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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 (email@example.com) 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.