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The strange connections of Tashkent City’s “British investor”

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Questions emerge over a Scottish lim­it­ed part­ner­ship linked to a major urban rede­vel­op­ment project in Uzbekistan, includ­ing the glob­al cor­po­rate net­work it is con­nect­ed to. 

Corso Solutions LP appears to be an unusu­al prop­er­ty devel­op­er. The Edinburgh-reg­is­tered com­pa­ny has no web­site, no con­tact details and no obvi­ous busi­ness activ­i­ty. And yet it was named last autumn as a for­eign investor on the Tashkent City project, a giant prop­er­ty rede­vel­op­ment in the cen­tre of Uzbekistan’s cap­i­tal. openDemocracy has found that Corso Solutions has con­nec­tions to an opaque inter­na­tion­al net­work that pro­vides com­pa­ny for­ma­tion ser­vices, includ­ing to appar­ent mon­ey laun­der­ing vehi­cles.

Tashkent City, a $1.3bn project to con­struct a series of shop­ping malls, parks, lux­u­ry apart­ments and busi­ness cen­tres in the cap­i­tal, is part of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s plan to rebrand Uzbekistan as investor-friend­ly, mod­ern and open for west­ern cap­i­tal. Under the for­mer pres­i­dent, Islam Karimov, who ruled the coun­try until his death in sum­mer 2016, the coun­try was plagued by high-lev­el cor­rup­tion and off­shore schemes, and for­eign investors were found to have entered into shady deals. 

Last December, an openDemocracy inves­ti­ga­tion revealed that one of the three for­eign investors in Tashkent City, German com­pa­ny Hyper Partners GmbH, appears to be hid­ing its real ben­e­fi­cial own­ers behind sev­er­al lay­ers of cor­po­rate own­er­ship. On the basis of Hyper Partners’ cor­po­rate link­ages and share­hold­er infor­ma­tion, we sug­gest­ed that sev­er­al of the company’s own­ers could be a group of Uighur busi­ness­men from Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, China – and that the sources of Hyper Partners’ and relat­ed com­pa­nies funds should be audit­ed.  

Tashkent City Press Conference, 31 January. Source: BBC Uzbek / YouTube.

Responding last month to our report­ing on Hyper Partners, the may­or of Tashkent said at a press con­fer­ence: 

It’s not with­in our com­pe­ten­cies to ask who is invest­ing, where their mon­ey is from, how funds have trav­elled through the bank­ing sys­tem. The most impor­tant thing is that the project is being imple­ment­ed, the most impor­tant thing is that a for­eign com­pa­ny is invest­ing in our mar­ket.”

According to Tashkent City Project Administration, all deci­sions on investors are tak­en by an admin­is­tra­tive board, which com­pris­es the prime min­is­ter of Uzbekistan, the may­or of Tashkent and oth­er min­is­te­r­i­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives. 

Now we have found that the direc­tors of Corso Solutions appear to be employed by an inter­na­tion­al com­pa­ny for­ma­tion busi­ness which has con­nec­tions to busi­ness­es linked to mon­ey-laun­der­ing activ­i­ties. These activ­i­ties raise fur­ther ques­tions about the nature of for­eign invest­ment in Tashkent City – and which investors the Uzbek gov­ern­ment is choos­ing to work with.

Edinburgh backstreet

Corso Solutions LP was reg­is­tered as a Scottish Limited Partnership in Edinburgh in May 2017, with its legal address at 101 Rose Street South Lane — and £99 in ini­tial cap­i­tal. 

Located in a tiny back­street in Scotland’s cap­i­tal, 101 Rose Street South Lane is legal­ly home to 1,653 com­pa­nies accord­ing to the OpenCorporates data­base. “This address in Edinburgh is is used as a proxy address,” says finan­cial crime con­sul­tant Graham Barrow

According to the UK com­pa­nies reg­istry, Corso Solutions has not logged any activ­i­ty or accounts since its for­ma­tion. As report­ed by Scottish news­pa­per The Herald, the com­pa­ny should have dis­closed its ben­e­fi­cial own­er (“Person of Significant Control”) after new UK leg­is­la­tion on Scottish Limited Partnerships came into force in 2017. Concerns about this sit­u­a­tion were raised in September last year. 

In their 2017 report “Offshore in the UK”, anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign­ers Transparency International and Bellingcat, a team of inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists, stat­ed that the “min­i­mal fil­ing require­ments” and “per­ceived respectabil­i­ty” asso­ci­at­ed with Scottish Limited Partnerships are “increas­ing­ly being abused by mon­ey laun­der­ers”. In October 2018, The Herald report­ed on the use of SLPs as invest­ment vehi­cles in mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar indus­tri­al and cot­ton projects in Uzbekistan.

