LONDON, ENGLAND – All things considered, the likelihood that Ruja Ignatova – a.k.a. the Cryptoqueen – is still alive seems remote. Prosecutors from the economic crimes division in Bielefeld, Germany, attempted to conjure the enigmatic swindler’s presence last week by listing one of her London properties on the market with the help of court officials in Guernsey, but managed only to invoke the paper-shuffling poltergeist of her lawyers, who came forward to make a formal claim on the £19 million penthouse in central London.
As recently as May of last year, state criminal police in Düsseldorf ran a public search campaign with photographs of the German national and others wanted in connection with an ongoing trial in Münster against three of her associates accused of transferring well over a quarter billion Euros from Ignatova’s OneCoin Ponzi scheme abroad. Despite a total of 72 “leads” received by the independent law enforcement agency, no real sightings have materialized.
Ever since escaping authorities more than five years ago, the Bulgarian-born criminal mastermind’s legend has only grown larger and become the topic of wild speculation and tabloid fodder. While media outlets like the BBC declare that Ruja Ignatova had been “forced out of hiding” as a result of Bielefeld prosecutors’ clever ruse, her apparition draws attention away from a much more concrete and dark reality.
On January 13, a Bulgarian government spokesperson summoned Ignatova’s ghost yet again during a press conference addressing the police raid on Nexo headquarters in Sofia, informing the public of the company’s suspected ties to the fugitive’s “scheme”, although the precise nature of those links were not disclosed.
The embattled cryptocurrency lender has been in the spotlight for several months as US regulators took rather circumspect aim at their stateside activities through Operation Cryptosweep, a multi-state ‘regulation-by-lawsuit’ initiative organized through the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) since 2018.
Nexo reached a $45 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on January 19 to put an end to some of its legal troubles abroad, and continues to operate despite a seemingly endless stream of controversies, including challenges from former co-founder Georgi Shulev and a class action lawsuit alleging “unlawful liquidation” of assets, which will become relevant as this story unfolds.
Roughly a week before Nexo’s Sofia headquarters and fourteen other sites were stormed by Bulgarian law enforcement, Kalin Metodiev, the company’s head of Corporate Finance, was detained at his home only hours after returning from the United States. An American citizen, Metodiev was taken into custody and reportedly questioned by Mossad agents regarding Nexo’s purported dealings with Hamas.
Metodiev’s father is a well-respected physician, who currently serves as Dean of the Medical University in Varna, Bulgaria. Dr. Krassimir Metodiev is a microbiologist who was director of NATO’s Bioterrorism, Scientific Affairs’ Division and is an honorary consul of Israel to Bulgaria. According to Narod.bg, Kalin Metodiev was convinced by his father to cooperate with authorities. His bail, which was initially set at BGN 1 million was drastically reduced by the Sofia City Court on January 25 as he gets ready to talk.
Meanwhile, Nexo’s other co-founders, Antoni Trenchev and Kostantin “Kosta” Kanchev, have taken up residence somewhere in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), far away from the reach of Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev, which buttresses notions of Nexo’s connection Ignatova, given her well-known relationship to Emirati Royals. However, such links are hardly exclusive to the mythical Ruja or the intricate maze of shell corporations and dark money flows that facilitated the international con.
As this Silicon Icarus investigation reveals, Ruja Ignatova’s OneCoin and Nexo’s global cryptolending operation are indeed connected by a vast and intertwining network of black markets, offshore finance and Central Eastern European mafias, that are themselves tools of the hegemonic forces that have been attempting to shape and control the socio-economic destiny of post-Communist states since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Globex Finance, which had been doing business under the “Credissimo” trademark since 2008, went public on November 4th, 2014. It was an important milestone for the company that would spin out Nexo only four years later and a coming out party, of sorts, for the young crop of Bulgarian entrepreneurs who appeared to be leading the fledgling business. It was also more of a publicity stunt than anything else. No public funds ever made their way into the listed corporation, which was capitalized by its own reserves until it withdrew from the Bulgarian Stock Exchange just two years later.
