A company which operates private jets used by the Belgian King, the Prime Minister, and the Belgian army has been linked to an influential Russian oligarch, according to a recent investigation conducted by fourteen European media outlets including Le Soir, Knack and De Tijd.
In 2013, Luxembourg-based company Luxaviation — one of the largest private aircraft operators in the world — purchased a Belgian subsidiary, Abelag. In 2019, Abelag (now called 'Luxaviation Belgium') secured a €124.5 million twelve-year contract from the Belgian Ministry of Defence to operate two Falcon 7X private jets, which are frequently used by the Belgian army and members of Belgium's political elite.
The reporting — based in large part on the Pandora Papers — has found that Luxaviation's original purchase of Abelag was financed by a $20.5 million five-year loan from Ackerfield Overseas Limited, a company established in the British Virgin Islands in 2008. The ultimate beneficial owner (UBO) of this company is Alexander Kolikov, the son of influential Russian billionaire Valery Kolikov.
At the time of the purchase, no mention was made of the Russian financing in the Belgian press. Indeed, in an interview with De Tijd in July 2014, Luxaviation CEO Patrick Hansen explicitly claimed that Abelag's acquisition had been paid for with its "own funds and bank loans".
A sprawling network
Hansen has cultivated close ties with Russia for many years. In the late 1990s, he worked as a consultant in Russia, where he struck up relationships with numerous influential Russian investors and officials, including the Kolikov family.
Hansen is currently the owner, co-owner, or director of approximately 90 companies, many of which are registered in tax havens or low-tax countries including Luxembourg, the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, and Belize. Of these businesses, at least a dozen belong to Valery Kolikov or his son Alexander.
Valery Kolikov, in particular, is closely linked to Russia's political elite. In 2016, he was awarded the Russian Medal of Honour by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moreover, his company, MRTS, has been awarded numerous state contracts, including for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 underwater gas pipeline between Germany and Russia.
In addition, Luxaviation was itself set up in 2008 by Hansen and an (unnamed) Russian former KGB officer, who sold all his shares to Hansen the following year. Luxaviation's growth has since been extremely rapid, thanks in large part to financing from Russia as well as from a Chinese investment fund.
Responding to the recent reporting, a spokesperson for Minister of Defence Ludivine Dedonder (PS) downplayed the significance of Abelag's ties to Russia:
"The contract for the two Falcon 7-x aircraft is carried out by the Luxaviation group, both for the delivery of the aircraft, the handling on the ground in Brussels and the maintenance," Dedonder told De Tijd. "But according to the available intelligence, there is no security problem with Luxaviation. The aircraft are owned by foreign companies and are leased by Luxaviation in execution of the contract."
The spokesperson added that the maintenance of both aircraft is carried out by Luxaviation in Brussels or Kortrijk and the possible spare parts come from France or the United States. According to Dedonder, the Ministry of Defence has no knowledge of a Russian connection for the execution of the contract. In addition, the Ministry of Defence takes all necessary precautions, as for other service contracts, to reduce any security risk to an absolute minimum."
The SGRS, the Belgian military intelligence, has refused to comment on Abelag's links to Russia. However, according to Le Soir, the SGRS "very recently" carried out a review of the Belgian Federal Government's contract with Abelag; it is believed that it will not advise the Government to renege on the deal.