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Uzbekistan Ltd: private-public interests clash in flagship project

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As a major prop­er­ty devel­op­ment scheme gets under way in Tashkent, a data trail reveals a poten­tial seri­ous con­flict of inter­est in Uzbekistan’s new cor­ri­dors of pow­er.

As part of the Tashkent City devel­op­ment, hun­dreds of peo­ple are being dis­placed from their homes. Source: Atkhan Akhmedov.The heart of Uzbekistan’s ancient cap­i­tal is now a vast con­struc­tion site. As for­eign com­men­ta­tors cel­e­brate an emerg­ing “Uzbek spring” under pres­i­dent Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Tashkent City is being vaunt­ed as the sleek urban embod­i­ment of the new Uzbekistan.

Since the death of Mirziyoyev’s pre­de­ces­sor Islam Karimov in 2016, the new pres­i­dent has pre­sent­ed him­self to the world as a reformer, eager to mod­ernise Uzbekistan and cre­ate a busi­ness envi­ron­ment which will make it attrac­tive for blue-chip investors abroad.

Led by young, well-groomed man­agers, sport­ing glossy brochures and web­sites, the mega-devel­op­ment, with an esti­mat­ed cost of $1.3 bil­lion, has even brought in the celebri­ty mys­tique of for­mer heavy­weight box­ing cham­pi­on Mike Tyson.

Yet if Tashkent City is emblem­at­ic of the new direc­tion in Uzbekistan, it bodes poor­ly indeed for the future. A recent openDemocracy inves­ti­ga­tion found that Tashkent City’s for­eign investor from Germany may, in fact, be act­ing as a proxy for a net­work of Central Asian busi­ness­men. According to com­pa­ny records, the sole own­er of Hyper Partners GmbH, the main investor in Tashkent City’s Lot 3 (a shop­ping cen­tre with two 30-floor tow­ers), is a 19-year-old with no pre­vi­ous busi­ness expe­ri­ence.

An inves­ti­ga­tion into the com­pa­nies spear­head­ing this mega-project found a com­plex trail of doc­u­ments that leads to a series of enti­ties close­ly linked to Jaxongir Artikxodjaev, the Mayor of Tashkent. 

Essential details

Since its incep­tion, Tashkent City has lacked the kind of doc­u­men­ta­tion you would expect for a project of this size. Comprehensive search­es have failed to find a mas­ter-plan, envi­ron­men­tal impact assess­ment, com­mu­ni­ty con­sul­ta­tion doc­u­ments, ten­der doc­u­ments or busi­ness plans. Only in October 2018, more than a year after the for­mal deci­sion to build the project was announced, was the pub­lic informed that the author­i­ties had hired British com­pa­ny Cushman & Wakefield to pre­pare a busi­ness plan for Tashkent City.

In response to pub­lic crit­i­cisms (the most recent one, in Russian, is here), the Tashkent City project admin­is­tra­tion did even­tu­al­ly pro­vide a fuller list of investors in the project’s sev­en major lots, along­side the key con­trac­tors respon­si­ble for the ambi­tious build.

One investor’s name in par­tic­u­lar leaps out from this list: Akfa Dream World.

This com­pa­ny strong­ly hints at an affil­i­a­tion with the Akfa Group, which, accord­ing to RFE/RL’s Uzbek ser­vice Radio Ozodlik, belongs to Jaxongir Artikxodjaev, who is wide­ly regard­ed as one of the wealth­i­est busi­ness­men in the coun­try. Afka is a brand that Artikxodjaev has been close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with over the past decade.

Jaxongir Artikxodjaev. Source: YouTube / Qalampir.uz.

During 2017–2018, the Uzbek gov­ern­ment charged Artikxodjaev with steer­ing the pub­lic author­i­ty coor­di­nat­ing the Tashkent City project. In April 2018, Artikxodjaev was made act­ing may­or of Tashkent, a posi­tion that was con­firmed in December, and in the autumn he was also made a sen­a­tor.

