BAKU -- An RFE/RL investigation has shown that more than two dozen companies with ties to the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev or to other government officials do not appear on the Azerbaijani Tax Ministry's public registry. At least one of those companies appears to have been removed from the registry in recent weeks.
The revelation comes just days after the Council of Europe's anticorruption body -- the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) -- issued a report chastising Baku for failing to make "any progress" on implementing a mandatory mechanism under which public officials must disclose their assets.
"The absence of any meaningful development...casts doubt on the political will to enact an effective system of assets disclosure," GRECO said on March 17.
At least 29 companies featured in previous investigations into the assets of public officials, or their subsidiaries, do not appear on the government's mandatory tax registry. Ten of the missing companies are subsidiaries of the Pasha Holding group.
According to the 2013 Consolidated Financial Report of Pasha Holding subsidiary Pasha Bank and the registry information of Pasha Bank's branch in Georgia, the ultimate shareholders of Pasha Holding are: President Aliyev's daughters, Leyla and Arzu; and Arif Pashayev, the father of first lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who was recently also named the country's first vice president.
One Pasha Holding subsidiary, Pasha Development, appeared in the Tax Ministry's registry as recently as August (below) but has since been removed.
Neither Pasha Holding nor the Azerbaijani Tax Ministry responded to requests by RFE/RL for comment. The Pasha Holding website emphasizes the company's commitment to "transparency," saying it aspires to be "a representation of best corporate practice, trust, continuity, and respect for all our stakeholders: our country, shareholders, clients, and partners."
"Azerbaijan is the only nonoffshore haven that hides ownership of its companies," said Akram Hasanov, managing partner of the Akram Hasanov & Partners law firm in Baku. "The information required by the registry has legal importance. This information is essential in contracts and other types of legal communications, including judicial communications."
Before 2012, the ministry's registry required each company to list its name, tax identification number, date of incorporation, legal address, director(s), and owner(s). But following investigations into the undeclared assets of public figures, the law was changed in 2012 so that companies were no longer required to reveal their owners.
Leyla Aliyeva (center) with her sister Arzu (left) and first lady Mehriban Aliyeva
In past investigations, RFE/RL and other media have used information in the registry to establish links between companies or between listed companies and individuals. For instance, the legal address listed for the firm Ador Ltd. matches the address where both of Aliyev's daughters are registered to vote. The Tax Ministry's registry also identifies a company’s directors, which enables investigators to establish a personal connection between a listed director and a public official.
Information about a company's founding date can also be important. In the past, companies were found to have been created just days before being granted a significant government contract.
"The existence of the public registry with basic information that is available to citizens is important, allowing them to find out about providers of services and goods and other companies that they might interact with," said Natig Jafarli, an economist and executive director of the opposition Republican Alternative (REAL) movement.
Azerbaijan officials are abusing power given to them by the people to hide the fact that they are using public money for their own benefit."
"Unfortunately, the information available to citizens is not complete," Jafarli added. "The registries of other countries provide more information, including ownership, financial records, tax history, and so on. Unfortunately, Azerbaijanis lack access to full information on companies, even those that are awarded public contracts."
Also missing from the tax registry are Gilan Ltd. and several of its subsidiaries. According to a 2013 audit report of Gilan subsidiary AFB Bank, the company is controlled by two entities registered in the United Arab Emirates that are owned by Tale and Nijat Heydarov, sons of Azerbaijani Emergency Situations Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov.
Another absent firm is the construction company Azenco Group. That company won a lucrative state contract to build a new arena for the Eurovision Song Contest 2012 in Baku. An RFE/RL investigation that year revealed Azenco was controlled through a series of offshore shell companies by Mehriban, Leyla, and Arzu Aliyeva.
Azerbaijan is ranked 123rd of 176 countries in the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International (TI). According to a 2015 TI report, corruption in Azerbaijan is "endemic and deeply institutionalized -- permeating all spheres of public life, with entrenched political patronage networks and widespread conflicts of interest closely connected to the political elite." It notes that the country's "asset-declaration law is rendered effectively meaningless by the fact that declaration forms to be filled in by public officials have yet to be developed."
Earlier this month, Azerbaijan announced it was quitting the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a voluntary group of energy- and mineral-producing countries aimed at boosting transparency.
Baku exited the project after being suspended at EITI's March meeting "because the country lacks an enabling environment for civil society."
Asked about the companies missing from the tax registry, Miranda Patrucic, an investigative reporter with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), said they were indicative of a systemic problem.
"Azerbaijan officials are abusing power given to them by the people to hide the fact that they are using public money for their own benefit," Patrucic said. "They have made business records secret to avoid public scrutiny and embarrassment from revealing the true level of their greed and corruption.
"Such things only happen in dictatorships," she said.
RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report