Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs vs. ‘cocaine baron’
A year has passed since the extradition of Andrei Kovalchuk, the primary suspect in the ‘cocaine case', from Germany to Russia. The investigation is completed. However, no evidence indicating that Kovalchuk had anything to do with secret services was found. The investigation team had no choice but to admit that the mastermind behind the shipment of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from Argentina to Russia under the disguise of diplomatic mail was just a fraudster. Why the past of Kovalchuk still remains a mystery?
In late May 2019, the investigation of the ‘cocaine case’ has been completed. Andrei Kovalchuk, Ali Abyanov, Vladimir Kalmykov, and Ishtimir Khudzhamov have been charged under part 3 of Article 30 and part 4 of Article 229.1 (attempted smuggling of narcotic agents) and part 3 of Article 30 and part 5 of Article 228.1 (attempted illegal production, sale, or dispatch of narcotic drugs on an especially large scale) of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. The defendants are currently reviewing the case file.
The investigation concluded that Kovalchuk was the mastermind behind the smuggling of almost 400 kg of cocaine from Argentina to Russia. In 2016, he has purchased the drug, packed in valises, and asked his old friend Ali Abyanov, superintendent of the Russian embassy in Argentina, to put those in a back room of the embassy school. Following a request of Kovalchuk, Abyanov packed the valises as diplomatic mail: wrapped them in special paper and affixed wax seals. The name and mobile phone of Andrei Kovalchuk were written on each valise.
The ‘cocaine scandal' has escalated after the discovery of 382 kg of the drug in the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires. Three hundred sixty bags packed in 12 valises were found. The consignment was estimated at €50 million. The law enforcement authorities of Russia and Argentina have carried out a joint investigation. It was decided to deliver the drug to Russia in order to uncover all links in the criminal chain. The cocaine was replaced by flour. To track the shipment, GPS transponders were attached to the valises. On December 12, 2017, Ali Abyanov, a former superintendent of the Russian embassy in Argentina, and businessmen Vladimir Kalmykov and Ishtimir Khudzhamov have been detained during the attempt to receive the shipment from Buenos Aires. Three more persons were arrested in the course of the investigation. Ivan Blizniuk, an Argentine policeman of the Russian origin, and Alexander Chikalo, a mechanic at the local airport, have been detained in Argentina, while Andrei Kovalchuk, the leader of the criminal group, – in Germany. A criminal case was instituted for smuggling and drug trafficking.
The smugglers failed to ship the ‘mail’ to Moscow because Ali Abyanov had to return back to Russia upon the expiry of his contract in August 2016. Igor Rogov, the new embassy superintendent, has carried out an inventory and discovered suspicious valises. He notified the security service of the embassy; security officers opened the valises and found inside bags with white powder. Then operatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation joined the investigation. They decided to deliver the cocaine to Russia and arrest the recipients red-handed.
In the course of the investigation, Ali Abyanov admitted that he had repeatedly arranged the delivery of “very heavy valises” to Moscow as per requests of Andrei Kovalchuk. Abyanov had packed the consignments as diplomatic mail and shipped them by military transport aircraft. Kovalchuk had paid to Abyanov $1 thousand for each delivered valise. However, these episodes were not included in the final indictment.
