The Russian Connection
Its regional mafias are strong, its nuclear wealth vast. In Russia, the former are vigorously pursuing the latter, and that means trouble
If VEKA, the Lithuanian firm, had had a buyer lined up and ready to go, the beryllium might never have been seized. VEKA had purchased the beryllium on spec, however, hoping to find an end user or another middleman willing to pay a good markup. After importing the shipment into Lithuania, VEKA advertised the beryllium to businesses and would-be buyers across Europe. Months later, AMI--the Russian firm for whom Yuri Alexeyev had "guaranteed" the financing of the beryllium purchase--grew frustrated with VEKA. After some dispute with the Lithuanian firm, AMI secured the return of the beryllium. AMI had lined up a buyer of its own.
Going for broke. That buyer was H-Kontor, headquartered in Klagenfurt, Austria. According to contract documents, H-Kontor was willing to pay $2.7 million for the beryllium. It was a lot of money. But if the deal went through, the company stood to make even more in profit. According to Interpol officials, H-Kontor and a partner firm called ATRACO--thought by police to be based in the northern Italian city of Brescia--had identified a buyer in Zurich who was willing to pay $24 million for the beryllium.
After months of frustration, AMI was about to hit the jackpot. AMI officials quickly arranged a charter to fly the beryllium from Vilnius to Switzerland. Before delivery and payment, however, the mystery buyer wanted a sample of the beryllium to verify its purity. The delay was deadly. Just before the sample could be sent, the beryllium was seized by police. The Zurich buyer vanished.
Subsequent investigation by Interpol failed to identify who the buyer was or what he or she intended to use the beryllium for. ATRACO, the Italian partner, appeared to be a front company; police in Italy could not locate it. They questioned executives from a similar-sounding operation in Brescia but got nowhere. By the time the Lithuanian police asked their Italian counterparts to go back for more interviews, the company had disappeared.
Who was the beryllium intended for? Janus Kozmus, the managing director of H-Kontor, was questioned twice by police and said nothing about the buyer. Questioned by U.S. News and "60 Minutes," Kozmus said the end user was to be a Korean company. Whatever the truth, investigators are resigned to living with their suspicions. "I think [the beryllium] would have gone to a third country for special purposes," says the chief of Interpol in Lithuania, Aurilijus Racevicius. "[But] the end user of this metal was never established, and I don't think we will ever establish it."
Washington weighs in. The Clinton administration learned of the beryllium seizure through its embassy in Vilnius in May 1993, and immediately tried to put a stop to its travels. In a letter dated Aug. 17, 1993, to Lithuanian Prime Minister Adolfas Slezevicius, U.S. Ambassador Darryl Johnson laid out the administration's concerns. "Some pieces [of the beryllium] contain HEU (highly enriched uranium), which has been enriched to a level sufficient for use in nuclear weapons. ... In any event, the uncontrolled shipment of beryllium remains of proliferation concern due to its presence on the list of nuclear-related dual-use materials." Washington's preferred solution was for the Lithuanian government simply to confiscate the entire shipment.