Excerpt from a September 2018 report by Podrobno.uz, which names Corso Solutions LP as a for­eign investor along­side Hyper Partners GmbHCorso Solutions was first men­tioned in a September 2018 report by Uzbek media on investors in Tashkent City. Since then, we have been unable to find any infor­ma­tion on the exact nature of Corso Solutions’ invest­ment, and it is not men­tioned on Tashkent City’s offi­cial web­site. When Radio Ozodlik con­tact­ed Tashkent City in October 2018 regard­ing Corso Solutions, an offi­cial respon­si­ble for for­eign invest­ment stat­ed that infor­ma­tion on approved for­eign investors, includ­ing Corso Solutions, was a “com­mer­cial secret”. When we con­tact­ed Tashkent City project admin­is­tra­tion to con­firm Corso Solutions’ role in the project in January and February 2019, we received no response.

According to Graham Barrow, the lack of trans­paren­cy over Corso Solutions’ ben­e­fi­cial own­er in the fil­ings imme­di­ate­ly rais­es red flags.

Corso Solutions LP are in breach of sev­er­al UK require­ments and sub­ject to a penal­ty of up to two years in prison, a fine or both. But who would they arrest or fine? The com­pa­ny has failed to com­ply with the require­ment to list peo­ple with sig­nif­i­cant con­trol.”

Meet Mr Charyev

Corso Solutions LP has two reg­is­tered part­ners: Indian cit­i­zens Deepak Devidas Shetty, a gen­er­al part­ner, and Arasakumar Jayaraman, a lim­it­ed part­ner. Searching the UK com­pa­nies data­base, Jayaraman and Shetty appear as direc­tors of numer­ous lim­it­ed com­pa­nies, which appear to form a con­stel­la­tion of “mail­box” com­pa­nies togeth­er with Corso Solutions. 

Both men appear list­ed as direc­tors for com­pa­nies that either have con­nec­tions to or were set up by a Russian cit­i­zen, Viacheslav Charyev, who is direc­tor of an inter­na­tion­al com­pa­ny for­ma­tion net­work.  

Project design for Tashkent City’s Lot 3, a shop­ping cen­tre with two 30-storey build­ings. Source: Tashkent City.

 For exam­ple, Shetty replaced Charyev as direc­tor of Winlinebet Ltd last June. In November, Shetty signed off on 2017–2018 accountsfor DDD Media LLP (reg­is­tered at the same address as Winelinebet) on behalf of Sterling Legal Payment Services, one of two UK busi­ness­es run by Charyev. In a sim­i­lar vein, Jayaraman is list­ed as a direc­tor for a UK lim­it­ed com­pa­ny, Aveia Ltd, where he replaced Charyev as direc­tor in May 2017.

Two London address­es, 91 Battersea Park Road and 507 Green Lanes, are the hubs where most of the com­pa­nies linked to Charyev, Jayaraman and Shetty are reg­is­tered. Both address­es have host­ed Charyev’s com­pa­ny Sterling Legal Payment Services

As we show below, Viacheslav Charyev runs a net­work of on- and off­shore com­pa­nies, hid­den behind opaque net­works, and which are reg­is­tered in loca­tions from the Seychelles to Belize, Hong Kong to New Zealand. 

The ques­tion is: who­ev­er Corso Solutions’ real own­er is, why does the investor require this kind of opac­i­ty? What are the con­nec­tions that Charyev has estab­lished across the globe?

The Sterling network 

Viacheslav Charyev has many asso­ciates who assist him in com­pa­ny for­ma­tion in dif­fer­ent loca­tions. In 2016, he sought to hire an Indian nation­al to serve as a “nom­i­nal direc­tor” of numer­ous com­pa­nies reg­is­tered in Russia, for a fee of $50 per com­pa­ny. 

Screen shot from advert on GoAdIndia.com, post­ed in 2016. 

Ads like the one shown above were post­ed on var­i­ous online job forums. Coincidentally, the dates of post­ing match the begin­ning of the coop­er­a­tion between Charyev-linked busi­ness­es and Deepak Shetty and Arasakumar Jayaraman, who went on to act as part­ners for Corso Solutions.

It’s a rea­son­able infer­ence that Deepak Shetty and Arasakumar Jayaraman are among the India-based nom­i­nee direc­tors Charyev was adver­tis­ing for in 2016,” said Richard Smith, who research­es com­pa­nies involved in mon­ey-laun­der­ing schemes. “In the fol­low­ing years, both Shetty and Jayaraman took up many more direc­tor appoint­ments at com­pa­nies at the 507 Green Lanes address, which is exact­ly what you’d expect nom­i­nee direc­tors to do.”