Kosta Kanchev had been with the outfit since 2009, when he was brought onto the board of one of the group’s other concerns; a real estate investment fund called Globex Estate. An annual report prepared that year shows that Kanchev, fresh off his Master’s program at Webster University in Missouri, was given a five-year mandate by partners, George Karpuzov and an investment firm that owned a quarter of the company.
In 2010, another young man was installed as a director for Globex Finance. Sokol Iankov, who later took over as Credissimo CEO from Karpuzov and which he remains to this day, would join Kanchev and his cousin, Kosta Krustev, as part of the core group of young bloods that presided over the expansion of all the Globex companies and subsidiaries operating in the nascent non-banking finance sector of Bulgaria and other parts of Central Eastern Europe.
Between 2013 and 2014, both Iankov and Kosta’s namesake cousin would become active in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections, joining the campaign of a former rock musician, Svetlyo Vitkov, who had founded a party called “Voice of the People”. Krustev, who would later become notorious for a charity embezzlement scandal some speculate played a role in funding Nexo, had a close friendship with the singer and helped register as many as 80 party advocates, though it ultimately failed to enter the National Assembly after garnering only 1.3% of the vote.
Voice of the People’s PR was managed by the daughter of General Brigo Asparuhov, a high ranking intelligence officer who would lead the Bulgarian National Investigation Services (NIS) immediately following the fall of communism. Vitkov himself used to manage a cigarette manufacturing company linked to a notorious smuggler and former state security agent known as Tentcho the Swineherd, according to Bulgarian investigative site, Bivol.
But, the party’s image was most negatively affected by the addition of Mladen Georgiev, a.k.a. “Little Madzho”, to head up their security detail. Georgiev was exposed as a former recruiter for then Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, when the so-called “Buddha” leaks revealed Borisov’s own deep ties to the state security apparatus. Borisov and his network will emerge as a pivotal link between Ignatova and Nexo, as our investigation proceeds.
Antoni Trenchev and Georgi Shulev, part of Nexo’s founding team along with Kosta Kanchev and Kalin Metodiev, also have very close ties to the Bulgarian state security and political power players. Trenchev’s father was a counterintelligence officer working out of the Bulgarian diplomatic mission in Bonn, Germany, using the alias “Petrov” during the communist era. His activities were so sensitive, that his entire DS (initials for the Bulgarian security services, Durzhavna Sigurnost) file was destroyed save for three extant documents published by Zona News.
Shulev, for his part, is the son of former government cabinet official Lidia Shuleva. Shuleva was Bulgaria’s Economic Minister and Minister for Labor and Social Policy during the pivotal first decade of the 21st century, when much of the Euro-Atlanticist establishment that currently dominates Bulgarian politics was emplaced. A cable from the U.S. Ambassador at the time, published by Wikileaks, displays the American diplomat’s approval of Shuleva’s proactive approach to secure military contracts for the war in Iraq.
Given these compromising relationships in addition to Nexo’s mounting problems, it is no surprise that Credissimo CEO Iankov has tried to distance his company from the cryptolender, denying that there is anything beyond marketing linking the two companies together. However, Credissimo’s own corporate documents list Nexo as a related party and Iankov, himself, was listed as an officer in Nexo AG in 2020.
Iankov’s assertions that neither now or at the time of its creation has there been any “legal or any other relationship between Credissimo and Nexo” are a transparent attempt to sidestep liability in the prosecution of Nexo, which are further undermined by the fact that five of Nexo’s seven top founding executives held positions at Credissimo and more than half of the crypto lender’s original staff came from the consumer loan company.
Moreover, the clear efforts underway at Credissimo to shift operations into a crypto-based ecosystem are confirmed by yet another venture co-founded in 2021 by former CEO Karpuzov (now Credissimo’s COO), with other high-ranking Credissimo and Nexo executives called Nolus. Originally registered in Switzerland as Nomo, just as infighting over certain Bitcoin assets was breaking out between Shulev and Nexo’s other founding officers, the crypto trading platform was kept largely under wraps until October, 2022, when its one-year-old Twitter account posted for the first time, soon followed by an inaugural Medium post.