Abyanov explained the investigators why was he sending valises with unknown contents – the superintendent thought that Kovalchuk was a high-ranked functionary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation disguised as a humble security officer of the Russian embassy in Berlin. Abyanov did not know the real position and rank of Kovalchuk and never asked about that – because he was aware that such people work undercover. He had sincerely considered Kovalchuk “a general or something like that”. Abyanov had no reasons to doubt that Kovalchuk was a high-ranked officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – because he had repeatedly visited Buenos Aires with official delegations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other Russian delegations. Not only had Kovalchuk free access to the Russian embassy in Argentina – but also communicated with the supreme embassy officials without ceremonies. Therefore, Abyanov has notified his successor Rogov about the valises stored in the back room and explained that Kovalchuk was a person “from the center” – i.e. from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Defendants Ishtimir Khudzhamov and Ali Abyanov
Other witnesses have also confirmed that Kovalchuk was well-known in many Russian embassies, not only in Argentina. Everybody knew him as an officer of the Security Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and considered him a ‘supervisor’ representing secret services. For instance, Oleg Vorobiev, First Secretary of the Russian Embassy in Argentina, told that Kovalchuk was introduced to him as an officer of the Security Department at an embassy reception held to welcome a delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During their conversation, Vorobiev got an impression that Kovalchuk was familiar with former heads of the embassy and current functionaries of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Over a glass of beer, Kovalchuk had sometimes shared recollections about his past service. If he needed to talk to a high-ranked diplomat, Kovalchuk had posed as an officer of various Russian ministries or agencies. For instance, Viktor Koronelli, Russian Ambassador to Argentina, admitted that he had a conversation with Kovalchuk who had mentioned names of top-rank persons.
After becoming aware of the cocaine stored in valises, FSB operatives have arranged a meeting between Rogov and Kovalchuk to discuss the delivery of the consignment to Moscow. Being unaware of the surveillance, Kovalchuk told the superintendent that he had served in the military, acquired a psychological education, and then served in Russian secret services. He had mentioned top-rank figures among his acquaintances. After that conversation, Rogov got an impression that Kovalchuk was “close to the circles of power and had great influence”.
However, after the arrest of Kovalchuk, Maria Zakharova, Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has officially stated that such a person was never employed with the ministry: "We have reviewed all archives and papers. Kovalchuk had never worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or any embassy". Later, Rosbalt.ru suggested that Kovalchuk was a member of the diplomatic mission in Berlin. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refuted this in its Telegram channel: "We bindingly confirm that, according to our information, A. Kovalchuk had never worked in the Russian embassy in Germany, and the information distributed by the resource is not consistent with the reality".
The investigation team has carried out a special probe and found no evidence that Kovalchuk had anything to do with diplomatic or other official Russian structures. At some point, information was received that Kovalchuk used to work in an intelligence agency and then was assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Inquiries were submitted to all respective structures – but the answers were negative. The investigators concluded that Kovalchuk had never served in the intelligence or structures subordinate to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – neither during the Soviet period nor after the collapse of the USSR.
According to a well-informed source, the investigation had to accept the obvious – although unbelievable – version: Kovalchuk never had an official status and was just a fraudster. In other words, an outsider managed to get access to restricted premises and establish connections in Russian embassies all over the world.
Little is known about Kovalchuk thus far. He was born in 1968 in Hertsa, Chernivtsi region, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Served the compulsory military service in the internal military forces – in a separate brigade of operational designation deployed in Sofrino. Has a secondary technical education. Married, has a child less than three years old. Never had a residential registration in Russia. Never was involved in real estate deals; never purchased cars. Received a Russian passport only in 2013. According to that passport, Kovalchuk is a homeless person; it is unclear on what grounds was the passport issued to him. Resides in Germany without citizenship. Places of work are unknown. Overall, a pretty mysterious person...
The Argentine law enforcement authorities weren’t able to collect much information about Kovalchuk – nicknamed ‘Signor K’ – either. According to Patricia Bullrich, Minister of Security of Argentina, the businessman permanently resides in Hamburg and is a trade representative of Habanos Tobacco Company. Since 2013, Kovalchuk had visited Argentina 11 times and brought cigarettes and expensive alcohol every time to maintain ties with ‘right’ persons.
