Foul Play of Stanko Subotić and José Luís Arnaut Suspected – 47 Millions Euros Deal

New information raises questions about the relationship between a Serbian businessman who earned millions from selling land around Belgrade’s airport, and a Portuguese ex-minister whose law firm advised on the airport deal.

After winning the concession to expand Belgrade’s airport, French construction giant Vinci bought nearby land from controversial Serbian businessman Stanko Subotić for 47 million euros — over four times more than projected by an internal government assessment.
The following year, Subotić became business partners in a newly founded real estate company with a former Portuguese government minister, José Luís Arnaut, whose law firm had advised the Serbian government on the airport deal.
Arnaut initially denied any dealings with Subotić, who has been linked to organized crime, but later admitted to holding a minority position in the company, which he said was for “opportunistic investments in real estate.”
When French construction giant Vinci won the rights to operate Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport in early 2018, President Aleksandar Vučić called it a “big deal for Serbia.”

“This is a thing that will strengthen our creditworthiness and bring us more investors,” he said at a press conference to tout the deal, which was backed by a loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“The airport will look much better than it looks now.”

Vinci paid just over half a billion euros for the rights to run the busiest airport in the Western Balkans for 25 years. The French firm also promised to spend another 732 million euros to upgrade the facility, including a major expansion to more than double its passengers to 15 million annually by the end of the concession period.

But the “big deal for Serbia” was also a big deal for wealthy businessman Stanko Subotić, who profited handsomely from land he owned near the airport.

KRIK and OCCRP previously reported that Subotić was poised to reap benefits from the new construction, but new information obtained by reporters shows that he earned far more than initially projected. Vinci paid 47 million euros for two parcels of land owned by a Subotić firm — more than four times higher than projected in a secret internal government report.

What’s more, within a year of selling the land, Subotić went into business with a former Portuguese politician whose law firm advised Serbia’s government on the airport deal, KRIK and OCCRP have learned. That firm, CMS Rui Pena & Arnaut, had also been an adviser to Vinci in Portugal.

In 2016, when the Serbian government was still deciding what to do with the state-run airport in Belgrade, it hired CMS Rui Pena & Arnaut as part of an advisory team led by a French consulting company. The group recommended that the Serbian government seek a concession deal, and drafted a feasibility study for the agreement. Vinci signed the concession agreement in March 2018, and set about arranging to buy Subotić’s land.

The land sale was finalized in December 2018. Then, at some point in 2019, Subotić became partners in a real-estate company with one of the law firm’s managing partners, José Luís Fazenda Arnaut, a former deputy prime minister of Portugal, newly available corporate ownership data from Luxembourg reveals. It is unclear how the two men knew each other.

“Now that we have all pieces put together, it of course raises suspicion of a connection between Subotić, the government of Serbia, and this law office,” said Zlatko Minić from Transparency Serbia. “The question is whether Vinci is also connected in this deal or they found themselves in a situation in which they could not choose.”

Arnaut initially denied having set up a company with Subotić, but later confirmed he was an investor in their joint venture, Vanguardlevel, which he said was for “opportunistic investment” in real estate. He dismissed the suggestion that there was any conflict of interest at play, saying he was not part of the team from his law firm that advised on the airport deal.

Vinci said the company bought the land from Subotić because it was needed for the airport expansion, and said the final deal took into account the “privileged situation” of the sellers. The company dismissed questions about the disparity between the price Vinci paid for the land and the government advisers’ estimate.

“Comparing their price per square meter to that of other plots of land is not relevant,” the company said.

Subotić’s lawyer, Antoine Vey, declined to answer specific questions on the matter, but said: “Stanko Subotić will not hesitate to use any legal means to defend his interests, as he has done in the past.”

“The Price Is Shocking To Me”
Subotić, who before the global financial crash was one of the 100 richest people in Central and Eastern Europe, was the largest private owner of land around Nikola Tesla Airport when Vinci won the concession to expand it.

Originally, Serbian airport authorities planned to build the expansion on 28 of Subotić’s 112 hectares. A document obtained by KRIK and OCCRP shows a government advisory group estimated in 2016 that land in the area would cost 100 euros per square meter, meaning Subotić would reap some 28 million euros.

After the concession deal, Vinci ended up buying less than 11 hectares of Subotić’s land — but paid 47 million euros for it, or 436 euros per square meter, according to a financial statement from the company through which Subotić owned the land.

That price tag is also nearly double the airport’s own valuation of the land. Its financial report for 2019 estimated the two parcels owned by Subotić were worth just 25.4 million euros.

