Germany is investigating deals under which most of the stake in Tui held by the sanctioned Russian oligarch Alexei Mordashov was transferred to an entity controlled by his wife, Marina Mordashova, Tui said on Friday.
Tui, the world’s biggest holiday company, was informed this week that Mordashova controls Ondero Ltd, which bought stakes in Mordashov’s Unifirm Ltd, Tui’s top shareholder, from two of his subsidiaries on 28 February.
Mordashova has been named in media reports as Mordashov’s wife. According to Refinitiv data, the 34% stake in Tui owned by the Mordashov family is worth about € 1.5bn (£ 1.3bn).
Germany’s economy ministry has “initiated an investigation procedure under the foreign trade and payments act against Ondero Ltd regarding the effectiveness of the notified transaction”, Tui said on Friday.
The ministry confirmed that the investigation was under way but declined further comment. While not stating it publicly, German authorities have pointed to their suspicion that Mordashov’s move to transfer the shares to his wife was a deliberate maneuver on his part di lui in order to be able to keep his control of the company, albeit indirectly.
Mordashov was among Russian businessmen hit with sanctions by the EU on the same day that the Tui stake was transferred. He was put under sanctions by the UK.
German authorities have voiced their fears that the sanctions imposed by the EU and the freezing of his Tui fortune are in danger of amounting to nothing as it may be impossible to legally challenge the transfer.
The German economics publication Manager Magazin said it looked as if Mordashov may have “stolen one of the tricks out of the books of fathers who want to withdraw from their obligations to make maintenance payments [to their families]”.
The move means the majority of Mordashov’s voting rights as a shareholder in Tui are now under the control of his wife.
A Tui spokesperson said on Friday that as long as the economics ministry was examining the legality of the shareholder ownership in conjunction with the foreign trade law, the voting rights in question would be blocked.
Frank Buckenhofer, the deputy chief of the German police trade union GdP Customs, an expert in money laundering, said he was very suspicious of the timing of the regrouping of Tui shares.
“It is surely no coincidence. I believe that this deal was made on purpose precisely in order to be able to bypass sanctions, ”he told the broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk. “It is already interesting that the European Union released a sanctions list and exactly at the same time, when that sanctions list took effect, that money happened to fly into the pocket of someone else.”
A spokesperson for Russian steelmaker Severstal, in which Mordashov is the controlling shareholder, declined to comment on the matter.
On Friday Italy seized a building complex owned by Mordashov on the island of Sardinia worth about € 105m. It was the second time this month that assets belonging to the businessman, Russia’s richest man, have been seized in Italy. On 4 March police impounded his 65-meter yacht, the Lady M, worth about € 65m.
Tui said earlier this month that Mordashov had informed it about changes in the ownership structure of Unifirm Ltd, under which it transferred 4.1% of its 34% Tui stake to Russia’s Severgroup, also controlled by Mordashov.
At the time it was also disclosed that Mordashov’s subsidiaries KN-Holding LLC and Rayglow Ltd sold their shares in Unifirm Ltd to Ondero Ltd on 28 February, giving Ondero a 29.9% indirect stake in Tui.
Tui said it was not notified of who was the controlling shareholder of Ondero at the time.