On Monday, March 11, the US added the Russian Eurofinance Mosnarbank to their sanctions list because of its transactions with the Venezuelan state oil-producing company PDVSA. This news will certainly feed the already extremely tense relations between Washington and Moscow.
Relations between these two countries have increased dramatically since January 2019, when mass protests against the incumbent president Nicolas Maduro broke out in Venezuela. A brief summary of the already well-known events includes the speaker of the opposition parliament, Juan Guaido, declaring himself to be the temporary head of the state.
A number of Western countries, led by the US, subsequently recognised the authority of Guaido. But Maduro dismissed Guaido as a mere puppet of the United States, while Russia, China and a number of other countries supported Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela and declared that the “presidential status” of Guaido was a non sequitur.
While the international community watches the unfolding drama in Venezuela from afar, some have been making their own direct contribution to the situation. And, surprisingly, not only high top officials, politicians and media sharks are on the list of influencers.
Two ordinary Russians, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov dropped a bombshell as a result of their investigation into the Venezuela case.
Vladimir Kuznetsov (also known as Vovan) and Alexey Stolyarov (Lexus) are a popular duo, famous for pranking and unmasking dozens of posturing VIPs – politicians, celebrities, actors and sportsmen.
The list of their hapless victims include some illustrious names: The President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, The ex-chief of the United Kingdom Foreign Office Boris Johnson, the US Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the US Minister of energy Rick Perry, singer Elton John etc.
They were all on the receiving end of a phone call from Vovan and Lexus who, by introducing themselves as heavyweight political players, have exposed some of the most burning political and social issues and, to a greater or a lesser extent, some dirty laundry too.
For true connoisseurs of the art of pranking, each phone creation by Vovan and Lexus has become a pure masterpiece. But their prank on the US Special Representative for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams has become a real magnum opus.
In mid-February Vovan and Lexus contacted Abrams’ office on behalf of the Swiss President Ulrich Maurer and requested a conversation on issues of cooperation between Switzerland and the United States in the financial sphere, as well as on the situation in Venezuela.
The phone conversation took place on February 19. The pranksters told Abrams that the Swiss side sees no legal violations in Swiss banks hosting private accounts of people from the inner circle of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, nor from hosting accounts of Venezuelan companies such as the oil state company PVDSA.
In response, the US Special Representative, according to the pranksters, declared that Washington would insist on completely blocking such accounts. However, he did not provide any evidence that they were illegal.
Moreover, Abrams stressed that if Switzerland refuses to freeze these accounts after Guaido eventually comes to power and “Maduro’s money leaves this country”, then the United States would initiate a lawsuit against Bern.
“Maurer”, under pressure from Abrams, said he was ready to freeze accounts if the United States sent the necessary documentation. He also asked the Special Representative for help in getting in touch with the self-proclaimed leader of Venezuela, Juan Guaido, which Abrams promised to do, according to the pranksters.
After this conversation, the US Special Representative sent an American sanctions list to “Maurer”, which featured more than a hundred Venezuelan citizens, including the government of Nicolas Maduro.
Then the “ambassador of the new Venezuelan government” Carlos Vecchio contacted the pranksters. On behalf of “Maurer”, they sent Abrams and ambassador Vecchio a list of Venezuelan officials whose accounts were “allegedly found in Swiss banks and immediately blocked”.
At the same time, Vovan and Lexus attributed “sums of millions” to fake accounts at the fake “Lexus Vovanial Bank Ltd”, and the officials themselves were chosen from the American list.
According to the two pranksters, Abrams was most pleased by the list sent and contacted the US Treasury, which began to work on this document. After that, “ambassador” Vecchio regularly contacting the pranksters, wondering if they had found Maduro’s personal accounts in Switzerland.
In response, Vovan and Lexus stated that they had “discovered” a foundation in which Maduro’s personal assets were located, called Tender First. This foundation does actually exist, but its owner, the Kazakh businessman Nurlan Baidild, stated he has nothing to do with Maduro or anyone else from Venezuela.
However, pranksters pretended that due to legal subtleties they could not block the accounts of this foundation. Then Vecchio “became utterly upset”, and the pranksters decided to offer him “a tricky solution”.
If the situation around the foundation with Maduro’s money becomes public, they argued, the foundation would try to withdraw all the funds from Switzerland, and this, in turn, could become a basis for suspicion of money laundering.
Vecchio agreed to pass on this information and even asked for a draft statement “in order not to be mistaken”. After receiving the text, the ambassador contacted the Bloomberg news agency and scheduled an interview on the matter.
In addition, the “ambassador” posted information about the Baidild Foundation on his Twitter account with 900 thousand subscribers.
On Thursday, March 14, the plot thickened: Vovan and Lexus called Guaido, again introducing themselves as the Swiss President. The pranksters proposed to block the funds of Venezuela’s legitimate head of state Nicolas Maduro, held in the invented non-existent Swiss bank “Lexus Vovanial Bank Ltd”.
On behalf of the President of Switzerland, they also offered to transfer money from this bank to Guaido’s personal account, noting that Guaido could dispose of these funds as he saw fit.
Self-proclaimed Venezuelan President Guido not only enthusiastically agreed to this generous offer, but also sent the official signed document requesting that the Swiss President freeze Maduro’s accounts at the “Lexus Vovanial Bank Ltd”.
Furthermore, he informed the media of his communication with “Ulrich Maurer”. The real Ulrich Maurer naturally quickly refuted Guaido’s statements.
The most impressive part of the story however: The pranksters decided to play the role of the Swiss President right up to the final victory by asking the US Special Representative Abrams to silence Guaido in media since they initially had agreed to keep their talks confidential.
Abrams’ confident response came quickly – he solemnly promised to knock some sense into Guaido and Abrams apparently kept his promise because Guaido has been totally silent about Maduro’s money since.
Thus, two Russian comedians managed to stir up a storm of “shocking news about Maduro’s assets in Swiss banks”. It has been rather surprising how easily some “top” officials of “advanced” North American countries are ready to ridicule themselves by believing in fairytales about hidden treasures somewhere at the Swiss Alps.