“The price is shocking to me,” said Minić from Transparency Serbia.

Vinci said it started negotiations to buy Subotić’s land in 2017, while it was still bidding for the airport concession, and completed the deal a year later, after it had won the tender.

Vinci said it dealt with Subotić because it needed his land. “The sale price of the plots of land was the result of a seller/buyer negotiation taking into account their privileged situation,” the statement said. “These plots were necessary for our optimal technical and operational solution for the development of the airport.”

But not all the bidders took the same approach. Zurich Airport’s competing bid for the concession proposed building in an area that did not seem to include Subotić’s land.

Before advising the Serbian government on its airport, CMS Rui Pena & Arnaut had also consulted for Vinci. Arnaut personally helped the French company negotiate its successful 2013 purchase of the state-run Aeroportos de Portugal (ANA), which controls 10 airports in Portugal.

ANA became a subsidiary of Vinci Airports, and the Portuguese politician was appointed chairman of its board on January 4, 2018 — the day before Vinci was awarded the Serbian airport concession.

After three years as a member of parliament in Portugal, he was appointed to the position of “minister attached to the prime minister,” also sometimes referred to as deputy prime minister, under José Manuel Barroso in 2002. A member of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, he used to be on the political committee of NATO’s parliamentary assembly. He also has links to banking behemoth Goldman Sachs, sitting on its international advisory board.

In the mid-2000s, Arnaut was tasked with undertaking a root-and-branch review of how soccer was run in Europe, after the game had been plagued by a host of scandals. Currently, he is president of the assembly of the Portuguese Football Federation.

Pressed on whether his ties to Vinci created a conflict of interest in Serbia, Arnaut said he was never part of the legal team that advised on Nikola Tesla Airport.

“I personally never provided services to the Serbian Government in my career,” he said, adding that “Chinese walls” set up within the law firm meant that “sensitive information relating to the Belgrade Airport project was kept within the team allocated to it.”

Vinci said that Arnaut told them he did not advise Serbia’s government on the airport deal.

“Mr. Arnaut had no influence whatsoever on the decision” to award the tender to Vinci, it said.

At some point in 2019, Subotić and Arnaut became partners in a real estate company called Vanguardlevel, which had been set up in March that year in Portugal by a company Arnaut controls, Platinumdetails.

Data from Luxembourg’s register of ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) shows Subotić owns 90 percent of Vanguardlevel through his firm Emerging Markets Investments. Arnaut controls the remaining share through Platinumdetails.

Reporters have not been able to find any property owned by Vanguardlevel.

When contacted by a reporter, Arnaut first denied working with Subotić. “I don’t have businesses. I am a lawyer,” he said before hanging up the phone.

Later, when queried again by email about his links to the Serbian businessman, he backtracked. “Vanguardlevel was created for opportunistic investments in Real Estate, and I decided to participate in a minority position with my own funds as a financial investor,” he wrote to reporters.

“This company for the development of its investments resorted to financing as it is market practice. I still own this investment as the Real Estate market, as many others, has suffered greatly with the ongoing economic crisis thereby affecting the expected return on investment.”

Serbia’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

This is the second questionable deal that the OpenLux data has revealed involving Subotić, who was convicted by a Serbian court in absentia for smuggling cigarettes in 2011 but was later acquitted after a controversial retrial.

Subotić has been known to do business with a prominent underworld figure.

Police and prosecutors in at least two countries have linked him to Darko Šarić, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for smuggling almost six tons of cocaine. Subotić’s name appears several times in documents from the Serbian investigation against Šarić, but he has never been charged.

In 2008, an offshore company Šarić owned gave a guarantee to a Subotić company in Montenegro so that he could secure a loan from Prva Banka, a bank run by a brother of Montenegro’s President Milo Dukanović.

Nebojša Joksović, Šarić’s one-time ally, testified at his drug trial that Šarić once loaned Subotić 6.5 million euros. The collateral, Joksović said, was an island that Subotić owned off Montenegro’s coast.

When the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigated Šarić, they listed a man named Stanko Subotić as related to the drug lord’s gang.

According to a secret Serbian crime police report from 2009, Šarić and Subotić communicated on a daily basis on dedicated burner phones known in Serbia as “specials,” and when officers raided Šarić’s home they found a Harley Davidson motorbike owned by Subotić.

Subotić’s lawyer, Vey, did not answer specific questions but stressed that Subotić has been cleared of all criminal charges laid against him.

