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Vasif Talibov’s man builds property empire in Georgia

Vasil Talibov, Nakhchivan, Emin Uchar, Heydar Aliyev,

International

Vasif Talibov’s man builds property empire in Georgia

New documents and interviews provide evidence that, Turkish businessman Emin Uchar may have acted as a proxy for the family of autocrat Vasif Talibov, who ruled Nakhchivan for 27 years before resigning on December 21.

Across the street from the opera house in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, well-heeled patrons enjoy local and international cuisine at the upscale Dinehall restaurant, whose motto is “Good food is a human right.” Nearby, a five-star hotel is under construction in partnership with the French hospitality giant Accor.

The hotel and eatery are part of a $270-million business empire in the small Caucasian country overseen –– at least on paper –– by a Turkish national named Emin Uchar. But OCCRP has discovered evidence that Uchar has likely acted for years as a frontman for the family of Vasif Talibov, who was the autocratic ruler of a secluded region of Azerbaijan for 27 years until he abruptly resigned on December 21.

Uchar, through his lawyer, has denied his company held assets owned by the Talibov family, saying the wealth came through loans. Accor has told OCCRP it is re-evaluating its relationship with Uchar and his company in light of their reported connections to the Talibovs.

Talibov had ruled with an iron fist over Nakhchivan, which is often referred to as “Azerbaijan’s North Korea,” since being installed in December 1995 by the country’s president, Heydar Aliyev, his relative by marriage.

An autonomous republic that is politically part of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is geographically separated from the main part of the country by a corridor of land belonging to Armenia, and bordered to the west by Iran.

OCCRP revealed in February 2022 Uchar’s ties to the family of Talibov, whose regime silenced independent media, forced dissidents into psychiatric hospitals, and oversaw beatings and torture of detainees. Reporters also found that Talibov amassed a fortune during his time in power, despite an official annual salary of just $26,000.

Now, OCCRP has uncovered new evidence that many of the Talibovs’ holdings have likely been masked by a group of companies headed by Uchar, which owns hotels and other properties in Georgia, as well as companies in Turkey that produce construction materials.

This corporate network –– which includes multiple companies known as Gamigaya in Azerbaijan, and as Maqro Group in Georgia –– has also received dozens of state contracts in Azerbaijan since the first firms were incorporated in the early 2000s.

But the Talibovs’ fortunes appear to have declined dramatically in the past few weeks, with the patriarch stepping down as Nakhchivan’s strongman leader, amid a political crackdown from Azerbaijan’s central government.

The ownership of Gamigaya remains murky. The week after Talibov resigned, Gamigaya was renamed Arkoz –– the name of another company associated with Uchar.

Human rights organizations had long alleged the Talibovs controlled Gamigaya, but company ownership information is not public in Azerbaijan, making the claim seemingly impossible to prove. But a former Gamigaya employee told OCCRP that, based on his observations working security for the company, Uchar took orders from the Talibovs.

“They simply entrusted the Gamigaya Holding to him. But everything was done according to the instructions of Vasif Talibov,” Nadir Mammadov said in a video call from Germany, where he settled after fleeing Nakhchivan because he was beaten by police.

Newly uncovered documents show that Uchar has acted in the Talibovs’ interests in neighboring Georgia. He bought properties in Georgia on behalf of Rza Talibov, the Nakhchivan former leader’s son, and they also owned companies together.

Rza did not respond to questions, but lawyers for Uchar’s company, Maqro, and for the youngest Talibov son, Seymur, made contradictory claims about the business relationship between Uchar and the family.

Seymur’s lawyer said that Rza Talibov and Uchar “are co-owners of the different companies with the name Gamigaya in Nakhchivan,” indicating the relationship was a current one.

But the lawyer for Maqro and Uchar said they “unequivocally reject this claim.”

“As of today, Mr Emin Uçar has no business-related associations with any member of (the) Talibov family,” the lawyer said.

He added that Uchar had previously partnered with Rza Talibov, but Uchar began terminating those relationships in a “reorganizational process” that began in late 2021, and said this was accelerated after OCCRP’s previous report on the Talibovs was published in February 2022.

No one can “prove the partnership with any document dated the end of 2022,” he added.

In Azerbaijan, “trade secret” legislation in place since 2012 means shareholder information is beyond the reach of journalists and citizens. The lawyer said that because of this legislation, he could not provide details on how the firms that Uchar and Talibov had partnered on had been structured.

The lawyer said Uchar has never been a frontman “of anyone’s business other than himself, neither in the past nor now,” and has at all times acted legally.

The sources of various investments outlined by OCCRP, he added, were loans from banks which are still being paid off.

Uchar’s Evolution

A 2010 Turkish media report described Uchar as someone “Vasif Talibov has great confidence in.” But little is known about his origin in business and how he built his seemingly vast wealth.

According to regional Turkish media, Emin Uchar first became involved in construction in Nakhchivan in 1999.

Turkish corporate records show Uchar co-founded a wholesaling company in 2001. His name appeared in Azerbaijani state media in 2004 in connection to a “Turkish company” building a school in Nakhchivan. In 2005, he received the “Progress” medal from President Ilham Aliyev, an award for “entrepreneurs who distinguish themselves in implementation of the program of social progress of the regions of Azerbaijan.”

Corporate records show Uchar first became a publicly-known partner of the Talibovs as part of the team behind Nakhchivanbank, which was founded in April 2008.