Artikxodjaev’s extra­or­di­nary polit­i­cal rise is in tune with President Mirziyoyev’s pol­i­cy of lin­ing gov­ern­ment with entre­pre­neurs. The pres­i­dent said as much in May 2018, com­ment­ing on Artikxodjaev’s appoint­ment: “I trust our tomor­row only to entre­pre­neurs. That is why I’ve decid­ed: the hokim [may­or] should be an entre­pre­neur.”

Indeed, Akfa Group is a major play­er in the plas­tic win­dows and doors mar­ket in Uzbekistan. But, accord­ing to Radio Ozodlik, Artikxodjaev’s influ­ence extends far beyond this sec­tor. The same report by Ozodlik states that Artikxodjaev con­trols anoth­er com­pa­ny, Artel, one of the biggest importers and pro­duc­ers of elec­tron­ics in Uzbekistan.

In December 2018, in response to jour­nal­ists’ ques­tions about his busi­ness activ­i­ties pri­or to being con­firmed as may­or, Artikxodjaev stat­ed: “I am the may­or of the city and at the cur­rent time I have no rela­tion­ship to busi­ness. I have left my for­mer com­pa­nies to oth­er peo­ple, they are involved in the busi­ness. I can say that my old com­pa­nies are only help­ing the city.”

Corporate network

A data trail pieced togeth­er from a range of doc­u­ments seen by the author and openDemocracy indi­cates that there is a con­nec­tion between Tashkent City, Akfa Dream World, Akfa Group and Jahongir Artikxodjaev.

Promotion mate­ri­als for Tashkent City Lot 1, an apart­ment devel­op­ment. Source: Tashkent City.

The first clue emerged from an exam­i­na­tion of the reg­istry for the web­site Dream City Development, which is mar­ket­ing Tashkent City Lot 1, a mas­sive res­i­den­tial com­plex, and Lot 7, a bou­tique prom­e­nade. The web­site also ref­er­ences a link to Lot 5, a giant con­gress cen­tre with a five-star hotel that is being devel­oped by Akfa Dream World.

The site’s domain name, dreamcity.uz, is reg­is­tered to J-United Group, which is owned by Jahongir Artikxodjaev. The con­tact email for the domain name’s reg­is­tered hold­er (admin@akfa.uz) links to the domain name of Artikxodjaev’s Akfa Group.

The sec­ond clue cen­tres on a key cor­po­rate arm of Akfa Group, Akfa Engineering and Management, a firm owned by Jahongir Artikxodjaev accord­ing to doc­u­ments seen by the author. Akfa Engineering’s man­ag­er is list­ed as Ismail Israilov.

Israilov is asso­ci­at­ed with anoth­er com­pa­ny, Dream World Development, a name remark­ably sim­i­lar to Akfa Dream World and Dream City Development. Israilov is the legal own­er of the company’s stock. However, it is unclear if he is the ben­e­fi­cial own­er, or whether he holds the shares on behalf of some­one else. Proxy own­er­ship is com­mon prac­tice at the elite lev­el in Uzbekistan.

Israilov also appears in com­pa­ny records (seen by the author and Open Democracy) asso­ci­at­ed with a sep­a­rate joint-ven­ture, Green Line Profil. The records indi­cate Israilov has a 6.05% stake in this enter­prise. Artikxodjaev, Tashkent’s may­or, owns the remain­ing stock, direct­ly and indi­rect­ly through J-United Group.

This is not the only cor­po­rate path doc­u­ment­ing a link between Artikxodjaev and Tashkent City.

The con­trac­tor charged with over­see­ing Tashkent City Lot 1, Lot 5 and Lot 7, is a local com­pa­ny, Discover Invest. Discover Invest’s web­site lists its part­ners, which include Akfa and Artel, both of which are at the heart of Artikxodjaev’s busi­ness empire. Indeed, for a peri­od Discover Invest’s logo includ­ed the Akfa brand in pro­mo­tion­al mate­ri­als post­ed on Facebook. The Akfa name dis­ap­peared from its pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al in May 2018. This was sev­er­al weeks after Artikxodjaev became act­ing Mayor.

According to doc­u­ments obtained by the author, the major­i­ty own­er of Discover-Invest is Abror Ganiev, who also works for Akfa. This man is list­ed as a direc­tor of win­dow man­u­fac­tur­er Imzo Akfa, and in anoth­er doc­u­ment (seen by the author) as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Nordlink LLP. In Uzbekistan, Nordlink LLP is list­ed as the legal name for Akfa Steel, which is part of the Akfa Group, along­side Imzo Akfa.

