Sanctioned Russian banker boasts video about new Fintech project in Mexico
A BNE Intellinews article posted on March 6 claims that Forbes-listed billionaire Oleg Tinkov used money he raised from selling his stake in Tinkoff Bank in Russia to help launch a fintech project south of the border. The co-founders of the Mexico startup say that’s not the case, but in a video making the rounds in Russia, Oleg calls the project “ours.”
Former executives from Tinkoff Bank in Russia, including an American and an Italian who had worked for Oleg in Moscow for years, established themselves in Mexico after the West sanctioned Russian banks for the war in Ukraine. Their latest fintech company, called Different Technologies, is registered as a US company.
Like all emerging markets, Mexico has not adopted any Western sanctions policy against Russian companies or individuals.
The Russia sanctions are not combined across the Western sanctions regimes. Britain, Australia and Ukraine have all imposed sanctions on the luxury-loving, yacht-owning Tinkov, while the EU only sanctioned his bank. The US has no sanctionsed Tinkoff Bank, nor Oleg, although he has a criminal record here. Oleg became a US citizen in 1996, but renounced it in 2013 to avoid taxes on a billion dollar income. He was fined and paid over $500 million in a tax fraud case in 2021. That’s the extent of his run-ins with the long arm of American law.
Western sanctions changed the lives of many top managers at Tinkoff, including Oleg himself. Others have had to make a new life outside of Russia. This is the case with many companies, not just the heavily sanctioned financial sector. Companies that have wanted to continue operations and be international in scope could no longer do so from their place in Moscow.
“I am one of the founders of Different Technologies, together with three others. We started it in June, says Neri Tollardo, managing director of Different Technologies and former vice president of strategy at Tinkoff Bank in Moscow. “After studying a number of markets, we realized that going international for a Russian company was not going to work anymore. Because of that, we quit, left Russia and started fresh. I lived in Russia for nine years. We moved to Mexico to start Different Technologies, says Tollardo. Tollardo is from Italy.
Is the sanctioned billionaire on board?
Drama surrounding Oleg would make him toxic for a startup, or any business. The founders of Different Technologies say the venture is entirely theirs.
“We are in contact with Oleg. We have all worked with him for a long time. But he is only an adviser to us. He has no formal role with us. He is not a shareholder. He has no investment in the product, says Tollardo. – We started this from scratch. We had a very successful bank in Russia. We would be crazy not to do this, he says. “For us, it is very reasonable to take part in Oleg’s knowledge and experience as a serial entrepreneur. He didn’t start this company. Former Tinkoff executives started this company.”
Tollardo was joined in Mexico by an American named Alexander Bro, who worked at Tinkoff as vice president of non-financial services for over nine years. He is now Chief Business Development Officer at Different Technologies.
At least two Russian executives are also part of the team – David Isakhanian, a software developer and former head of mobile apps at Tinkoff, and Danil Anisimov, former head of product development and fund manager for Tinkoff Bank for nearly 12 years. Both are part of a legion of Russian leaders who have left the country to pursue careers abroad.
Oleg in Mexico: The $3,800 Cosmico Tequila Bottle
Some have wondered how a handful of Tinkoff executives could have started a company in Mexico City, but it is not impossible to imagine if they have enough capital to finance the venture. In addition, the product is already built, for the most part. This new business operates in a concept similar to Tinkoff Bank – it is an online financial business. Despite the small overhead and the fact that there is no need for bank branches or large office towers with many employees, a fintech startup usually takes months of work and millions, even tens of millions of dollars in seed capital. Three other “Tinkoff refugees” raised $16 million for a fintech startup based at Tinkoff Bank in the Philippines, Reuters reported in October.
Different Technologies’ Moscow team has partnered with some local leaders who either helped run or were developers at fintech companies in Mexico. It is unclear how much money they put into the company.
University of Michigan alumnus Alonso Leon de la Barra is CFO of Different Technologies. La Barra was CFO of ID Finance, a Mexican fintech company. Ricardo Torres, another Mexican Veep at Different, worked at credit card solutions company Konfio.
