Ablyazov’s Kazakh nuke deal: scandal pops up in the USA in distorted form

As known and reported on repeatedly in these columns, among Mukhtar Ablyazov’s fund embezzling deals was the sale of a number of uranium mines in the south of Kazakhstan to one of his offshore firms for a couple of hundreds in dollar. The new, a Canadian tycoon who also happens to be a close pal of Bill  Clinton, was to pay hundreds of millions in greenbacks for the assets – which he later managed to re-sell to a subsidiary of Russia’s state nuclear corporation. The affair has popped up once more in an attempt by right-wing propagandists to throw mud at the Clinton couple pending election campaigns in which Hillary Clinton appears as a front-runner. The true affair in its real proportions, however, comes out in a blurred and misleading manner.

BY CHARLES VAN DER LEEUW, WRITER, NEWS ANALYST

Ablyazov’s Kazakh nuke deal: scandal pops up in the USA in distorted formA recent article in The New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/us/cash-flowed-to-clinton-foundation-as-russians-pressed-for-control-of-uranium-company.html?_r=0] relates “…how the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom, had taken over a Canadian company with uranium-mining stakes stretching from Central Asia to the American West. The deal made Rosatom one of the world’s largest uranium producers and brought Mr. Putin closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain. But the untold story behind that story is one that involves not just the Russian president, but also a former American president and a woman who would like to be the next one. At the heart of the tale are several men, leaders of the Canadian mining industry, who have been major donors to the charitable endeavors of former President Bill Clinton and his family. Members of that group built, financed and eventually sold off to the Russians a company that would become known as Uranium One.

Beyond mines in Kazakhstan that are among the most lucrative in the world, the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States. Since uranium is considered a strategic asset, with implications for national security, the deal had to be approved by a committee composed of representatives from a number of United States government agencies. Among the agencies that eventually signed off was the State Department, then headed by Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. As the Russians gradually assumed control of Uranium One in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013, Canadian records show, a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million.”

The article seems to be based on dodgy sources, the main one of which is a yet unpublished book by a far-right war fanatic called Peter Schweizer, “a former fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution and author of the forthcoming book Clinton Cash,” in the newspaper’s words. The book-in-the-making seems little more than an effort to throw mud at Democrat candidates for the upcoming presidential elections – Hillary Clinton in particular. “The path to a Russian acquisition of American uranium deposits began in 2005 in Kazakhstan, where the Canadian mining financier Frank Giustra orchestrated his first big uranium deal, with Mr. Clinton at his side,” the article reads further down. “The two men had flown aboard Mr. Giustra’s private jet to Almaty, Kazakhstan, where they dined with the authoritarian president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. Mr. Clinton handed the Kazakh president a propaganda coup when he expressed support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid to head an international elections monitoring group, undercutting American foreign policy and criticism of Kazakhstan’s poor human rights record by, among others, his wife, then a senator. Within days of the visit, Mr. Giustra’s fledgling company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., signed a preliminary deal giving it stakes in three uranium mines controlled by the state-run uranium agency Kazatomprom. As if to underscore the point, five months later Mr. Giustra held a fund-raiser for the Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative, a project aimed at fostering progressive environmental and labor practices in the natural resources industry, to which he had pledged $100 million. The star-studded gala, at a conference center in Toronto, featured performances by Elton John and Shakira and celebrities like Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Robin Williams encouraging contributions from the many so-called F.O.F.s — Friends of Frank — in attendance, among them Mr. Telfer. In all, the evening generated $16 million in pledges, according to an article in The Globe and Mail.”

Yet further down, UrAsia’s expansion is being described in, as must be admitted, a rather factual manner: “But what had been a string of successes was about to hit a speed bump. If the Kazakh deal was a major victory, UrAsia did not wait long before resuming the hunt. In 2007, it merged with Uranium One, a South African company with assets in Africa and Australia, in what was described as a $3.5 billion transaction. The new company, which kept the Uranium One name, was controlled by UrAsia investors including Ian Telfer, a Canadian who became chairman. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Giustra, whose personal stake in the deal was estimated at about $45 million, said he sold his stake in 2007. Soon, Uranium One began to snap up companies with assets in the United States. In April 2007, it announced the purchase of a uranium mill in Utah and more than 38,000 acres of uranium exploration properties in four Western states, followed quickly by the acquisition of the Energy Metals Corporation and its uranium holdings in Wyoming, Texas and Utah.”

