By Alexander Clapp
The strange saga of a Greek-Russian tobacco tycoon shows how crisis-era Greece has regressed into a post-Soviet-style oligarchy.
Ivan Ignatyevich Savvidis has played many unusual roles in his life—one of the great tobacco tycoons of Eurasia, a member of Russia’s Duma, a confidante of Vladimir Putin —but it is his latest one that is now sounding off alarm bells throughout Europe.
Savvidis is the parvenu of Greece’s oligarchic scene. Since the onset of the economic crisis, he has effectively seized personal ownership over vast sectors of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city and its maritime gateway to the Balkans. The fire sale of old state assets—an auctioning process ordained by the European Union as part of its enforcement of economic austerity, but which has become overwhelmingly rigged by vested political interests within Greece—has given Savvidis a rare opportunity to invest hundreds of millions of euros into his ancestral homeland. A soccer team, a grand luxury hotel, a tobacco conglomerate, a water-bottling company, a fleet of beach resorts, a television station, a trio of newspapers, great stretches of coastline and blocs of Thessaloniki real estate, the port of Salonika and its industrial warehouses: these are but a few of the holdings that Savvidis has quietly acquired in the last eight years. The buying spree has lately given rise to a strange new coinage across the newspaper headlines and streets of his adopted city: Ivanaptiksi, “prosperity emanating from Ivan.”
This slow-motion conquest, taking place hundreds of kilometers from Athens in a city that makes few international headlines, has now begun to raise serious questions. How has a man worth $760 million on paper invested close to half of that amount in Greece in less than a decade? Allegations now being openly raised by the European press, along with concerns publicly voiced by the American ambassador in Athens, suggest that Ivan Savvidis is not what he appears to be: Masquerading as the financial savior of Thessaloniki, the theory runs, he is in fact a conduit of Putinist interests in the Aegean.Masquerading as the financial savior of Thessaloniki, the theory runs, he is in fact a conduit of Putinist interests in the Aegean.
Seen in this light, virtually all of Savvidis’s business deals and public undertakings in Greece seem to serve Moscow’s agenda. His dealings with the center-right New Democracy party—marrying off his niece to its general secretary, pitting its various clans against one another, peeling off the loyalties of its elected constituents through purported bribery all across northern Greece—appear an effort to sow division within the party most bent on Greece’s continued membership in the European Union. His purchase of Thessaloniki’s port seems a move to stymy NATO’s naval access to the interior of the Balkans, a region at the convergence of Russian and American spheres of influence. The millions of euros Savvidis has donated to the monasteries of Mount Athos for the construction of new churches act simultaneously as a Russian investment of soft power in a no-man’s land of international authority and financial transparency.
These allegations may just as easily be false, the byproduct of geopolitical conspiracy mongering and Russia paranoia gone rogue. It would hardly be the first time the West’s cottage industry of anti-Putinism has the paradoxical effect of making Russia’s reach seem far greater than it actually is. But in any case, the remarkable rise of Ivan Savvidis to a place of political prominence exposes an uncomfortable truth about the present course of the Greek state. Born in Georgia, enriched in Russia, Savvidis is an uncanny personification of Greece’s regression from a Western European-style state—the type of country austerity was supposed to finally hammer into existence—into something much more familiar to observers of the post-Soviet terrain.
Since the onset of austerity, Greece’s political and economic system has increasingly given way to a network of regional godfather figures, which probably has its closest parallel in Ukraine or the Republic of Moldova. This new crop of oligarchs has used Greece’s economic downturn to sweep up entire economic sectors, accumulating privatized state assets in everything from airports to gambling conglomerates to energy utilities. They have then converted this booty into political influence by buying up newly-auctioned swathes of the Greek media. Together, these new oligarchs have succeeded in carving up the crippled Greek state between themselves. In so doing, they have inadvertently underscored how Brussels’s fumbling attempts at forging a common foreign policy have been undermined by its own monetary programs.
