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Poland: Bank Allegedly Linked To Russian Intelligence Closed

Warsaw, 24 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Poland's central bank has moved decisively this week to put out of business a Russian-owned bank with alleged links to Moscow's intelligence services.

In an unprecedented action, the Polish National Bank on Monday ordered the immediate closure of the Guarantee and Trust Bank (BPG). Subsequently it has frozen all the accounts at the bank, a move which affects about 500 customers, half of them individual depositors.

An RFE/RL correspondent in Warsaw reports today that people are being turned away from the bank's doors, and a recorded telephone message tells customers to wait until further notice.

The BPG, which is owned by ethnic Russian businessman Sergei Gavrilov, has filed a complaint with Warsaw's economic court about the National Bank's orders. BPG president Zdzislaw Pakula said Gavrilov is "shocked" by the developments and Pakula vowed to conduct business as usual despite what he called the "groundless" decisions by the National Bank. The National Bank says its action was based on its right as the central bank to control all banking activities in the country.

The head of Polish counter-intelligence, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, who has been deeply involved with the case, was asked by journalists if his State Protection Office plans any steps against Gavrilov personally. Siemiatkowski avoided a direct reply, saying that the special services were doing everything "necessary" in the case.

The affair, with its allegations of international intrigue, undercover agents and illegal financial dealings, is the most colorful banking scandal ever to hit the headlines in Poland. Siemiatkowski caused a sensation in February when he said the BPG was seeking to invest in strategic sectors of the Polish economy, as part of a Russian plan to shatter by economic and political means Poland's credibility with the west. The aim: to torpedo NATO membership for Poland. Siemiatkowski also referred to Russian efforts to build up a pro-Moscow lobby in Poland, and he spoke of possible provocations by Russian agents.

Gavrilov himself has until now kept a low profile amid the storm. Today however he announced he will sue the Warsaw newspaper Zycie, saying he intends to fight in court the campaign of slander against him by "some media and some state agencies' employees".

Gavrilov arrived in Poland as a citizen of the Central American state of Belize, after obtaining citizenship of that state by depositing $50,000 at a local bank. After the Polish press broke allegations about him, Belize authorities stripped him of his purchased citizenship.

Gavrilov was once a senior official of the foreign trade ministry in Moscow, and is believed to have studied at an academy for KGB agents. His banking activities, with money of unknown origin, are alleged to range over the so-called "exotic" banking destinations including the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands.

The National Bank in a separate statement has referred to the main shareholders in the BPG as having obtained their shares without central bank approval. Current banking law requires all shareholders who intend to purchase more than 10 percent of the shares in a bank to seek the National Bank's permission beforehand.