Spies, oil and billionaire tycoon try his luck with the National Lottery
Sir Malcolm Rifkind had been more accustomed to summoning ambassadors than to visiting them. His stint as foreign minister, however, was cut short by an electoral collapse of the Conservatives.
Having also lost his seat in the Commons, during the first summer of the new millennium, Rifkind approached the Czech Embassy, an award-winning concrete oblong overlooking Notting Hill Gate, on unofficial business.
He arrived with a cry for help on behalf of the British company. Rifkind had accepted a seat on the board of Ramco Energy, an Aberdeen-listed oil explorer listed on Aim with designs on potentially lucrative but certainly risky projects in the former Soviet bloc.
It was already encountering local difficulties in relation to its discovery in 1998 of reserves near the Czech city of Brno. According to High Court documents, Ramco believed his partner in the joint venture, the former state oil company, MND, had become unreliable after acquiring new shareholders.
MND and Ramco had been in business for years, but after Karel Komarek Jr and his father – who had run business interests under communism – invested, the Czech company ended the partnership.
Ramco, arguing that he was still entitled to a share of the oil revenues as well as the recovery of his $ 15 million investment, launched a lawsuit in Prague which was later settled by arbitration and a payment of 2 million dollars by MND.
Rifkind also encouraged Ramco to bring in Hakluyt, a spy-for-hire company founded by former MI6 spy masters, to investigate the Komarek family. She produced a report in 2000 detailing rumors of corruption and even alleged links to the murder of Jan Ducky, a Slovak politician involved in the privatization of energy. News of the unsubstantiated allegations and Rifkind’s visit to Notting Hill Gate reached the pages of Czech newspapers and Komarek Jr. He flatly denied Hakluyt’s findings and sued for libel in London.
When the dispute went to the High Court in 2002, the allegations were presumed to be false because Ramco and Hakluyt did not attempt to prove them. Komarek’s libel action nonetheless failed after the judge ruled that there had been no dishonesty or improper motive on the part of the defendants. Disappointed, the 33-year-old could only complain “that they were never willing to apologize or stop making the allegations.” He continues to deny them completely.
Rifkind, who was re-elected MP, and Komarek both resumed their careers. Now 51, he still controls MND, through his Swiss holding company KKCG, but his interests have broadened to extend well beyond Czech borders and the energy market. He owns a home in Palm Beach, Florida, in the neighborhood known as Billionaires Row, which is estimated to have a personal fortune estimated at $ 3.3 billion. He supports the Kennedy Center in Washington DC with his wife Stepanka, who also helps run their philanthropic foundation.
“The question is whether I would be able to do the same now,” Komarek said in an interview last year. “I would probably be less aggressive, a lot more scared and think twice before I do something. We were in the right place, at the right time and at the right age.
After 18 years, his clash with the British establishment may have remained a footnote, but Komarek is back. KKCG’s fast growing lottery operator, Sazka Group, is making a determined attempt to win the national lottery license away from Camelot for the first time since the first draw in 1994. The Gambling Commission is preparing to issue the official invitation to the bidders this month have a registration deadline on Friday.
As a lottery operator in the Czech Republic, Austria, Greece and Italy, Sazka represents a serious challenge for Camelot. Yet the national lottery regulator is also on hold to assess whether applicants would be “fit and suitable” licensees. While it has never failed such an assessment and has passed similar tests in several countries, the condition could once again put Komarek’s business in the spotlight.
The entrepreneur’s work in post-Soviet energy markets brought him into the orbit of the Kremlin. Under Komarek, MND forged ties with a Russian-controlled natural gas trader and retailer called Vemex, and today owns a 17% stake in the company alongside the German branch of Gazprom, to the tune of a little more than 50%. Komarek considers it inevitable to work with Gazprom.
The remaining third is owned by Centrex, headquartered in Vienna. Centrex is owned by Gazprombank and acts as an intermediary for Russia, supplying gas to Central Europe.
Gazprombank is linked to controversial figures such as oligarch Dmytro Firtash, through co-ownership of a Ukrainian importer of Russian gas comparable to Centrex. Firtash, a former Conservative Party donor, is wanted by the FBI for corruption, but has successfully fought extradition to the United States since his arrest in Austria in 2014. Firtash denies any wrongdoing.