The most important thing to understand about Savvidis is that he is nothing like the oligarchs Greece has seen before. The typical Greek oligarch is not a self-made man. His family has been wealthy, or siphoning money from the state coffers, or both, for generations. He inherits a fleet of ships, invests minimally within Greece, then blackmails whatever government happens to be in power by threatening to pull all his capital out of the country if any attempt is made to audit his assets or tax him efficiently. The typical Greek oligarch plays both ends of the political spectrum slyly and opportunistically. He is Western-oriented. He is based in Athens or Piraeus or London or Zurich. He functions with the rest of the oligarchs as a class, strategically marrying his children off to other shipping and industrial families. He generally pieces together industries within Greece, then divests his profits outside of the country into a diversified mercantile empire spanning the Balkans and often stretching out to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Savvidis is something else—to agnosto prosopo, “the unknown face.” A decade ago, almost no one in Greece had heard his name. He owns no ships. He made his fortune outside of Greece and is now investing it within the country at an unthinkably inauspicious time. He is politically obtuse. He makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with—and, indeed, has provoked a feud with—the leadership of New Democracy, the party that many expect will come to power in Greece within the next year. Savvidis has become the loyal instrument of a far-Left government that climbed to power on promises that it would rein in such figures, but which has instead given them renewed license to flourish.Savvidis has become the loyal instrument of a far-Left government that climbed to power on promises that it would rein in such figures, but which has instead given them renewed license to flourish. For Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Savvidis is what’s known as imeteroi — “one of our own,” a figurehead of vast capital a new government can use to outsource control of different sectors of the sprawling Greek state. In interviews, Savvidis has compared Tsipras favorably to Putin. He has warned Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy and Tsipras’s political adversary, that he will never become Prime Minister. Curiously, Savvidis speaks only a gnarled dialect of ancient Greek, which has curtailed his ability to address his ambitions in the Greek media. Savvidis has left it up to others to speculate what he is up to in Thessaloniki.
Most critically, in a country whose oligarchic class has been unwaveringly loyal to Euro-Atlanticism and American interests since the Second World War, Savvidis is an upstart from the East. His is a typically shadowy story of post-Soviet self-enrichment. In 1959, he was born into a large Greek peasant family in the mountains of southern Georgia. The history of his people, the Pontic Greeks—the Greeks of the Pontos, or the “deep sea”—is one of generational displacement. The descendants of ancient Greek colonists to the Black Sea, for centuries they lived on the northern cusp of Turkey as citizens of the Ottoman Empire. During the great population exchanges following World War I, most Pontic Greeks were forced to leave the new nation-state of Turkey. Some “returned” to Greece; others, like the Savvidis clan, migrated up the shore of the Black Sea and became citizens of another multinational empire, the Soviet Union. In the late 1930s, Stalin sent hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks out to Central Asia, deeming them fifth columns of imperialism.
Savvidis belongs to those Pontic Greeks who never left the Black Sea. Historically bounded by empires, not unlike the Georgians and Armenians and Chechens in the mountains surrounding them, the Caucasus Greeks captured an economic niche through the cultivation of tobacco. At the age of 14, Savvidis left their company, heading further up the shore of the Black Sea to Rostov-on-Don, where he rolled cigarettes on the floor of the Don State Tobacco Factory, took night classes at a local technical university, performed his military service and earned a reputation as a highly religious man. “He had always attributed everything to God, ever since he was sleeping on his best man’s couch in Rostov,” Sonia Prokopidi, a Pontic Greek who knew Savvidis before he came to Greece, told me in Thessaloniki. (In 2016 in Prochoma, a village along the Vardar River, Savvidis made a display of his religious devotion in stone. The fresco on the Church of the Holy Spirit depicts its benefactor, in the supplicating kneel of a Byzantine saint, decked out in a black power suit, lifting a relic towards an enthroned Christ. He is flanked by his wife and two sons, all three of whom control various fiefs within his empire.)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Savvidis and hundreds of thousands of other Pontic Greeks embarked on a mass odyssey back to Greece: the first nation-state they had known, and yet a place that was effectively foreign to them. (Along with them would eventually come many others from the ex-Soviet lands, among them Lasha Shushanashvili, the former treasurer of the Georgian mafia in Europe, born opposite the Tsalka Mountains from Savvidis in lower Georgia and still at large in Thessaloniki.) Known for harvesting tobacco in the USSR, in their ancestral homeland the Pontic Greeks gained a reputation for smuggling it in—first by fishing trawlers, later by cargo containers. It has never been clear to what extent Savvidis was involved in this trade, but by the time he returned to Russia just three years later, he had emerged through the distant end of a murky acquisition scheme as the owner of Donskoy Tabak, then a middling cigarette company wrangling for control of the regional market. Rostov, the city to which Savvidis had returned, had become the proverbial “father of mafias,” an epicenter of post-Soviet turf wars, many waged over the very commodity routes—out west to the Donbas and lower Ukraine, down to the Caucasus, on east to the Caspian Sea—that Savvidis would have certainly known well. A decade later, in 2003, he went to Moscow representing the Rostov Oblast in the Duma on Putin’s United Russia ticket.
