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Panama Papers In Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

  • Charles Recknagel

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both implicated in the massive investigative report.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin are both implicated in the massive investigative report.

Many leaders of the former Soviet republics publicly condemn using offshore havens to hide wealth, saying it robs their nations of capital.

Yet the leak of data from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm specializing in offshore companies, implicates at least three heads of state from the region in the use of offshore companies to hide billions of dollars of wealth outside their countries.

One is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not named directly in the Mossack Fonseca leak, but who is closely linked to someone who is: his longtime friend Sergei Roldugin.

Another is Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. And the third Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, whose wife and daughters are shareholders in several offshore companies.

Other key political leaders from the former Soviet region could yet be implicated as more information from the leaked data becomes available in the coming days. One name to look for will be Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose grandson Nurali Kazaliev's name appears in Mossack Fonseca records.

Enough information has already come out to underline how much authoritarian leaders make exceptions for themselves while calling on others to keep their money at home. Here are some key points to consider:

Putin's Circle

Putin has been suspected for years of amassing a prodigious personal fortune, with leaks from his own presidential administration in 2007 suggesting it could be from $40 billion to $70 billion.

But what has not been available until the Mossack Fonseca leaks is a glimpse into the avenues the Russian leader may use to keep the extent of his wealth unknown.

The leaked data suggest that one of the keys could be the use of close and trusted friends such as Sergei Roldugin, a professional cellist who founded and is artistic director of the St. Petersburg Music House.

Roldugin, who is godfather to Putin's eldest daughter, Maria, heads several offshore companies that receive loans and payments from Russia, shelter those funds, and then extend loans back to Russian companies in which Putin appears to have an interest.

"I am not a businessman, I don't have millions," Roldugin told The New York Times in 2014. The leaked data show that may be true. In fact, he is a conduit for billions of dollars and the fortune may not belong to him.

A good example is provided by Sandalwood Continental Ltd, one of the offshores registered to Roldugin. The company got $1 billion in loans from various Russian banks and other offshore companies from 2009 to 2012, including loans from the state-owned Bank Rossia, long dubbed "Putin's crony bank" by Western officials.

Some of that money later came back to Putin's inner circle in the form of virtually interest-free loans totaling $11.3 million in 2010 and 2011 to the Ozon company, which owns the Igora ski resort near St. Petersburg. The resort, of which Putin is a patron and a reputed resident, is where the president's daughter Katya celebrated her wedding in 2013.

The full extent of the amount of money coming and going through offshores registered to Roldugin is unknown. The leaks also show that another of his offshore companies, International Media Overseas, has a 12.5 percent stake in Russia's biggest TV advertising agency, Vi (formerly known as Video International). Roldugin also owns 3.2 percent of Bank Rossia.


When Poroshenko ran for president in 2014, he promised to sell Roshen, Ukraine's largest confectionery corporation and the main source of his estimated $858 million fortune.

But the Mossack Fonseca leaks show that Poroshenko never sold his assets and instead transferred them to an offshore company called BVI Prime Asset Partners, Ltd., which he registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Doing so allowed Poroshenko, who is the sole shareholder of his offshore company, to cease reporting money earned from Roshen on his annual income-disclosure statements. He could do that because BVI Prime Asset Partners calculated the value of shares in the offshore as having a total value of just $1,000.

One of the media groups investigating the leaked data, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), asked the Kyiv-based financial service group that advises Poroshenko on his personal money matters why the president made no mention of foreign income on his 2014 disclosure statement.

Makar Paseniuk, managing director of the financial group ICU, responded that the reason was because "shares in BVI Prime Asset Partners Limited have no par value, and the declaration for 2014 required only shares having a par value to be included."

Moving his assets in an offshore not only perpetuated the idea that Poroshenko had divested himself of Roshen, it also enabled him to avoid Ukrainian taxes on his sheltered income.

But the use of offshores may yet come back to haunt Poroshenko in two ways.

Poroshenko set up his holding company in late 2014 to protect his personal fortune and save on taxes at exactly the time he was calling up reservists and asking citizens to make sacrifices as Russia-backed separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine. The irony cannot be lost on the Ukrainian public.

And Poroshenko's offshore activities could bring him legal troubles.

Yevhen Cherniak, an analyst with Transparency International Ukraine, told OCCRP that Poroshenko might have violated Ukrainian rules banning the president from business activities and prohibiting public officials from submitting false information in income declarations.

The Aliyev Family

The Mossack Fonseca leaks confirm that the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev makes frequent use of offshore companies to hide its wealth and mask the ways it gains shares in Azerbaijan's most lucrative businesses.

The leaked data corroborate much of the information that previously has been made public by Azerbaijani investigative reporters, notably jailed RFE/RL contributor Khadija Ismayilova. She was sentenced to prison for 7 1/2 years in September on charges of tax evasion and illegal business activities that rights groups call retribution for her reporting on corruption involving senior government officials.

The leaks show that Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, was named in 2005 as one of two managers of a Panamanian offshore company called Panamanian UF Universe Foundation that was incorporated in 2003. The firm, which was deactivated in 2007, had control of the major Azeri conglomerate AtaHolding.

The leaks also allege that Aliyev's two daughters, Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, controlled a Panamanian firm with a stake in a group of companies developing Azerbaijani gold fields.

And the leaks show that President Aliyev's sister, Sevil Aliyeva, is sole shareholder of an offshore set up in 2005 in the British Virgin Islands.

In May 2012, in a joint investigation by RFE/RL and the OCCRP, Ismayilova discovered that the Azerbaijani first family was personally profiting from the construction of a new $134 million concert showplace called the Crystal Hall that was being prepared to host that year's Eurovision Song Contest.

The Aliyev family's involvement was through concealed ownership of the Azenco construction company, which had quietly become a subcontractor to the only company listed in official documents as constructing the concert hall, Germany's Alpine Bau Deutschland AG.

Tracing the ownership of Azenco back through a series of shell companies, the investigation discovered that its majority owners belonged to a firm registered to the then-home address of Aliyev's wife and two daughters. Azenco has routinely received contracts for state-funded projects, with State Procurement Agency records showing it was awarded contracts worth $79 million in 2010 alone.