Businessman Nets 47M for Belgrade Airport Land, then Partners With Lawyer Whose Firm Advised on Deal

Subotić, who before the global financial crash was one of the 100 richest people in Central and Eastern Europe, was the largest private owner of land around Nikola Tesla Airport when Vinci won the concession to expand it.

Credit: Miodrag Ćakić/KRIK Construction is seen underway at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport.

Originally, Serbian airport authorities planned to build the expansion on 28 of Subotić’s 112 hectares. A document obtained by KRIK and OCCRP shows a government advisory group estimated in 2016 that land in the area would cost 100 euros per square meter, meaning Subotić would reap some 28 million euros.

After the concession deal, Vinci ended up buying less than 11 hectares of Subotić’s land — but paid 47 million euros for it, or 436 euros per square meter, according to a financial statement from the company through which Subotić owned the land.

That price tag is also nearly double the airport’s own valuation of the land. Its financial report for 2019 estimated the two parcels owned by Subotić were worth just 25.4 million euros.

“The price is shocking to me,” said Minić from Transparency Serbia.

Credit: KRIK

Vinci said it started negotiations to buy Subotić’s land in 2017, while it was still bidding for the airport concession, and completed the deal a year later, after it had won the tender.

Vinci said it dealt with Subotić because it needed his land. “The sale price of the plots of land was the result of a seller/buyer negotiation taking into account their privileged situation,” the statement said. “These plots were necessary for our optimal technical and operational solution for the development of the airport.”

But not all the bidders took the same approach. Zurich Airport’s competing bid for the concession proposed building in an area that did not seem to include Subotić’s land.

A Successful Purchase

Before advising the Serbian government on its airport, CMS Rui Pena & Arnaut had also consulted for Vinci. Arnaut personally helped the French company negotiate its successful 2013 purchase of the state-run Aeroportos de Portugal (ANA), which controls 10 airports in Portugal.

ANA became a subsidiary of Vinci Airports, and the Portuguese politician was appointed chairman of its board on January 4, 2018 — the day before Vinci was awarded the Serbian airport concession.

Pressed on whether his ties to Vinci created a conflict of interest in Serbia, Arnaut said he was never part of the legal team that advised on Nikola Tesla Airport.

“I personally never provided services to the Serbian Government in my career,” he said, adding that “Chinese walls” set up within the law firm meant that “sensitive information relating to the Belgrade Airport project was kept within the team allocated to it.”

Vinci said that Arnaut told them he did not advise Serbia’s government on the airport deal.

“Mr. Arnaut had no influence whatsoever on the decision” to award the tender to Vinci, it said.

At some point in 2019, Subotić and Arnaut became partners in a real estate company called Vanguardlevel, which had been set up in March that year in Portugal by a company Arnaut controls, Platinumdetails.

Data from Luxembourg’s register of ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) shows Subotić owns 90 percent of Vanguardlevel through his firm Emerging Markets Investments. Arnaut controls the remaining share through Platinumdetails.

Reporters have not been able to find any property owned by Vanguardlevel.

When contacted by a reporter, Arnaut first denied working with Subotić. “I don’t have businesses. I am a lawyer,” he said before hanging up the phone.

Later, when queried again by email about his links to the Serbian businessman, he backtracked. “Vanguardlevel was created for opportunistic investments in Real Estate, and I decided to participate in a minority position with my own funds as a financial investor,” he wrote to reporters.

“This company for the development of its investments resorted to financing as it is market practice. I still own this investment as the Real Estate market, as many others, has suffered greatly with the ongoing economic crisis thereby affecting the expected return on investment.”

Serbia’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

This is the second questionable deal that the OpenLux data has revealed involving Subotić, who was convicted by a Serbian court in absentia for smuggling cigarettes in 2011 but was later acquitted after a controversial retrial.

Arnaut did not respond to questions on how he knew Subotić, or whether he was aware of the Serbian businessman’s reputed ties to Šarić. However, he noted that Subotić had been acquitted of the charge of cigarette smuggling.

“As an individual and a lawyer, I strongly believe in the rule of law as a main principle of a democratic state and fully respect court decisions as a believer in justice and institutions,” he wrote.

Another OpenLux investigation found that last year, Subotić used a Luxembourg shell company to sell an airline to Nikola Petrović, a close associate of Serbia’s President Vučić.

The story offered the first documented evidence linking Subotić to the president’s inner circle. Vučić has since hit back, saying he had never ridden on “buses, planes, or anything else” belonging to Petrović.

“He has always been rich,” Vučić told a reporter about Petrović, saying he had no knowledge of his friend’s business affairs.

Editor’s Note: Subotić has filed a lawsuit in a Swiss court against OCCRP, its editor in chief, and a KRIK journalist for a 2018 story on the possibility he might profit from the sale of the airport land.