Russian businessman Savvidi seen behind violent protest in FYROM

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By Stelios Orphanides

Russian businessman Ivan Savvidi financed political groups in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) with at least €300,000 to protest against an agreement with Greece that will allow the Balkan country to change its name and join NATO, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Centre (OCCRP) reported on Monday, citing interior ministry documents.

Savvidi, who is of Greek ancestry and a political ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, made the payments to over a dozen politicians from various parties, including members of radical nationalist organisations and soccer hooligans, the OCCRP reported.

On Wednesday, the same day the Western alliance decided to invite FYROM to become a member, NATO-member Greece decided to expel two Russian diplomats accused of supplying funds to protest groups and ban two others from entering the country.

The prime ministers of Greece and FYROMAlexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev last month agreed to settle the dispute over the tiny Balkan country’s name that goes back three decades. Its parliament approved the agreement signed by Tsipras and Zaev. Yet FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov refused to sign the bill into law renaming the country to the Republic of North Macedonia.

Zaev accused on Monday Greek businessmen sympathetic to Russia, which opposes the expansion of NATO, of inciting violent protests in his country against the deal. The agreement also sparked huge demonstrations in Greece.

Savvidi, who is owner of Greece’s Paok FC and made headlines four months ago in Greece when he stormed the pitch where his team was playing armed with a gun and escorted by his bodyguards. Greek authorities issued an arrest warrant against him.

Days later he attended the inauguration of President Nicos Anastasiades. He was seated in the VIP area of the parliament, accompanied by his aide Sergey Anisimof, and Giorgos Gurovanides, a Russian-speaking lawyer from Thessaloniki.

Government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou said then that Savvidi was acquainted with President Nicos Anastasiades, one of the few EU leaders to visit Moscow after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula four years ago. The annexation prompted the US and the EU to impose sanctions against Russia.

According to the OCCRP, Savvidi, estimated to be worth $2bn (€1.7bn), transferred the funds to FYROM with payments in cash, after some of it was carried over the border in cash, and other unspecified methods. Police investigations were continuing, the OCCRP added.

Read the full report here.

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