Savvidis spent the decade in between his return to Russia and his debut in the Duma collecting a diverse constellation of companies, including a sausage manufacturer, a dairy packaging facility, and a supplier of industrial-grade farm equipment. But his biding occupation was always Donskoy, which he succeeded in overhauling into the largest cigarette producer in the former USSR. Some 30 billion cigarettes, or one in ten smoked in Russia, are annually produced by Donskoy, now under the formal management of Savvidis’s wife Kyriaki, a fellow Pontic Greek. A special contract forged with the new Russian state—a deal in which, to this day, the Savvidis family hands out a billion free cigarettes to the Russian army every year—granted Donskoy an outsized role in crafting Russia’s new tobacco legislation. On top of Donskoy, Savvidis acquired a handful of lesser assets, including an airport in Rostov and a fleet of Antonov cargo planes that pump cigarettes out across Central Asia and North Africa. Donskoy claims to send adisproportionate amount of its six billion exported cigarettes to three unrecognized statelets along the Black Sea—Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia—whose net populations amount to fewer than 800,000 people. Attributing profits to these unrecognized pseudo-states suggests either that Savvidis is earning his money by some other means—cigarette smuggling has been tepidly raised in the Greek press—or is being funneled it by an outside player. For the American and European Union officials who have objected to his acquisition of the port of Thessaloniki, the suspected culprit is Vladimir Putin.
By the mid-2000s, Savvidis had settled in Thessaloniki and, through a slew of Cypriot shell companies, begun his investments. He bought the PAOK soccer team, whose fan base has won him a maniacal personal following as well as a cheap form of insurance against significant investigations into his holdings. (In Greece, as in Italy and elsewhere, soccer crowds serve as extensions of political bases—a dangerous constituency for anyone in the press, the judiciary, or the political arena to provoke.) Savvidis then moved for SEKAP, a deeply-indebted state-owned tobacco producer out of Thrace whose commercial networks throughout Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean he has now integrated with the Black Sea networks commanded by Donskoy. (In June, a fishing trawler manned by Ukrainians was seized off the coast of Crete, en route from Montenegro, carrying millions of unregistered packets of Savvidis’s Thracian tobacco towards an unknown destination.) Next, Savvidis took over the Makedonia Pallas, a defunct former landmark hotel in northern Greece where he now regularly parks his black Mercedes. At the moment, he is currently attempting to buy Thessaloniki’s port, an extraordinary strategic asset, through a complicated bidding process that has raised eyebrows in Greece and drawn scrutinyfrom the State Department due to the curious precision of Savvidis’s bid, which managed to just edge out the bid put forth by the Dubai-based DP World.
The conduit between the crisis that first enriched Savvidis (the Soviet one) and the one through which he is currently divesting his wealth (the Greek one) is his ancient Pontic identity. He has become the figurehead for hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks who, to this day, have never felt properly assimilated into Greece.He has become the figurehead for hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks who, to this day, have never felt properly assimilated into Greece. Savvidis himself has never learned the language. He fills out his companies with Russians and Armenians, rarely Greeks. But he has suddenly, improbably, burst into the ranks of the Greek oligarchy.
