associated with Popovic fulfill “obligations” of an unknown nature. Minel ended up owing the two companies — Beo-Concept and Tehno Dizaijn — more than 712,000 euros ($940,000). This debt was largely settled in 2012, implying that Minel had paid the two Popovic companies this amount.
By that year, Minel Transformatori’s revenues had declined to 170,000 euro ($225,000) and it was operating at a loss of almost 8 million euros ($10.4 million).
It was clear that the company was heading for bankruptcy. It was then that Popovic decided to leave.
In June 2012, he transferred his shares in a Cyprus holding company that owned Minel Transformatori and its five sister companies to another Cyprus company. Several weeks later, they were transferred again, ending up with a Slovak concern called International BEZGroup. It is unknown whether Popovic received any payment for this deal.
The Minel group told the privatization agency that the new owners would pay all its debts, introduce modern technology, and resume exporting products to the European Union, Russia, and the former Soviet countries (a business strategy that had ended during Popovic’s tenure).
But BEZ never got the chance. The privatization agency’s patience was at an end. Just a few months after the transfer, the agency exercised its right to retake ownership of the Minel companies, a provision allowable within five years of the original privatization. Ownership of the now-bankrupt Minel group reverted to the Serbian state.
Representatives of the BEZ group, which has a mixture of Slovak and Russian ownership, said they could not comment on its takeover of Minel or any possible connections with Popovic.
Impossible to Investigate
During Popovic’s ownership, the workers’ union at the Minel Transformatori factory sent dozens of letters to various institutions (including the prime minister’s office, several ministers, and the head of the privatization agency) warning that he was destroying the company.
In 2012, the workers also sent a criminal complaint to the Second Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office, which covers the part of the Belgrade municipality that contains the Minel factory. Two years passed without any action.
The only body that showed any interest was the Anti-Corruption Agency, which received a separate notice from the workers in 2014 that accused Popovic of abuses during the privatization process.
The agency began reaching out to prosecutors. In one of its first letters to the Second Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in 2014, the agency wrote that the workers’ complaint “indicates many illegalities and abuses during the privatization of Minel Transformatori and states that the company was destroyed by siphoning money out … The company was destroyed, and debts were made in period from 5.5.2009 to 1.6.2012 when the majority owner was Nenad Popovic.”
Still, prosecutors didn’t open an investigation and gave no indication of what was happening.
Over the following years, the anti-corruption agency’s director, Tatjana Babic and three others that took her place, kept insisting that prosecutors open a case, contacting them on more than 10 occasions.
Every time the agency received the same answer: The police were responsible. “We are investigating whether the criminal charges are justified and are waiting for all the needed information from the police,” prosecutors replied.
In 2015, the anti-corruption agency asked for help from a higher authority: the Higher Public Prosecutors’ office. Citing the seriousness of the case, Babic asked the office to send the Second Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office “mandatory reactions to react in this case, because there is suspicion about their effectiveness.”
The High Prosecutor’s office didn’t respond for almost a year. When it finally did, in November 2016, the answer was the same: The police hadn’t provided enough evidence. (Contacted by reporters, police said that they had sent everything they had.)
Babic later left her position in the Anti-Corruption Agency. The next three directors continued the pressure, also without success. The current director, Dragan Sikimic last checked in with prosecutors in June, and has not yet received an answer.
As it turns out, the case changed hands last year. After the Higher Prosecutor’s office created four special anti-corruption prosecutor teams in March, the Popovic matter was sent to one of them the same month.
But even this special unit has not yet acted.
Prosecutors did not explain their failure to move forward. The Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office said only that the case was “in pre-investigation.”
Popovic in Power
Today, the Minel Transformatori factory is still functioning, though its parent company has been in formal bankruptcy proceedings since 2015.
Popovic’s connection to Beo-Concept and Tehno Dizajn is not straightforward. Until early 2012, he owned both companies — the former directly and the latter through another company. But by the middle of the year, both had been transferred to VTA Finance Investment Ltd., which is based offshore in Cyprus. Its ownership is unknown.
Comel, a private company with no apparent connection to Minel or Popovic, is now using the factory for its own purposes, and has employed over 100 of the former Minel workers — still 200 fewer than the factory employed when Popovic bought it.
Meanwhile, Popovic’s power and influence in Serbia has only grown.
In late June 2017, he was appointed minister without portfolio within the government, though the Minel case had not yet been resolved. In addition, his political views are not well aligned with the rest of the Serbian government.
Though Belgrade is officially pro-EU and has professed to embrace liberal values, Popovic is a pro-Russia EU sceptic who openly expresses homophobic views and is frequently antagonistic towards journalists. When KRIK and OCCRP published an earlier story about his dealings in offshore zones as part of the Paradise Papers, he sued KRIK four times.
His reputation and and power are still affecting some Minel workers even today.
When a KRIK reporter tried to talk about the issues with former union leader Stevan Stojkovic — a signatory on the criminal complaint against Popovic — he appeared nervous.
“It’s too dangerous to talk about this topic,” Stojkovic said. “I left that part of life behind me.”