Surveillance over Kovalchuk and his contacts
Leonardo Golovanov, ex-Head of the Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots in Argentina, says that Kovalchuk had represented Bossner Cigars brand used by German company Golden Mile Gmb. Its owner Konstantin Loskutnikov, also known as Baron Konstantin von Bossner, admits that he had repeatedly met with Kovalchuk; however, Loskutnikov denies claims that Kovalchuk had ever worked for him. In an interview to RTVD OstWest TV Channel, Loskutnikov called Kovalchuk a fraudster: "A few years ago, a high-ranked Gazprom functionary had introduced Kovalchuk to me as a colonel of secret services supervising consulates in Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc. Similarly with many other visitors, Mr. Kovalchuk has tested our products – smoked our cigars, drank our cognac. In subsequent years, he had repeatedly visited the bureau asking to give him samples of the products and promising to find a client for us. Allegedly, he flies all over the world and may arrange sales of our products for a commission. We are open for any collaboration; therefore, Kovalchuk had often received samples of cigarettes and cognac from us – but not a single contract was signed. In other words, it was just an empty talk".
Kovalchuk is unwilling to shed any light on his dark past. He refuses to answer investigators’ questions citing Article 51 of the Russian Constitution. Concurrently, he denies any guilt. Interestingly, a few days before the end of the investigation, the lawyer representing Kovalchuk was replaced. Vladimir Zherebenkov, who had represented him in the course of the investigation, refused to defend him in court. The attorney did not explain the reasons behind this decision. However, sources claim that this is not about any differences between the lawyer and the client – Kovalchuk just started experiencing financial difficulties and cannot pay fees charged by Zherebenkov anymore.
The strategy of the new defense lawyer is unknown yet. Since the arrest of the businessman in Germany and until his resignation, Zherebenkov had maintained the same version of events. According to the attorney, in July 2016, Kovalchuk has purchased in Buenos Aires, in the presence of witnesses, expensive civet coffee, alcohol, and jewelry with semiprecious stones; the receipts are available. He packed the purchases in valises and made arrangements with embassy superintendent Ali Abyanov to store those in a back room under the school stairs. Kovalchuk had never made a secret that the valises belonged to him – instead, he had repeatedly called and visited the embassy to arrange their shipment. He had even sent a private aircraft to deliver his belongings. Upon their arrival at Moscow, he was very surprised to find out that some white powder was inside the valises. Kovalchuk supposes that the contents were replaced in the embassy. Most probably, this was a provocation of the US and Argentine secret services with the purpose to discredit the Russian diplomatic mission.
Aleksander Kostoyants, defense attorney for Ali Abyanov, claims that his client has nothing to do with drug trafficking: "His only guilt is that Abyanov has helped Andrei Kovalchuk as per his request". Vladimir Kalmykov and Ishtimir Khudzhamov also deny any guilt. The three defendants claim that they have no idea how could the cocaine appear in the valises. They had waited for valises with coffee and cigars.
On March 3, 2018, Alexei Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of the Echo of Moscow Radio Station, has formulated five questions in relation to the ‘cocaine case’ on the air of Budem Nablyudat’ (We’ll Monitor) program. A year later, the majority of these questions still remain unanswered:
How was the drug delivered to the embassy school located in restricted premises?
Why was cocaine stored for 1.5 years in the embassy?
Why were Argentine secret services permitted to enter the embassy school?
Why was the investigation launched in Russia only in November 2017 – taking that the drugs had been discovered back in December 2016?
How could Andrei Kovalchuk, being not an officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or other governmental agency, have such extensive connections in various embassies and accompany generals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs?
The answer provided by the investigation – “he had connections in embassies and accompanied generals because he was a fraudster” – cannot be recognized satisfactory. It raises another question: is the Russian intelligence really so unprofessional that a person quickly ‘deciphered’ by a businessman could play the fool with it for years? Or, alternatively, could Kovalchuk tell the truth about his extensive connections – and his ‘high patrons’ are really beyond the reach of the investigation?
Presumably, it concerns the US response to Ukraine’s help in the investigation against Joseph Biden, Trump’s main rival in the 2020 presidential election, who allegedly was in collusion with Kiev during the previous campaign.