Arnaut did not respond to questions on how he knew Subotić, or whether he was aware of the Serbian businessman’s reputed ties to Šarić. However, he noted that Subotić had been acquitted of the charge of cigarette smuggling.

“As an individual and a lawyer, I strongly believe in the rule of law as a main principle of a democratic state and fully respect court decisions as a believer in justice and institutions,” he wrote.

Another OpenLux investigation found that last year, Subotić used a Luxembourg shell company to sell an airline to Nikola Petrović, a close associate of Serbia’s President Vučić.

The story offered the first documented evidence linking Subotić to the president’s inner circle. Vučić has since hit back, saying he had never ridden on “buses, planes, or anything else” belonging to Petrović.

“He has always been rich,” Vučić told a reporter about Petrović, saying he had no knowledge of his friend’s business affairs.

Nikola Petrović, Friend Of Serbian President Linked To Mafia

Bildergebnis für Nikola Petrović
Nikola Petrovic

The shadow of Stanko Subotić has long stalked Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Allegations of links between the businessman with ties to organized crime and the country’s top politician have often been levelled, but never proven.

Subotić, convicted of large-scale cigarette smuggling in 2011 and handed six years in prison, before being controversially cleared a few years later, has insisted he only ever backed Vučić at the ballot box, never financially.

While opposition politicians and media allege there are deeper ties between the politician and businessman, always without proof, the two steadfastly deny any connection. Such ties would be problematic for the president because of Subotić’s former convictions (since reversed) for criminal activities, and evidence of ties between Subotić and regional drug lord Darko Sarić.

In Serbia and several other Balkan nations, the “best man,” or kum, is an important social role with no real equivalent in English. A kum might literally be a groomsman at a wedding, but it also refers to someone who is as close as family, like a blood brother.

But despite Vučić’s moves to distance himself from Subotić, OCCRP and its Serbian member center KRIK have found that Nikola Petrović — a man known to be very close to the president who describes himself as Vučić’s “best man,” or kum in Serbian — has in fact done business with Subotić.

Petrović established a shell company in Luxembourg in early 2019 through which he ran various Serbian business ventures, including interests in air transport, solar energy, and pharmaceuticals. A closer look into some of these holdings by OCCRP’s Serbian member center KRIK offers the first documented evidence tying Subotić’s network to the president’s inner circle.

“I am not a public figure,” Petrović told reporters when asked about his business dealings. “I do not need to answer your questions and you absolutely don’t have the right to ask me questions. I will report you for harassing me.”

Petrović is, despite these protestations, a well-known and influential figure in Serbia.

So important is his role that he was named in a letter sent by five U.S. members of Congress to then-Vice President Joseph Biden in September 2015, days before Vučić visited the U.S. The legislators were concerned, they wrote, that a small group led by Vučić’s brother Andrej, and including Petrović, had “consolidated their influence and interest in energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and all major businesses in Serbia.”

In October 2018, Subotić moved his holding company, Emerging Markets Investments (EMI), from Denmark to Luxembourg. Initially, he based the company in the capital city, Luxembourg, at the address of Auditex, a tax consulting firm. When Auditex later moved to Leudelange, a small town in the southwestern part of the country, EMI moved with them.Credit: Stevan Dojcinovic/KRIKDrug trafficker Darko Sarić is seen at a hearing.

Petrović established his own company, Fabergé Advisors, months later in January 2019. Although its structure is complex — Fabergé Advisors was founded by a company based in the U.K., with its last known main shareholder a Cyprus-registered company — Petrović is listed as the beneficial owner.

Fabergé Advisors, as it turns out, uses the same directors and the same address as Subotić’s holding company, EMI. That address is the offices of the parent company of Auditex, the tax consulting company used by Subotić.

The connection is not definitive because more than 400 additional companies are also registered at the same address, indicating it may be in use by a registration agent. The shared directors are likely proxies — individuals from France and Belgium who appear as managers in numerous companies in Luxembourg.

But there are more direct business relationships. Petrović and Subotić share an interest in aviation.

In October 2020, Petrović branched into the sector by using Fabergé Advisors to buy the air transport firm Air Posh for what appears to be a knockdown price of 100,000 euros, a contract shows. The seller was Subotić, using a subsidiary of EMI. Subotić had established Air Posh through a series of companies just a year and a half earlier, in April 2019.

While under Subotić’s ownership, Air Posh had bought a Cessna 550 aircraft from a New York company. The airplane alone is worth between 700,000 and 1.3 million euros, according to websites that advertise such prices, indicating that for 100,000 euros, Petrović may have bought Air Posh at a huge discount. (Neither Subotić nor Petrović would respond to questions on the sale from OCCRP and KRIK, and it is possible there were additional terms of the deal not known to reporters.)