Rza Talibov, his mother and cousin, and several businessmen were also part of the deal. By the end of 2017, annual reports show the majority of the bank’s shares were owned by Talibov family members, with Uchar having no stake. Amid the recent political backlash against the Talibovs, the former ruler’s daughter, Baharkhanim Talibova, was removed on January 12 from the bank’s board.

The lawyer for Maqro confirmed that Uchar “held a small percentage of shares in Nakhchivanbank for a little time period,” but then left the company. The lawyer said he “didn’t sell his shares to anyone, just withdrew” and “took the value of a property corresponding to his shares” in return.

Uchar co-founded another company in 2009 called Gemikaya Turizm. It opened a hotel the same year, the Blue Regency in Bakırköy, Turkey. In 2019, the hotel rebranded to become the four-star Mercure İstanbul Bakırköy, in cooperation with Accor.

Georgian expansion

OCCRP has discovered a document that spells out in black and white the close relationship between Uchar and the Talibovs: It turns out that Uchar traveled to Batumi to sign the purchase papers on Rza’s behalf.

“I have confidence in him to buy any properties to my name in the Batumi city of Georgia,” reads the document signed by Rza, which granted Uchar power of attorney for one month beginning February 21, 2012.

In June the same year, Rza granted Uchar power of attorney again, this time for two months. He bought more than $1.2 million worth of properties adjacent to the historical building, with Uchar signing the sales papers as his representative.

“The purchase of real estate on behalf of Mr Rza Talibov with power of attorney refers to the time period when they were partners in the business,” Maqro’s head of legal affairs said by email, adding that it was “absolutely natural when one partner asks another to assist in such kind of issues.”

A month after the purchases, ground was broken on the building site. Media reports on the groundbreaking ceremony reported that construction was being carried out by the Azerbaijani conglomerate Gamigaya –– which they spelled as Gemikaya –– and Rza appeared in a photo of the event, although he was not named.

The five-star hotel Divan Suites Batumi opened two years later, in 2014, inside the buildings purchased by Rza. He posted a photo of the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Facebook, and identified himself as the chairman of Gamigaya Holding –– contradicting Azerbaijani media reports identifying Uchar as chairman of the corporate group.

Georgian records show that Rza at first owned the property personally. Corporate records reveal that he transferred ownership to his local company, Kervan Tourism Ltd., when the hotel opened in 2014. Yet, the hotel was listed as an asset on Gamigaya’s website until 2017, underscoring Rza’s continued ties to the company.

In the midst of the crackdown by Azerbaijan’s central government culminating in Vasif Talibov’s resignation on December 21, Rza put Divan Suites up for sale for $18 million.

Maqro in Georgia

Gamigaya established its first business in Georgia in 2012, opening a furniture factory in Batumi. That company rebranded as Maqro in the country the following year, expanding into sectors including construction, food services and tourism.

Maqro acquired $27 million worth of properties between 2012 and 2016 –– the years Uchar and Rza were in business together, another indication that Maqro’s investments in Georgia were connected to the Talibovs.

Maqro said it invested $270 million in developing those properties, as well as two others in Georgia.

Maqro owns Green Budapest, a mid-range residential development near the center of Tbilisi with 350 apartments. Further outside the city center, it’s building a larger, $120-million development it has dubbed Green Diamond.

Aside from the Swissôtel, which is currently under construction, Maqro has teamed up with Accor on two more hotels in Tbilisi’s Old Town: a Mercure that opened in 2015, and an Ibis that began welcoming guests in 2017.

Contacted about its partnership with Uchar, and his relationship with the Talibov family, a spokesperson for Accor said the group conducts “stringent due diligence procedures (Know your counterparty process – KYC) before signing any new hotel developments.”

“In this specific case, the latest KYC process was undertaken in 2020, through an international third party firm (namely Dow Jones Risks Center) and no concern was raised then.

“Given the recent public reports, we are currently reevaluating this counterparty and have requested updated due diligences and further investigation.”

The investment of money accrued through potential corruption in Azerbaijan also “carries the risk of corruption for Georgia,” said Sandro Kevkhishvili, an anti-corruption expert with the advocacy group Transparency International.

“A person who accumulates wealth through corruption will try to use the same methods in the country where he invested this money –– especially if the country does not have strong anti-corruption mechanisms and a decision-making system to reduce these risks,” he said in an interview in Tbilisi.

“There is no such thing in Georgia.”

Cement and Real Estate

The construction site of the Swissôtel in Tbilisi features signs of Gamigaya’s Turkish investments: boxes full of construction materials are wrapped in red plastic emblazoned with the name Arkoz.

Arkoz is the brand name used for construction materials made at two factories in Turkey that form part of Gamigaya Holding. Together, they are worth more than $100 million, according to official information from the company and the local government.

The Talibov family’s connections to the factories are not documented. But another Turkish company does link Uchar to Rza.

Corporate registration documents show that the two men started a company together in Turkey in 2010, which used the same name, although it was transliterated as “Gemikaya.” Rza left that company in 2017, according to corporate records.

There is no publicly available information on what Gemikaya owned, but it shares the same name with a firm registered in the United Arab Emirates. Gemikaya Real Estate –– which held a license for property purchases, sales and leasing –– was co-owned by Talibov’s younger son, Seymur.

A lawyer for Seymur Talibov confirmed that his client had been a shareholder of the real estate company in the United Arab Emirates, but said it went bankrupt and closed.

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