As with Israilov and Dream World Development, Ganiev could be hold­ing the shares on behalf of a third par­ty. Because there is no pub­lic reg­is­ter of ben­e­fi­cial inter­ests in Uzbekistan, it is impos­si­ble to find out.

A pro­mo­tion­al video shows the Mayor of Tashkent guid­ing President Mirziyoyev around the Tashkent City site.

Nevertheless, it would appear that in one way or anoth­er, Jahongir Artikxodjaev’s pri­vate inter­ests are linked to the con­sor­tium of actors cho­sen to spear­head a project, over which he has direct pub­lic respon­si­bil­i­ty. The Tashkent mayor’s com­pa­ny owns the web domain of the com­pa­ny cur­rent­ly mar­ket­ing key com­po­nents of Tashkent City. The man­ag­er of one of his firms owns appears to be linked to one of the major investors in Lot 5. While the con­trac­tor for Lots 1, 5 and 7, is owned on paper by an indi­vid­ual said to rep­re­sent Artikxodjaev’s Akfa group.

Richard Messick, a US attor­ney and inter­na­tion­al anti-cor­rup­tion expert, viewed the doc­u­ments obtained by openDemocracy. He com­ment­ed: “If these links are proven to be seri­ous, then these doc­u­ments seem to describe one of the ‘hard core’, bla­tant forms of con­flict of inter­est – self-deal­ing. That is, when a gov­ern­ment offi­cial pur­chas­es some­thing for the gov­ern­ment from an enti­ty that he or she owns out­right or has an inter­est in.

There is a Resolution of the [Uzbek] Cabinet of Ministers of 1992, which pro­hibits employ­ees of gov­ern­ment agen­cies, law enforce­ment agen­cies, as well as senior offi­cials and pro­fes­sion­als in the pub­lic sec­tor, whose func­tions include mak­ing deci­sions relat­ed to the field of busi­ness, from engag­ing in entre­pre­neur­ial activ­i­ties.

The gov­ern­ment should imme­di­ate­ly open an inves­ti­ga­tion into whether any offi­cial has vio­lat­ed the 1992 res­o­lu­tion. At the same time, it should expe­di­tious­ly ful­fill its repeat­ed promis­es to the OECD Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia to enact a com­pre­hen­sive con­flict of inter­est law.”

Not a good look

The ball is now firm­ly in Mayor Artikxodjaev’s court to declare pub­licly whether he has any ben­e­fi­cial inter­est in Dream World Development, Discover-Invest or oth­er firms involved in the Tashkent City devel­op­ment.

This is not only a mat­ter of pub­lic integri­ty and fair­ness, as impor­tant as these virtues are. Investors, of the type President Mirziyoyev evi­dent­ly wants to court, are not going to dip their foot in the eco­nom­ic waters of Uzbekistan unless they are con­fi­dent there is a trans­par­ent and impar­tial pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion, led by those who are not sport­ing con­flicts of inter­est, com­ple­ment­ed by an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry with a track record of open and fair deci­sion-mak­ing.

A cur­so­ry glance at Uzbekistan’s recent his­to­ry demon­strates the dan­gers that emerge when busi­ness and pol­i­tics mix, in the cut-and-thrust world of cor­po­rate com­pe­ti­tion and prof­it-mak­ing. Investors inter­est­ed in long-term val­ue cre­ation steer clear, while cow­boys line up for high-risk high-return prof­its.

Set against this his­tor­i­cal back­drop, answers to the ques­tions raised by this inves­ti­ga­tion (and oth­ers) into Tashkent City may show the shape of things to come in Uzbekistan and Mirziyoyev’s ambi­tious eco­nom­ic vision.

The author con­tact­ed Tashkent Mayor’s Office and Tashkent City project admin­is­tra­tion, as well as Discover-Invest and Dream World Development, for com­ment pri­or to pub­li­ca­tion, but did not receive a response. If you want to con­tact the edi­tor for this arti­cle, please write to media@opendemocracy.net.

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