For these Greeks, Savvidis is a hero. This past May, I watched as he inaugurated a new Pontic Greek studies department at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. Hundreds of Pontic Greeks sat in attendance. They whipped out their camera phones en masse as Savvidis—a sturdy, bespectacled man with a trimmed grey beard and a compact gait—strutted onto a stage cluttered with priests and fuming with incense. Approaching the podium, he nodded to a clutch of generals and SYRIZA ministers who had come up from Athens for the ceremony. Savvidis delivered his speech in Russian through a translator before attempting a small conclusion in Greek.
“For a long time we were ashamed to be Pontic Greeks. In this place we were considered foreigners. We were made to feel unwelcome,” he said. “But you should never feel ashamed to be Pontic Greek again.” Loud applause followed. “His story is my story,” a woman named Sultana whispered, turning to me. “It’s all of our stories.”
This is Ivan Savvidis: a man who, through seemingly unlimited resources, has gained control of Greece’s second city and won a fervent following among a potential voting bloc of some 400,000 Pontic Greeks—enough, perhaps, to sway a national election. If the allegations of Savvidis’s connections to Putin are true, they would confirm in northern Greece what has recently been revealed in Serbia and Macedonia: namely, that the Kremlin is using expatriate Russian oligarchs and their obscure financial networks to buy up state assets and undermine the decision-making of pro-European governments. That Putin himself has taken at least some interest in this venture became evident in May 2016, when he and Savvidis made ahighly-touted trip to Aghios Panteleimonas, Russia’s monastic outpost on Mount Athos which has, in the last two years, been outfitted with 500 new rooms and an assemblage of satellite systems.
Elsewhere in Greece, at the same time as Savvidis takes Thessaloniki, the consolidation of the state writ large by the new oligarchs proceeds apace, largely unquestioned. This generation of Greek elites is by no means dirtier than the previous one. But the crisis has given them extraordinarily free rein to take over, within the span of a few years and by European Union directive, what it typically took the previous generation of oligarchs decades to accumulate. With the exception of the port of Piraeus, which was sold off to the Chinese state last year for the equivalent of two weeks’ worth of debt relief, every major asset privatized since 2010 has fallen into their hands.
These vulture oligarchs, many of whom—Boris Mouzenidis, Victor Restis—were not even born in Greece, have exploited the crisis to pick off swathes of real estate and industrial sectors for pittances. The provenance of most of their capital is at best suspect, at worst blatantly illegal. Evangelos Marinakis, a Piraeus shipping magnate with suspected ties to the Greek underground, has now become a major media player. The family of Dimitris Melissanidis, an oil tycoon with roots in North Ossetia who has been caught up in allegations of smuggling gasoline and has provided the U.S. Mediterranean Naval Fleet with its oil since 2003, now lords over OPAP, the former state-owned gambling conglomerate. A handful of other barons—Dimitrios Copelouzos, Spiros Latsis—have taken over airports and huge chunks of coastline. Each of these figures presents exaggerated versions of what Greeks call diaploki, the nefarious intertwining of government and private interests that austerity has deepened, not dismantled. But only with Savvidis does a confrontation appear to be forthcoming. What will happen when SYRIZA is voted out of power? Some speculate that New Democracy will be forced to move against him. He will present a test—an opportunity, even—for Mitsotakis, the new party leader widely considered, even by those within his own party, to be a feeble technocrat.
Others claim that this is not how the Greek state works. Savvidis’s capital is too badly needed in a city that has been disproportionately ravaged by the crisis. New Democracy will be forced to accommodate him, just as they would any other oligarch. Under the guise of performing a house-cleaning of the Greek economy, Brussels will continue to push the relentless privatization of assets that has afforded oligarchs like Savvidis the cover for quiet state capture.
One can already imagine EU officials of the future puzzling over the rotted state of Greece, wondering how it could have ever happened again.
Alexander Clapp is a journalist based in Athens. His work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and The National Interest.