Back in the USSA
The timing was significant, as it came barely a month after Vermont’s Department of Financial Regulation (DFR) filed the initial “cease and desist” order against Nexo, quickly followed by six other state regulators and the SDNY’s complaint, resolved by the $45m SEC settlement, half of which goes to the NASAA – the non-profit organization responsible for Operation Cryptosweep, and whose president is none other than Vermont’s DFR Commissioner Michael Pieciak.
Vermont’s ties to Nexo and Bulgaria’s seedy underbelly don’t end there, however. One of Nexo’s early investors was the founder of TechCrunch and Arrington XRP, Michael Arrington. Together with blockchain VC Tim Draper, Arrington is a major backer of a blockchain property tech (proptech) company called Propy, founded by Ukrainian-born Bulgarian citizen Natalia Karayaneva.
In 2018, Vermont became the site of the company’s first pilot project in the town of South Burlington, “to utilize blockchain technology to record real estate conveyance documents”. Realized in collaboration with municipal officials, the project was described by the state’s Community Development Secretary, Michael Schirling, as “emblematic of Vermont’s long history of innovating business, insurance, and financial technology”.
Arrington himself had actually bestowed Ukraine with the real badge of ‘innovation’ in September of the previous year, when he personally negotiated with the government of Petro Poroshenko to consummate the purchase of a condominium in Kiev through Propy using $60,000 worth of cryptocurrency.
Propy founder and CEO Karayaneva’s experience in real estate has its roots in Bulgaria, where she moved at a young age with her mother. In what will emerge as an odd pattern among successful Bulgarian women – whether born or naturalized – Karayaneva was crowned the country’s “Sexiest Businesswoman” in 2010, long before she decided to moveto San Francisco and start her blockchain real estate endeavor.
Karayaneva’s mother-in-law, Elena, was arrested and charged along with five others in September, 2018, after a warrant was issued by then Special Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev (the same, now Chief Prosecutor of Bulgaria, who is going after Nexo), against Vetko Arabadzhiev and his wife, Marinella, for money laundering and tax evasion. Elena Karayaneva is the director of Arabadzhiev’s commercial properties, which include multiple hotels and resorts in Bulgaria and abroad.
Among the real estate assets Karayaneva’s mother-in-law managed was the very hotel she was apprehended in. Formerly known as the Kempinski Zografsky, and since renamed after Arabadzhiev’s wife, the luxury hotel in downtown Sofia where more than €5 million were found stuffed in shoeboxes and suitcases during the raid, is historically significant as one of the KGB’s most important espionage nodes, used to host foreign diplomats in its bugged rooms and conference halls.
Carlos the Jackal, Pope John Paul II’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Ağca, PLO officials and many others have been known to lodge at the hotel back in the day. But the hotel’s links to Russian intelligence services did not end with Perestroika. Indeed, Geshev’s ulterior motives and the geopolitical implications of the raid on the Marinella hotel are made evident by allegations that the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service) had bugged the EU summit that took place at the hotel in the first half of 2018.
Arabadzhiev himself is among Bulgaria’s so-called “credit millionaires”, one of many oligarchs tied to the country’s state security apparatus before the fall of the Soviet Union, who made his fortune as part of a coordinated effort to partition the assets of the post-communist government among members of the state security services, resulting in the establishment of a “state owned enterprise” (SOE) mafia that controls much of the country’s economy and politics to this day.
Upcoming installments will explore this crucial piece of historical context in far more depth, as it plays a fundamental role in the emergence of Ruja Ignatova, Nexo and the power dynamics of Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. But, for now we’ll return to November, 2014, to the Cryptoqueen’s coming out party.
Blood: Ruja’s Exit Strategy
Just weeks after Credissimo’s IPO, Ruja Ignatova was nominated for the Business Woman of the Year award by a Bulgarian PR firm, with articles appearing in the local press heaping praise on her professional background. The former McKinsey & Co. Eastern Europe executive would go on to win the contrived socialite contest, attending the presentation gala early in December and taking advantage of the occasion to promote OneCoin, which had only recently held its first event in Helsinki.
Ignatova boasted OneCoin revenues of €2.5 million over the previous two months, over €1 million of which came from 2,000 people in ten countries during November alone, according to the author of The Missing Cryptoqueen Jamie Bartlett, and was the result of people who had purportedly taken “out bank loans” and sold their cars to get in on the action.