What follows brings us closer to home: “By June 2009, a little over a year after the star-studded evening in Toronto, Uranium One’s stock was in free-fall, down 40 percent. Mr. Dzhakishev, the head of Kazatomprom, had just been arrested on charges that he illegally sold uranium deposits to foreign companies, including at least some of those won by Mr. Giustra’s UrAsia and now owned by Uranium One. Publicly, the company tried to reassure shareholders. Its chief executive, Jean Nortier, issued a confident statement calling the situation a complete misunderstanding. He also contradicted Mr. Giustra’s contention that the uranium deal had not required government blessing. When you do a transaction in Kazakhstan, you need the government’s approval, he said, adding that UrAsia had indeed received that approval. But privately, Uranium One officials were worried they could lose their joint mining ventures. American diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks also reflect concerns that Mr. Dzhakishev’s arrest was part of a Russian power play for control of Kazakh uranium assets. […] Three days later, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rosatom [ARMZ – ChvdL] completed a deal for 17 percent of Uranium One. And within a year, the Russian government substantially upped the ante, with a generous offer to shareholders that would give it a 51 percent controlling stake. But first, Uranium One had to get the American government to sign off on the deal.”

What follows is a lengthy hair-cleaving exercise over formalities concerning US government permission for the deal – but it leaves the basic question whether Clinton and Giustra had something in common in the process other than their love of jazz (Clinton plays saxophone and Guistra trumpet). Moreover, the NYT in one its report’s upper paragraphs already had to admit that “…whether the donations played any role in the approval of the uranium deal is unknown. But the episode underscores the special ethical challenges presented by the Clinton Foundation, headed by a former president who relied heavily on foreign cash to accumulate $250 million in assets even as his wife helped steer American foreign policy as secretary of state, presiding over decisions with the potential to benefit the foundation’s donors.” In all: thin air. But the most important blunder is that the paper completely overlooked the real scheme behind the uranium deal – which brings in a more than familiar name, namely that of Mukhtar Ablyazov, the Kazakh banker who diverted an estimated lump sum in the order between 6 and 12 billion in US dollar from his bank to offshore accounts the “ultimate beneficial owner” of which pointed at himself. Ablyazov is now in a French jail waiting for his extradition to the Russian Federation, where most of the assets he bought with the money he stole are located. Another even more notorious name involved in the case is that of Rakhat Aliyev, jailed in late summer last year in Austria pending his trial for kidnapping and multiple murder, who committed suicide in prison on the event of the opening of the trial.

The names of the five uramium upstream assets thus put into the shadow are known: Akdala, Southern Inkay, Central Mynkuduk, Kyzylkum and Khorasan. All of them were located in the deep south of Kazakhstan near the border with Uzbekistan, and together they were thought to account for 60 per cent of Kazatomprom’s total asset value. The real eye-opener in the case came much later, when in April 2009, shortly after Ablyazov’s schemes had fallen through and the culprit had escaped the country, a member of Parliament used her immunity to take a closer look at the books of KazAtomProm. In this way, Tatyana Kvyatkovskaya found out that Betpak Dala, an offshore holding allegedly personally controlled by the tandem Dzhakishev/Ablyazov, had been sold major stakes in the fields of Akdala, South Inkai and Khorassan for the hilarious total sum of 64,000 Kazakh tenge – or 426 US dollar at the time. She passed the information on to the authorities – but not without presenting them at a press conference in the process. The curtain fell for Dzhakishev in the last week of May the following year, when he was sacked as head of Kazatomprom and arrested before he got a chance to flee from the country.

But only over the summer, details about his clandestine network of offshore firms started to come out in the open. Among the transactions under investigation figures the Central Mynkuduk deposit, estimated worth in the order of 75 million US dollar in historic value, which was transferred to an offshore shell company called Ken Dala Kz, run by Dzhakishev even though still later it was to appear that the financials were in the firm grip of Mukhtar Ablyazov. The same happened with the nearby Kyzylkum deposit, which was eventually sold to a western-held company called UrAsia for the equivalent of hardly more than a hundred thousand US dollar. UrAsia in turn was bought out by Canada-based global uranium miner Uranium One for $75 million. It was later to be generally assumed that UrAsia in reality paid a lot more for the assets, with the difference having been channeled out of the country by Dzhakishev with the help of BTA’s Mukhtar Ablyazov and the latter’s associates. Following the transactions, Uranium One was to own 30 per cent in the deposit which it bought through UrAsia for the mentioned 75 million dollar. A Japanese consortium in the end owned 40 per cent with the remaining shares in the hands of Kazatomprom.

