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MOT: Ex-President Halonen, three former PMs used Russian banks' private jets

Yle's investigative journalism unit began examining possible connections between airplanes registered in Finland and Russian oligarchs this spring.

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU has imposed strict sanctions on Russian aircraft. Image: Valokuvat: Henrietta Hassinen, Sasha Silvala ja Kalevi Rytkölä / Yle

Former President Tarja Halonen and three former Prime Ministers of Finland have used planes owned by Russian banks and businesspeople for official trips, an investigation by Yle's MOT unit has found.

MOT's team of investigative journalists found that Halonen flew via Russian-owned planes at least 12 times between 2007 and 2011. Matti Vanhanen (Cen), Mari Kiviniemi (Cen) and Jyrki Katainen (NCP) meanwhile used such planes multiple times during their terms as Prime Minister.

The Office of the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister's Office did not provide any comments to MOT regarding safety risks related to the use of the planes.

Both offices said they were not informed about the owners of the planes used by the former president and prime ministers.

Due to Russian entities hiding behind anonymous tax entities, the Finnish aircraft registry has no records of the real owners of the planes. MOT's team discovered the identity of the owners with the help of the Panama and Pandora paper leaks as well as documents from the Cypriot Corporate Registry.

Heads of government have been using private jets leased by Jetflite Oy for decades. Most of the flights organised by Jetflite have been with the company's own aircraft; however, some of the company's customers have taken off with Russian owned-planes.

"Jetflite's own planes are used for most charter flights. If our own planes suddenly become unavailable, for example due to maintenance, we will arrange another plane instead," Jetflite's chief executive Elina Karjalainen told Yle via email.

Millions of euros spent on private flights

It is only in exceptional cases that the president and ministers use private flights as opposed to regularly scheduled commercial flights.

Since 2016, state authorities have used Jetflite's flight services, costing an estimated six million euros. Most of the flights have been purchased by the Office of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister's Office as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In their response, the Office of the President of the Republic said they partnered with public procurement provider Hansel for the acquisition of flights.

"In our understanding, the ownership details of the aircraft has been properly reported by the company to Hansel. As a result of MOT's inquiry, the chancellery has verified from the company providing the service that the planes are Nordic-owned," the office's response reads.

The Prime Minister's Office did not want to comment on the flights that the prime ministers had taken with Russian planes.

"It is not appropriate to comment on flights that happened that long ago, but it can be stated that Hansel's procurement requirements were tightened in 2014, 2018 and 2021, and special care has been taken to ensure that no crafts or companies covered by sanctions are used on government charter flights," the Office wrote in its emailed reply.

No representative of Jetflite agreed to be interviewed by MOT, but the company answered some questions via email. According to CEO Karjalainen, Jetflite has found out the real owners of the planes that were hidden behind shell corporations. Jetflite declined to comment on the Russian customers whose planes it has operated.

"Prior to February 2022, Russians were a large customer base in the private aircraft industry, and we have also offered them services," Karjalainen wrote.

Jetflite has operated aircraft owned by Russian companies and businesspeople since the early 2000s. The company employs a business model called 'the aircraft management model.' According to the scheme, the owner of the plane pays an operator, such as Jetflite, to organise flights.

Airplanes owned by Russian banks used by heads of state

At least two of the airplanes used by the former heads of state are connected to the Russian banking industry, MOT's inquiry found.

One of the two planes' ownership records was traced to the Russian Nomos-bank, which is currently part of the Russian state-owned bank Otkritie Financial Corporation. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Otkritie FC Bank was added to the sanctions lists of the US and the EU.

The second Russian-owned plane discovered by MOT was used eight times by the Finnish government. Records showed that its owner is Sopor Trading Ltd., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. Chairperson and shareholder of Bank Saint Petersburg (230 shares of which belong to Russian President Vladimir Putin), Alexander V. Savelyev has also worked as the director and shareholder of Sopor.

State authorities did not address concerns regarding safety risks connected to the use of the Russian airplanes.

"We constantly evaluate the trips taken by state leaders and a risk assessment is made for every flight. In the procurement of charter flight services, the safety requirements are defined very precisely in the procurement phase," Director of Government Security Ahti Kurvinen told Yle, adding that since 2014, the offices demand that any aircraft's ownership becomes clear during the procurement process.