Here’s a story you might have missed from The Scotsman last weekend:
. . .[A] Scottish limited partnership, registered at an address in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, has been placed on a trade blacklist alongside scores of Russian firms as part of efforts by officials in Washington to “degrade Russia’s ability to acquire the items it needs to sustain its military aggression”.
And, from later on in the piece:
According to Companies House filings, the SLP in question, known as Djeco Group, was set up nearly three years ago as a holding partnership of two Maltese firms, one of which — MaltaRent Ltd — purportedly supplies equipment and services to filmmakers.
However, officials from the US defence and state departments, together with colleagues from the US Department of Commerce (DoC), ruled that its activities were tied to Putin’s increasingly isolated regime.
To recap. There’s a nondescript Scottish investment vehicle, with an address in Edinburgh’s posh New Town, that owns two Maltese companies, one of which supplies film equipment, that’s been placed on Washington’s trade black list over its ties to Russia.
Bizarre doesn’t even begin to describe it.
So what on Earth is going on here?
We start, as always, by wading through the corporate quagmire that is Companies House.
Sadly, there’s little to be gleaned from Djeco Group’s page.
Per the Scotsman article, the limited partnership was created in July 2019 and owns two Maltese businesses — MaltaRent Ltd and Malberg Ltd. It seems to have replaced the similarly named, and similarly located, Djeco Group Holding Ltd as the owners of the two businesses that year.
And, to help guide you through this piece, here’s that manoeuvre in spider diagram form:
Despite a lack of declared officers, there is one key piece of info on Companies House about the new Djeco Group: it’s controlled by one Ms Evgeniya Bernova, a Russian national who owns more than 75 per cent of the business.
Ms Bernova, judging by a story from 2016 in the Malta Independent, seems to be a key player in the Mediterranean island’s film industry. She also happens to be the chief executive of Djeco-owned MaltaRent which, according to its website, leases high-end camera equipment to film crews shooting on the island.
Bar her nationality, however, the ties to Russia are not immediately clear. Until you take a closer look at Ms Bernova’s resume.
Before this latest venture, she held various senior roles at the Moscow-based Sernia Group of Companies, according to her LinkedIn profile. Similarly to MaltaRent one of those, Sernia Film, is a film equipment specialist according to its website.
She then went on to found Paradox Engineering in France, in which a Sernia based in Germany had a 80 per cent stake, according to local filings from 2016.
It is not clear from the German filings whether Sernia GmbH is related to the Russian film company of the same name. However, they do both share the same logo if you open their websites on a browser:
The German company website also speaks of “15 years of experience in the Russian and former CIS countries market as a supplier and distributor of hi-tech and film equipment” and lists former Soviet film production company Mosfilm, and Moscow State Technical University of Radio Engineering, Electronics and Automation among its customers.
The latter also happens to be the alma mater of Ms Bernova, according to her LinkedIn.
Remember that name, Sernia. We’ll return to it shortly.
Back to the question of this puzzling Scottish limited partnership. You may recall MaltaRent is only one of the businesses owned by the US-targeted Djeco Group. The other is Malberg Ltd.
Malberg is also a Maltese supplier of technical equipment but, in this case, focused on the sciences rather than film. Notably, it was also placed on the US’s trade blacklist at the same time as Djeco Group.
Although Malberg’s 2020 accounts disclose Ms Bernova as the ultimate beneficial owner due to her controlling stake in Djeco Group, this wasn’t always the case.
Remember how there’s actually been two limited partnerships called Djeco Group?
There’s the one the US has targeted, that was formed in 2019. But before then there was another Djeco Group that existed between 2016 and 2019 that renamed to Djeco Group Holdings just before it was dissolved.
According to Companies House records, the dissolved Djeco Group was first owned by a limited partner named Victor Grigoryan.
Mr Grigoryan, who sadly passed away in May 2020, was a director at Malberg according to its local filings. The Russian also owned the company before it was transferred to the original Djeco Group back in 2016.
Our spider diagram is beginning to rapidly expand:
Mr Grigoryan and Ms Bernova seem to have been close. There are multiple photos online of the two posing together at Cannes Film Festival, and in the Malta Independent article we referenced above, they’re also pictured.