Although several lawsuits filed by victims after Ignatova’s disappearance prove that there certainly are plenty of gullible people ready to part with considerable sums for a chance to double or triple their investment, the sheer amount of money that began to pour in at the end of 2014 and which continued unabated for nearly two years thereafter, casts serious doubt on the idea that all or even most of that was the product of highly talented multi-level marketing (MLM) professionals.
Not only does the history of MLM contradict that narrative in terms of average revenue for MLM-based businesses, but the OneCoin sales pitch and materials themselves are so insubstantial and amateurish, that no matter how gifted Ruja Ignatova’s veteran pyramid scheme peddlers may have been, raking in the estimated $4 billion it did over the course of less than two years seems utterly preposterous.
Even some of the most notorious Ponzi schemes, like Bernie Madoff’s took decades to develop and that $20 billionstolen by the infamous securities broker was at least tied to recognizable financial instruments and actively traded stocks attached. Not even FTX is comparable, since most of the billions quoted in Sam Bankman-Fried’s balance sheets never actually existed.
Ignatova’s OneCoin was pulling in real money and doing so at an alarmingly fast clip. Less than a year into it, the tsunami of cash had become so unmanageable that she had to rent entire apartments just to store it as bank managers grew increasingly wary of its provenance and began asking uncomfortable questions.
Bartlett, for whatever reason, discounts the possibility that much of OneCoin’s untraceable sources of cash may have come from organized crime networks and even goes as far as to state that there is “no evidence” for such claims. However, as our investigation will show, there is ample proof of Ignatova’s ties to the Bulgarian underworld, not the least of which is her close association with a member of one of the wealthiest families in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who sits at the center of one of the core mysteries about OneCoin and may very well hold the key to the mystery of Nexo, as well.
The Missing Bitcoin
Sometime between September and October, 2015, Ruja Ignatova paid a visit to Sheikh Saoud bin Faisal al-Qassimi to finalize the sale of OneCoin Ltd. to the Emirati royal in exchange for 230,000 Bitcoin.
Certain accounts maintain that the agreement was not in regards to selling the Dubai-based entity that linked the entire OneCoin enterprise together, but was rather intended to hold Ignatova over until she could resolve her banking issues. Others, including the Sheikh himself, contend that it concerned nothing less than the acquisition of OneCoin Ltd.
Disputes over the true nature of the transaction notwithstanding, the fact remains that Ignatova left that meeting with €48.5 m worth of Bitcoin inside four USB drives and gave power of attorney privileges to the Sheikh and a Dutch real estate agent named Mimoun Madani to act on her behalf.
Immediately following this crucial business deal, Ignatova retained the services of a Fort Lauderdale lawyer named Mark Scott to set up an intricate web of shell companies and begin to her ill-gotten gains out of OneCoin. Gilbert Richard Armenta, her new lover and fixer, had made the connection.
Hailing from the same South Florida city as Scott, Armenta had a long history in the world of murky offshore finance, including as the protagonist in a bankruptcy scandal that shook the economic foundations of the tiny Dutch-controlled island of Curaçao in 2010. Ruja, no doubt, found a rotten kindred spirit in the tall, handsome conman and soon after making each other’s acquaintance started a torrid love affair that would lead both to their downfall.
Plans were put in place to introduce the second OneCoin “blockchain” sometime in 2016, which was slated to increase the bogus supply of OneCoin fifty-fold without affecting the price. A truly miraculous occurrence that defied the most basic economic principles, but nonetheless fully in line with the absurd OneCoin marketing pitches.
OneCoin’s blockchain switch was scheduled for the spring of 2016 and would be accompanied by a big event at Wembley Arena in London, where Ruja Ignatova herself would preside over the magical non-inflationary expansion of the OneCoin ‘crypto’ supply, that was technically happening under the watchful eyes of OneCoin engineers at the headquarters in far-away Sofia.
Ignatova spent most of early 2016 at the Four Seasons in London setting up RavenR Capital, her family office, and attending to several other matters, including the purchase of the now famous Kensington flat. All appearances indicated that she was going to lay down roots in the British capital, and even traveled to Germany in April to face charges over a struggling metal casting company she bought in 2010 only to turn it over Gordon Geko style two years later, leaving hundreds of union workers without a job.