Charyev’s world­wide net­work is eas­i­ly recog­nis­able: his com­pa­nies have sim­i­lar names, usu­al­ly involv­ing the word “Sterling”, and Charyev’s own direc­tor­ship and own­er­ship. For exam­ple, we found that a Czech com­pa­ny, Sterling Legal Services s.r.o. reg­is­tered in 2017 with CZK 10,000 (€384) cap­i­tal, was one of the most active among Charyev’s busi­ness­es. There is also a Hong Kong-reg­is­tered Sterling Legal Payment Services, and a now dereg­is­tered Australian com­pa­ny of the same name. 

In Russia, Charyev is the reg­is­tered direc­tor of three busi­ness­es, which include two active com­pa­nies reg­is­tered with the same name (OOO Sterling – reg­is­tered in 2011 and 2014 respec­tive­ly) but at dif­fer­ent Moscow address­es. 

On his Russian web­site, Charyev offers com­pa­ny and bank account for­ma­tion across sev­er­al dozen coun­tries, includ­ing juris­dic­tions such as Belize, the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus and Seychelles. 

Clearing an apart­ment block to make way for Tashkent City. Source: Atkhan Akhmedov.

 According to this web­site, reg­is­ter­ing a Scottish LP costs $3,100. With this ser­vice, Charyev offers Sterling’s ser­vices, which entail “tax-sav­ing and full legal com­pli­ance at the same time”, and with a core val­ue of “com­pli­ance”.

According to the Russian com­pa­nies reg­istry, one of the two Sterling branch­es has been sub­ject to sev­en tax enforce­ment pro­ceed­ings. These pro­ceed­ings could not be set­tled because the Russian author­i­ties were unable to locate the own­er. As not­ed in the Russian com­pa­ny reg­istry, Sterling’s reg­is­tered Russian address (Luchnikov Lane 7/4, Moscow) is a known hub for Russian mail­box com­pa­nies. The sec­ond Russian Sterling com­pa­ny was also involved in a sim­i­lar pro­ceed­ing

What sort of com­pa­ny uses the ser­vices of Sterling Legal Services? 

Proximity to money laundering

In Latvian bank accounts for Sterling Legal Services seen by openDemocracy, we found dozens of pay­ments for com­pa­ny for­ma­tion and legal ser­vices per­formed by Charyev’s com­pa­ny between 2013 and 2015. 

The trans­ac­tions show that this is only one of sev­er­al accounts linked to Charyev and the Sterling net­work of com­pa­nies. One of these accounts shows a turnover of $270,000 over two years. 

We asked UK finan­cial crime con­sul­tant Graham Barrow to exam­ine the accounts, and the UK lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty part­ner­ships (LLPs) that are record­ed as pay­ing Sterling Legal Services for com­pa­ny for­ma­tion and legal ser­vices.  

LLPs have been cen­tral to all the major pre­vi­ous laun­dro­mats (Russian, Azerbaijani, Moldovan, Danske Bank), so when I see a lot of them con­nect­ed to a sin­gle com­pa­ny, I want to take a clos­er look.”

Danske Bank is cur­rent­ly under inves­ti­ga­tion over 200 bil­lion euros in pay­ments from Russia and post-Soviet states that were found to have flowed through its Estonian branch. © Christian Charisius/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Barrow points out that two of the UK lim­it­ed part­ner­ships which paid Sterling Legal for ser­vices, Grandburg Ventures LLP and Townstreet Complex LLP, are reg­is­tered to the same UK address: 175 Darkes Lane, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. “This address has been one of the most pro­lif­ic providers of LLPs to laun­dro­mats and oth­er mon­ey-laun­der­ing schemes,” said Barrow. According to Transparency International, this address host­ed a com­pa­ny used in the $2.9 bil­lion Azerbaijani laun­dro­mat. In 2018, the BBC “cal­cu­lat­ed that $1.7bn has been laun­dered through com­pa­nies reg­is­tered at [this] sin­gle address”.

The 2014–2015 accounts for Grandburg Ventures LLP (now dis­solved) were signed off by Ali Moulaye, a Brussels-based den­tist. Buzzfeed report­ed last August that Moulaye had sup­plied the paper­work for a net­work of 127 British shell com­pa­nies, “around a third of [which] face alle­ga­tions – some in crim­i­nal courts – of large-scale tax eva­sion, fraud, or cor­rup­tion”.

From London to New Zealand 

A sec­ond group of three UK lim­it­ed part­ner­ships (Alpha‑M LLP, Alsical CIS LLP and Isomag UK LLP) iden­ti­fied as mak­ing pay­ments for legal ser­vices in Sterling’s accounts is or has been reg­is­tered at 91 Battersea Park Road and 507 Green Lanes – the same London address­es as a num­ber of com­pa­nies which list (or have list­ed) Viacheslav Charyev, Deepak Shetty and Arasakumar Jayaraman as direc­tors. Alpha‑M LLP lists a Seychelles-reg­is­tered Sterling Legal Services as a cor­po­rate mem­ber. 

