For a Russian Couple, Safe Haven in Guatemala Is Fleeting


Nor is there any evidence to corroborate the Bitkovs’ assertion that the Kremlin persecuted them over their refusal to follow political orders.

While the Bitkovs say they left Russia because of what they called physical and legal threats from a corrupt system, they appeared blind to the kind of corruption that would ensnare them in Guatemala. Offered a quick fix with fake documents, they agreed.

“We fought against one bad thing, and we benefited from another,” Mr. Bitkov, 47, said in an interview at the small, crowded jail for white-collar suspects where he has spent almost 18 months.

Ms. Bitkova, 45, and the couple’s children, Anastasia, 25, and Vladimir, 4, who was born in Guatemala, live under what is essentially house arrest. No trial date for the couple has been set, and the family is seeking political asylum in Guatemala.

A return to Russia would be “a death sentence,” Mr. Bitkov said.

There is little question that Moscow’s long reach set the Guatemalan case in motion.

In 2013, Russia’s VTB Bank accused the couple of embezzling $6 million and laundering the money in Guatemala, and filed a criminal complaint, which was never pursued. But that complaint alerted Guatemalan officials to the Bitkovs’ fake papers, which implicated the couple in an investigation by an anticorruption panel into a criminal network in the passport and civil registry office.

Work by the anticorruption panel, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or Cicig, has led to charges against about 50 people in that case.

VTB was a major creditor of the North-West Timber Company, the St. Petersburg business founded by the Bitkovs in 1997.

“They want to show company owners that they are going to punish any businessman in any part of the world,” Mr. Bitkov said, explaining why he believes the bank has pursued them for so long over what he called false charges.

Photo

Igor Bitkov last year. He is being held in a Guatemalan jail.

Credit
Grigory Pasko

Harvey Pacay, a Guatemalan lawyer for VTB in the case, said the bank’s concern was strictly business related. “Our principal objective in this case was really for the investigation into the false documents, and then their expulsion so that they can be judged in their own country,” he said.

“We don’t know if they face political persecution, if they have problems with Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Pacay added.

The couple’s account of the case against them in Russia echoes the pattern of other corporate raids in that country. Company owners targeted by rivals or even by government officials often face a legal onslaught and the threat of prison time, intended to force them out.

The Bitkovs said their problems began in 2006 after they refused to collaborate with Georgi V. Boos, the new governor of Kaliningrad, where they were one of the largest employers.

Ms. Bitkova said she had declined an invitation from the deputy governor to act as the regional representative for Mr. Putin’s party. “We didn’t want to become their puppets,” her husband said.

Threats grew over the next two years, the Bitkovs said. The couple said Anastasia was kidnapped when she was 16, and was found three days later, only after they paid $200,000 to the police. They then sent her to study in Britain.

There were demands for money to be paid to offshore accounts, Mr. Bitkov said, and threats of jail for failure to comply. As costs rose in the paper industry, the banks began to cut off credit.

In April 2008, the couple left.

Days later, Sberbank, Gazprombank and VTB, the state-owned banks that had lent their company hundreds of millions of dollars, gave the Bitkovs 48 hours to pay. Negotiations from abroad failed, and criminal cases were opened against the couple.

The banks took over the company, laying off employees and selling most of the assets, actions that made no sense economically, the couple said.

“I can sincerely say that we lost everything,” Mr. Bitkov said.

Mr. Boos, the former governor, rejected the Bitkovs’ accusations against him and said their troubles were not politically motivated. He said their business could not withstand multiple pressures, including a shortage of wood.

“I don’t think there was a conspiracy,” he said. “When the crisis hit, the banks became more demanding.”

After the couple’s arrest in January 2015, though, Russian newspaper coverage described the Bitkovs as criminals. Pavel A. Astakhov, Russia’s child rights commissioner, announced concern for the Bitkovs’ son, Vladimir, and suggested that he receive a Russian passport.

“They get you where it hurts most,” said Ms. Bitkova, who fears Vladimir could be sent to Russia.

Although many Russians in similar situations seek asylum in Britain, the Bitkovs said they had worried they might not be accepted. They found an easier and cheaper solution: a company that advertised legal Guatemalan documents. They flew to Guatemala and acquired passports under assumed names in government offices in 2009.

“Why can’t I receive a document to save my life, that of my wife and of my daughter?” Mr. Bitkov said. “I got the document in a public place, not in a warehouse.”

Such arguments sound disingenuous to prosecutors. “In what country in the world do you pay for your nationality?” said Diego Alvarez, a spokesman for Cicig.

Feeling safe, the Bitkovs did little to hide their presence in Guatemala. They bought a house in a gated community. Mr. Bitkov’s mother came, and the family posted excerpts online from a reality show featuring Anastasia.

“If I hadn’t been in such a complicated situation, I would have given it more thought,” Irina Bitkova said of the easy solution the family was promised in Guatemala. “Maybe it was the fear that pushed us.”

Correction: May 31, 2016

Because of an editing error, a picture caption in an earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances under which Irina Bitkova and her daughter, Anastasia, were staying at a Guatemalan hospital. They were being held in detention there last year, not in hiding.

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