The 14-month suspended sentence and $18,000 fine she received smacked of judicial corruption, with the magistrate suggesting the verdict was appropriate because Ignatova was a young lady with a “socially positive future”. Affronted workers picketed in front of her father Plamen’s house in Germany, demanding restitution.
Not Your Blockchain Not Your Coins
Dressed in a stunning crimson gown before five thousand people at Wembley Arena on June 11, 2016, Ruja Ignatova claimed OneCoin had achieved a user rate of two million and was on its way to becoming the “number one cryptocurrency” in the world, even though she never put a penny into it, herself.
Gaslighting the audience just as she’d done to the workers of the Waltenhofen Gusswerk cast iron factory, Ignatova haughtily embraced of the title “Bitcoin killer”, only months removed from taking one of the largest positions in the budding digital asset. Moments later, OneCoin’s new blockchain would come online and ostensibly create 150 billion yet-to-be-mined OneCoins, in addition to “doubling” each and every OneCoin holders’ stash.
German authorities had first been alerted to Ignatova’s fraudulent scheme in December, 2015, when a bank account associated with OneCoin transactions was reported to the Bielefeld Economic Crimes unit, which would end up forming the basis of the ongoing trial in Münster mentioned at the outset. However, most of the serious investigative work came only much later.
Initially, only consumer protection agencies had issued any kind of warnings to the public about OneCoin, with Belgium’s FSMA releasing the first of these just weeks after Wembley. The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority followed up with their own rather lukewarm advisory later that fall. But, the temperature would begin to rise quickly by wintertime as a result of an oversight by Mark Scott, who accidentally tipped off the British Virgin Islands (BVI) independent fund administrator about the real source of the money pouring into his shell companies.
Scott’s lapse came via an email chain he forgot to delete before sending the relevant communication to the administrator, who was supposed to approve a transfer of $30 million for the purchase of a 9,000 square mile oil field in Madagascar from Hong Kong magnate Hui Chi-Ming [see Bartlett]. Noticing the name of one of Ignatova’s Bulgarian assistants in the errant email chain, the administrator ended up filing a suspicious activity report with the UK’s Financial Intelligence Unit, which set the stage for the joint criminal investigation of OneCoin by British and American law enforcement in December 2016.
During Scott’s interrogation by the FBI some years later, the South Florida native made the astonishing claim that Neil Bush, younger brother of former president George W. Bush, was present when the oil deal actually went down in Hong Kong with Ruja Ignatova, her OneCoin co-founder Sebastian Greenwood and Chi-Ming. Scott’s assertion was eventually confirmed by Bush’s own lawyer in court testimony, further disclosing that Bush had been paid $300,000 for simply taking the meeting.
After years of investigation by multiple agencies, most have come to agree that OneCoin did, in fact, have a private blockchain during its first year of operation. It is only the second, “new” blockchain that was announced amid so much pomp and circumstance at Wembley Arena by Ruja Ignatova, that has been categorically proven to be a complete hoax.
Bjørn Bjerkle, the Norwegian IT specialist who OneCoin unsuccessfully attempted to hire to build the second blockchain days after Ignatova had supposedly ‘activated’ it before a half-filled venue in northwest London, would eventually discover the extent of the pseudo crypto fraud when he began prying into the equally fake crypto exchange OneCoin had ‘launched’ soon after the Wembley event. To his absolute horror, Bjerkle found that OneCoin had simply been running an sql database, coded to mimic cryptocurrency mining.
Nevertheless, the question about that first private blockchain most everyone agrees existed remains. Is it possible that the one and only blockchain OneCoin ever operated before making the “switch” is the same blockchain Nexo came to market with in 2018, complete with what would by then have turned into billions worth of Bitcoin furnished by the Sheikh? Direct proof of this would be all but impossible to obtain without a search warrant or a well-armed contingent of indignant developers. However, finding evidence of Nexo’s (né Credissimo’s) and Ignatova’s links to the same Bulgarian state-sponsored mafias and their transnational associates is another matter altogether.