Their business lives were also intertwined. According its 2020 accounts, Malberg was owed €550,000 by MaltaRent.
There’s more. Remember the German Sernia which owned a stake in Ms Bernova’s French company? Well, Mr Grigoryan was chief executive and owner of that particular Sernia, according to its website and local filings.
They also both appear on the director registry for Sernia UK Limited, a British company that was dissolved in 2018. The company, according to its 2015 annual report, labelled Russia as its “most important market” and blamed the EU sanctions back then on its poor numbers for the year.
In its 2015 accounts — its last full set of numbers — its auditor, Crick Heitman, stated it was not able to provide an opinion as “proper accounting records had not been kept” and its “financial statements are not in agreement with the accounting records and returns”.
Thanks to the lack of records, Sernia UK’s auditor could not identify its customers either. From the annual report again:
Later on in the document, the accounts also disclose that Mr Grigoryan was the owner of Sernia UK, and that it had also related party transactions with Sernia in Germany.
The web widens:
By now you might be thinking that Sernia — in all its various iterations — might be the missing piece of the puzzle here.
And, to an extent, you’d be right.
Pull up the list of entities added to Washington’s black list in early March, hit CTRL+F and type “Sernia” and you get three hits.
One is a Sernia Engineering based in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Another, a company of the same name in Moscow. And, to round it off, OOO Sertal which is also based in Russia’s capital.
Here they are, neatly placed at the bottom of our flow chart.
This is where FT Alphaville hit a brick wall because tying these three entities to the similarly named companies across Europe, or indeed Ms Bernova and Mr Grigoryan, proved difficult.
Bar, of course, the fact that some of them — Djeco Group, Malberg, Sertal, and the two companies named Sernia Engineering — have all been targeted by the US.
There are some links, however.
Sertal and the Russian Sernia Engineering, like Malberg and Sernia in Germany, are distributors of scientific equipment. But that tie is, at best, tangential. And, unlike the German Sernia, or indeed Sernia Film in Russia, neither provide film equipment.
However, one ancient document did reveal a little more.
FT Alphaville came across a 2007 presentation from a company named JSC NPO Sernia. It was hosted on Sernia.ru which is now the website of Sernia Engineering.
Here’s the first slide which drew our attention:
So at the very least, we know that a company named JSC NPO Sernia used to own both Sernia in the UK and in Germany. That’s one part of the mystery solved. To complete the picture, according to the Russian business directory, JSC NPO Sernia was also founded by Mr Grigoryan.
The deck speaks of the company’s contracts with the Russian government, which might also explain why Mr Grigoryan’s former companies — including Malberg — were recently targeted by the US.
But here’s the wrinkle. JSC NPO Sernia is not the Sernia Engineering that was targeted by the US.
In fact, it was dissolved in March 2016. Sernia Engineering then came to life in 2017.
In an email to FT Alphaville which asked about the relationships between Sernia Engineering, Mr Grigoryan and the myriad European entities, and whether the US sanctions were linked at all, its chief executive Sergey Ershov told us:
Sernia Engeneering [sic] does not relate to Mr Grigoryan and to other mentioned in your letter companies. Sernia Engeneering was founded in 2017.
When asked why the company’s English website said that Sernia Engineering was founded in 1998:
And still hosted a presentation from a business named JSC NPO Sernia from 2007 on its website, Mr Ershov responded:
You found very old information from the previous website of the company JSC NPO Sernia
The domain was purchased from JSC NPO Sernia.
Both the timeline and the document were then removed from its website.
FT Alphaville then asked Mr Ershov to explain why both companies shared almost the same name, same domain name and business line. This time, he didn’t respond.
Similarly, Ms Bernova, Malberg, MaltaRent and Sernia GmbH did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Here’s how our final spider diagram looks. To make things a little clearer, we put the entities on the US blacklist in FT blue:
It’s not often the documents for a limited partnership on a quiet backstreet in Scotland lead you down a path that ends abruptly in Russia’s capital.
It makes us wonder what else we could be missing out there.