Investigation 4 August 2020

What links Russia to Germany’s Wirecard scandal?

One of the main figures in the collapse of German payment firm Wirecard, chief operating officer Jan Marsalek, is reportedly hiding somewhere near Moscow. The Bell looked at Wirecard’s connections with Russia, and why Marsalek visited the country over 60 times in a decade.

  • It’s perhaps no coincidence that Marsalek, who is wanted by German police, chose to seek refuge in Russia. Over the last 10 years, he has visited the country at least 60 times. He usually spent a day or less in Russia, and in 2016 he came a total of 16 times, often travelling on private jets. He went to many cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan.
  • The reason for Marsalek’s trips was a search for banks or payment services that Wirecard could buy, according to Russian friends of Marsalek who spoke to The Bell. One acquaintance said that he was aware of Marsalek holding talks with at least five different companies, apparently offering personally to take a stake. “I don’t know any dudes more cynical than him,” said another of Marsalek’s acquaintances, “the whole market understood that this was a money laundering bank and that they were laundering money from casinos, gambling and porn.”
  • The banks Marsalek tried to buy included Radiotekhbank, a small bank that belonged to Robert Musin, one of the most influential financiers in the largely Muslim region of Tatarstan. A member of the ruling United Russia party, Musin owned dozens of banks until 2017 when the Central Bank withdrew a license from his main bank, Tatfondbank, and he was arrested in a $1.5 billion fraud case. All his other banks also had their licenses withdrawn. According to one of The Bell’s sources, Musin may have guessed about the coming criminal charges and wanted to use Wirecard to move money abroad.
  • Owning a Russian bank may have become an objective for Wirecard after November 2017 when Russia banned all transactions with bank code 7995 (signifying gambling money). Before this, Wirecard was the main settlement bank for illegal, online casinos and bookmakers in Russia. These outfits were licensed in offshore zones, created daughter companies in Europe and, through these, connected to Wirecard, which organised the receipt of payments from Russia.
  • In September 2018, Wirecard created an official daughter company in Russia, which tried to build relationships with ‘high risk’ Russian clients. But, in order for this to work, Wirecard needed its own bank. Hence, Marsalek’s search.
  • At the same time as looking for a bank to acquire, Marsalek may also have been looking for an escape route. One of the executive’s acquaintances said he had been examining different countries to which he might be able to flee in the event of a sudden crisis.

Why the world should care

Western media have reported extensively on Marsalek’s possible links to Russian intelligence, which, if true, would explain why Moscow was willing to provide him a refuge. It also means public information about his whereabouts may not appear any time soon.