The plane at one point was used by Air Pink, an air transport company co-owned by media magnate Željko Mitrović, who had close ties to the former regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosević. Mitrović’s TV Pink is considered by Serbian media analysts to be the strongest vehicle for what they say is Vučić’s propaganda.

Under Petrović, Air Posh kept its registered office in a building where Subotić owns several apartments in Belgrade, and the airline continued to use the Cessna, according to information from the Civil Aviation Directorate of the Republic of Serbia. Borislav Radić, a pilot who, according to his LinkedIn profile, previously worked for Air Pink, was named director of Air Posh after Petrović took over the company. The Cessna is still listed on the Air Pink website as part of its fleet.Credit: KRIKThe headquarters of Air Posh is seen in Belgrade.

Under Petrović’s ownership, Air Posh flies clients from its Serbian base mostly to Vienna, but also to Brussels, Rome, Amsterdam, Moscow, Kyiv, Bodrum, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Sharm El Sheikh and Dubai, according to websites that record flight information.

After President Vučić’s party came to power in 2012, Petrović was made director of a state-owned company controlling electrical transmission. Leaving this role in late 2016, he went on to thrive in the private sector, producing electricity via mini-hydropower plants — electricity he sold to the Serbian state for millions of euros.

When buying companies in Serbia, Petrović took pains not to expose himself. Indeed, some of his new business partners told reporters they didn’t know he was the one behind the company with which they had signed contracts.Credit: StorenergyA Storenergy solar concentrator.

Again through the Luxembourg-based Fabergé Advisors, he expanded his portfolio in August 2019, by purchasing a 50-percent stake in Serbian company Storenergy, a solar energy company which filed a patent application for a “solar concentrator, receiver and thermal storage,” records show.

His new partner in this business, Marko Vuksanović, told OCCRP/KRIK he didn’t realize that the buyer was the Serbian president’s “best man.” Asked with whom he negotiated when he sold part-ownership, he said he dealt “with a few people who are representatives of that [Fabergé Advisors] investment fund. … They are some French people.”

The solar contract was signed on Petrović’s behalf by Vladimir Krkobabić, a director in many companies owned by Subotić. Petrović paid 50,000 euros to Vuksanović for his half-share of Storenergy, according to a contract seen by OCCRP and KRIK.

Storenergy has installed one small solar concentrator on Avala mountain, near Belgrade, and a bigger one near the town of Kragujevac in central Serbia, according to the company’s website.

With the Serbian government investing millions of euros into renewable energy in the coming years, those involved in this business, including Petrović, could be poised to book large profits.

Third among Petrović’s new business interests is pharmaceuticals.

In September 2020, once more via Fabergé Advisors, he took majority ownership of Serbian company Krasius, which one year earlier had received permission to import drugs for clinical trials, according to documents obtained from the Serbian Ministry of Health by OCCRP/KRIK. The ministry is run by Zlatibor Lončar, one of a handful of Vučić associates with alleged ties to organized crime.

Just a month before Petrović took ownership, this company received another permit, from Medicines and Medical Devices Agency of Serbia, to import 960 vials of CIMAher, a drug produced by the Center for Molecular Immunology in Cuba. Data from the agency shows that the CIMAher was for use by a private Belgrade clinic called Vesalius. CIMAher is a non-registered medicine in Serbia, but some websites advertise it as an anti-cancer treatment.

According to a Cuban medical services company contacted by KRIK, the price for one vial is $400, meaning that the retail value of the shipment would be $380,000. Yet according to the contract paperwork, Petrović paid just 51 dinars (50 U.S. cents) for a 51-percent controlling share of Krasius from Ivan Krasić, an ex-basketball player for the French club Cholet. Krasić told reporters he didn’t originally know Petrović was the one buying a stake in his company.

Much like Vuksanović, Krasić insisted he had initially been completely in the dark as to who his new partner was.

“I don’t know Petrović,” he said. “Some lawyers called me and asked me to sell part of the company. I was in need of money.” Krasić said he had only heard that Petrović was behind the deal when they were “finishing” it.

But if Krasić badly needed cash, the selling price of 51 dinars wouldn’t have been of much use to him. When asked by reporters how much he had really been paid, Krasić replied that it was “a trade secret.”

“I don’t have anything to do with politics,” he said. “That is not my world. They are big players. I am a modest man. I play basketball.”