by Yannis Souliotis
The Money Laundering Authority is investigating suspicious money transfers from abroad to the individual accounts of monks on Mount Athos. It has been unfolding quietly for the past year, with the case, however, taking a new turn after the start of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West on natural and legal persons linked to the Kremlin, which, after all, has traditionally maintained close ties with the Athonite state.
A source with knowledge of the matter reveals that there are at least 20 transactions that in the last twelve months have been considered suspicious and are being investigated by the Authority's officials. These are movements of large sums of money from banks and foreign money transfer companies, with the money ending up not in the accounts of monasteries that in the recent past have received visits from high-ranking Russian officials, but in the individual accounts of monks on Mount Athos. Competent sources explain that these transactions were considered suspicious by the country's credit institutions mainly because they involved transfers of unusually large sums of money, amounting to tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros. In one case, a transfer of more than a million euros was found, but the investigation concluded that the money was intended to finance a mission in Africa.
Sources familiar with the matter confirm that most of the money transfers under investigation involve funds originating from Russia. They also clarify that the money found deposited in the monks' accounts does not come from legal or natural persons for whom war-related sanctions have been in force since last February. One of the scenarios being considered is that wealthy Russians have chosen to take their money out of Russia with the help of monks from Mount Athos in order to save their funds in the event of the collapse of their country's financial institutions or even the freezing of their funds by the Kremlin because of the war.
For the same reason, moreover, a number of Russians have reportedly in recent months proceeded or expressed interest in buying property in Greece.
"No evidence has emerged capable of fully confirming information that the transactions are part of a broader, organized effort to penetrate Russia's hold on Mount Athos," a source said. "This effort has been expressed mainly through business and/or political circles," he adds, referring to recent indications by US intelligence agencies of a transfer from Russia of $300 million to parties and politicians in the period from 2014 onwards.
Addressing the Issue
It has not gone unnoticed, and the initiative of the Ministry of Public Safety to upgrade the former police station in Karyes on Mount Athos to a Directorate was announced months ago. Although some have linked the move to Greek - and not only Greek - authorities' concerns about the possible presence and activity of Russian nationals on Mount Athos, Ministry of Public Safety officials who were asked about it attributed the initiative to purely police matters.
Furthermore, the rift that occurred in the spring of 2021 between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church, followed by the war in Ukraine, has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of Russians visiting Mount Athos, at least according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
Apart from the Russian-origin funds, several of the money deposits to Mount Athos monks under the Laundering Authority's scrutiny have been made by people from Balkan countries, most notably Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Authority's auditors cannot rule out the possibility that this is money from illegal activities that is being legalized in the form of donations to Athonite State monks.
However, information recently made public about an investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) into three Mount Athos monasteries was denied this week by a competent European official. According to information from Brussels, OLAF has previously dealt with Russian funds being transferred to a monastery on Mount Athos, but the last investigation was completed in 2014 and does not pertain to the current situation.