The oth­er two UK lim­it­ed part­ner­ships (Alsical CIS LLP and Isomag UK LLP) pre­vi­ous­ly includ­ed a New Zealand lim­it­ed lia­bil­i­ty com­pa­ny, Steel Refractory Limited, as a cor­po­rate mem­ber. At the incor­po­ra­tion stage for both part­ner­ships in 2011, Steel Refractory Limited was rep­re­sent­ed by a direc­tor, Angelique Elizabeth Lilley. 

Previously, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project found that Angelique Elizabeth Lilley has act­ed as a nom­i­nee direc­tor at a hold­ing com­pa­ny for Moldovan tele­vi­sion chan­nel Publika TV, and a direc­tor at a com­pa­ny involved in the 2013 own­er­ship bat­tle over Ukrainian tele­vi­sion chan­nel TVi. 

According to research by Naked Capitalism, a blog run by Richard Smith, Lilley has worked for Ian Taylor, who ran a New Zealand-based com­pa­ny for­ma­tion busi­ness, the GT Group. 

OCCRP and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists report that the GT Group has set up off­shore cor­po­rate net­works used by Russian organ­ised crime, Hezbollah and the Mexican Sinaloa drug car­tel to laun­der funds and hide own­er­ship. Companies House records that Ian Taylor has been dis­qual­i­fied as act­ing as a com­pa­ny direc­tor until 2021 under sec­tion 6 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986 (Duty of court to dis­qual­i­fy unfit direc­tors of insol­vent com­pa­nies). 

According to the finan­cial infor­ma­tion web­site interest.co.nz, by last December New Zealand police had received more than 350 crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion inquiries from abroad about com­pa­nies cre­at­ed by Taylor. 

In this regard, sus­pi­cion aris­es when we exam­ine the 14 com­pa­nies that Arasakumar Jayaraman, lim­it­ed part­ner for Corso Solutions, was pre­vi­ous­ly or is cur­rent­ly list­ed as direc­tor of. 

For exam­ple, Jayaraman was suc­ceed­ed in five com­pa­nies (Ultrapaymax Ltd, Globalwinmax Ltd, Siampay Ltd, Choice Trade (International) Ltd, Victory Lotter Ltd) by Vanuatu cit­i­zen Leah Toureleo. At two of the com­pa­nies, Jayaraman was replaced by Toureleo on the same day, 29 November 2017.

In 2014–2015, Leah Toureleo’s name emerged in the con­text of the OCCRP inves­ti­ga­tion into the “Russian laun­dro­mat”, which laun­dered bil­lions of dol­lars in Russian mon­ey stolen from the gov­ern­ment or earned via organ­ised crime activ­i­ty. Naked Capitalism found that Toureleo was reg­is­tered as a direc­tor of New Zealand com­pa­ny Chester NZ Limited, which received bil­lions of rou­bles in ille­gal pay­ments from Moldova’s Molincondbank. According to Naked Capitalism, Toureleo acts as a proxy direc­tor for the GT Group.

The Latvian bank accounts also show that Hong Kong-based com­pa­ny Nordfield Export Limited paid Sterling $6,600 for legal ser­vices in February 2015. In January 2018, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) iden­ti­fied a com­pa­ny with the same name as one of sev­er­al that trans­ferred $674,000 out of a cor­rupt ten­der scheme at the country’s Berdyansk and Mariupol ports in 2015. A search on OpenCorporates’ data­base of com­pa­nies reports only one reg­is­tered under the name “Nordfield Export Limited”. According to Ukrainian court doc­u­ments, the NABU inves­ti­ga­tion found that this scheme, which cen­tred around the man­age­ment of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority state com­pa­ny, was launched in January to February 2015. 

Having reviewed these bank state­ments,” Graham Barrow told us, “they clear­ly exhib­it con­nec­tions to oth­er sig­nif­i­cant laun­dro­mats.”

This back­ground to Corso Solutions, one of the much-trum­pet­ed for­eign investors in Tashkent City, rais­es ques­tions about the funds and exper­tise being deployed in this mam­moth urban devel­op­ment, the real­i­ty of Uzbekistan’s new “open” and trans­par­ent econ­o­my, and the con­tin­u­ing lack of enforce­ment of new UK leg­is­la­tion designed to iden­ti­fy “per­sons of sig­nif­i­cant con­trol” at Scottish LPs. 

We con­tact­ed Tashkent City Project Administration, Corso Solutions LP and OOO Sterling for com­ment, but did not receive a response. You can con­tact us at media@opendemocracy.net.

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