“Clinton had no role whatsoever in this relationship, which had been initiated by London businessman Sergey Kurzin,” an article in Forbes dated December 1 2009 refuting the link suggested by the New York Times almost two years earlier reads. “Clinton arrived in Kazakhstan late in the afternoon Sept. 6, 2005, […] four days after Giustra. By then Giustra was well on the road to finalising a memorandum of understanding to acquire a 30% interest in the Kharassan project for $75 million; the state owned the other 70%. Giustra’s representatives were also negotiating a price for the Akdala and South Inkai projects with representatives of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a wealthy oligarch with banking and real estate interests, who years earlier had been Kazakhstan’s minister of energy, industry and trade. […] Giustra’s major deal for 70% of the Akdala and South Inkai uranium projects was not completed until Nov. 7, two months after Clinton had left Kazakhstan. In fact, Ablyazov, the owner, demanded a $100 million additional payment to the $350 million Giustra was willing to pay and had raised for the venture. ‘Doing the deal with Ablyazov was the most stressful in my life,’ says Giustra. ‘I had to bluff him that I would give the investors back their money. Then he caved. Clinton had no role at all.’ ”

“The [New York] Times says Kazatomprom, the state-owned uranium company, controlled the properties in which Giustra invested,” Forbes noted in its conclusions. “Not exactly true. In the major purchase (Akdala and South Inkai) that cost Giustra $350 million, 70% was owned by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh banker; only 30% belonged to the state. Even as to the Kharassan property, which was 70% owned by Kazatomprom, the state company did not sign the agreement by which Giustra’s company, UrAsia Energy Ltd., acquired a 30% interest for $75 million. The seller in the Kharassan deal was Jeffcott Group Ltd., a private company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands.”

The next question raised here is: who was behind Jeffcott? “Uranium One owns a 30-per-cent stake in the Kyzylkum joint venture, which was purchased for $75-million (U.S.) in 2005 from a privately held company, Jeffcott Group Ltd.,” a report by Canada’s leading daily The Globe and Mail published on May 29, 2009, would read. “But the Vancouver firm says the shareholders behind Jeffcott were never specifically identified, nor does it know how Jeffcott initially obtained rights to the project.” The newspaper contacted Frank Giustra who reacted in the form of a written comment in a manner that raised more questions than it would answer. ‘The person who acted for Jeffcott was Eugene Charyshkin,” The Globe and Mail report’s quote from his e-mail was to read. “That’s as much as I know.”

Ablyazov’s downfall and Dzhakishev’s arrest gave the Kazakh authorities a chance to correct the situation, without, however, being able to recover the money lost on the “discount” transaction. They did, however, manage to get asset value for the uranium mines from Rosatom’s subsidiary ARMZ. “Uranium One has signed a definitive agreement to acquire a 50% interest in the Karatau Uranium Mine in Kazakhstan from ARMZ,” a press release dated June 15 2010 was to read. “The purchase price will be paid by way of the issuance of 117 million common shares of Uranium One and a cash payment of $90 million (or equivalent promissory note). The agreement also provides for a contingent payment to ARMZ of up to $60 million, payable in three equal tranches over the period between 2010 and 2012 subject to certain post-closing tax related adjustments. The transaction is valued at approximately $451 million, based on the closing share price of Uranium One on June 12, 2009. […] Upon closing of the Karatau acquisition, ARMZ will hold an indirect 16.6% interest in Uranium One. ARMZ has agreed to a standstill covenant under which it may not, without Uranium One’s prior consent, for a period of at least five years from closing acquire more than 19.95% of Uranium One’s outstanding common shares.” On November 16 the same year, the Kazakh government reportedly approved the deal, which was eventually clinched on December 15.

The association between Dzhakishev and Ablyazov would bring a third player in Kazakhstan’s Shakespearian business drama to mind. Prosecutors at the time they were elaborating on the Dzhakishev case were reportedly looking into the sum of $670,000 which at one point disappeared from BTA’s accounts only to pop up at the local account of Kazatomprom’s Vienna office. That office used to headed by the spouse of Vadim Koshlyak, a close associate of Rakhat Aliyev, then Kazakhstan’s ambassador to Austria before he was to be disclosed not only as a straightforward gangster but also as having prepared an armed coup in Kazakhstan. According to Kazakh news media, the mother of Elnara Shorazova, whom Aliyev married after his imposed divorce from President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s eldest daughter Dariga, was later appointed as the head of this office. If there would have been a scheme there as investigators used to believe there had been, the dimension could only become the more sinister for it both for Ablyazov and Dzhakishev, and would turn them from suspects of white-collar crime into suspected accomplices of murder and political terror on a global scale.

As for Dzhakishev, he was to keep denying any wrongdoing whatsoever from the very moment of his arrest. His statements from prison filtered through to the public domain would look diffuse, though. On one hand, he denied any involvement in kickbacks; on the other, he tended to suggest that even if he would appear to have been responsible in any way to have passed on Central Mynkuduk to UrAsia, he had done so with the aim to grant westerners a stake in the deposit at the expense of Russian companies. The latter, Dzhakishev and his lawyers tended to argue, would do anything in their power to prevent Kazakhstan from developing its own nuclear processing industry and keep it under control as a mere supplier of uranium. (to be continued)

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