Before that, Oleg’s only obvious ties to Mexico were his luxury property, La Datcha, on the shores of Cabo San Lucas, where his yacht was also spotted. It is part of the Tinkoff Luxury Property Collection. Rumor has it that he spends part of his time there now, and one look at the place makes it understandable why. The beachfront property is straight out of Travel & Leisure magazine – a dream home for the super-rich and the Russian jet set fed up with Dubai.
This month, a video circulating in Russia showed Oleg in a Mexican liquor store recently trying out a new credit card. In the video, a man speaks Russian off-camera and films colorful tequila bottles. He zooms in on one in particular – a colorful $3,800 bottle of Cosmico Tequila. A clerk behind the counter dressed in a black long-sleeved V-neck picks up the bottle and asks in Spanish: “¿Éste?” and Oleg answers her in Russian, “da”.
We then see the card in his hand. It has numbers on it like a regular credit card. It’s a chip reader. He turns it over and you can see the three digit security code on the back and the expiry date. Filming this is a risky move, but Oleg is not afraid of risky moves. There is no logo on the card. There is no name attached to it. This is a test run.
The clerk moves behind a Plexiglas counter to ring him behind an HP desktop computer. She places the card in a hand-held payment reader. He enters a pin number. Oleg waits to see if the transaction works. He points to the screen. Success! The receipt is printed.
At this moment, he turns the camera on himself for the first time. He is dressed in 1980s Miami Vice: a brown sports coat and white T-shirt with dark black shades. He makes a peace sign with his fingers, then flips off the camera in typical Oleg fashion.
The camera then turns to two younger boys. Oleg thanks them in Russian and says “spasibo” and calls the project “ours” (“nash” in Russian). One of the men is Alexander Bro. Oleg says his name as if they are old college friends. Bro is dressed like a typical Silicon Valley bro in a white T-shirt and blue zip-up hoodie. He doesn’t seem too happy to be on camera. Bro is standing near another man, but it is unclear who.
None of this suggests that Oleg has anything to do with Different Technologies other than as an adviser. And if he did, as an investor, none of that would be in violation of US sanctions.
Oleg was forced to sell his 35% stake in TCS Group Holding last April, the holding company that owns Tinkoff Bank. He sold it to avoid corporate risk after Britain, Australia and Ukraine hit him with sanctions. TCS Group’s shares were suspended from trading on the London Stock Exchange, where they were listed, in March 2022.
The US-sanctioned Russian oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, bought Tinkov’s and his family’s position in the TCS Group. Oleg sold other businesses to companies whose ownership included another Forbes billionaire Roman Abramovich. Being a Russian billionaire has complications today. Both of these men have been sanctioned. They would be better off in the middle class and less exciting.
Russian sanctions and its discontent
The sanctions against Russia’s business elite had two aims – to damage the Russian economy by cutting it off from Western talent and commercial transactions, and to use these leaders as influencers in the hope that they could lobby Moscow to stop the war.
But Oleg has about as much say in Russian foreign policy as Jeff Bezos has in the White House. Oleg recently renounced his Russian citizenship, calling the war “crazy”.
He has been chastised by Britain for his comments in 2014 about the annexation of Crimea, which have been used to single him out as a “Putin supporter” (once brazenly saying Putin should be Tsar for life). He said he supported the Russian takeover of Crimea. Then again, most people supported the Crimean annexation, according to opinion polls in the US and Europe.
According to a March 1 Bloomberg report, former oilman and exiled Russian ‘oligarch’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent years in a Russian prison after a fallout with Vladimir Putin over Yukos Oil, wrote to the British Foreign Office last month to appeal for sanctions relief for Oleg Tinkov.
“I believe the decision to impose sanctions on him was wrong,” Bloomberg reported. He quoted Oleg’s criticism of the war. “The lifting of sanctions should be very clearly linked to public disengagement from this regime and its war,” Khodorkovsky said.
Numerous sanctioned Russians living abroad have come out against the war, often with the side note that their criticism will endear them to those responsible for the sanctions in Washington and Brussels. None have succeeded.