EXCLUSIVE: The Ablazov-Related Crime Ring: Missing Links Or Overlooked Connections?
In a follow-up to the first documentary on Donald Trump’s “Russian” connections touching upon Kazakhstan thief-within-the-law Viktor Khrapunov and family but not going as far as implicating the country’s champion crook Mukhtar Ablyazov, the Dutch broadcaster VARA’s programme focused on a Russo-Judaic Mafioso from Uzbekistan named Lev Levayev, connected both with Trump and the French “blood diamond” affair. Once more, the key figurehead behind that affair, namely Arkadi Gaydamak, was not mentioned in the programme.
The choice of Levayev is far from arbitrary in itself, since he also happens to be the owner of The Netherlands’ largest jewelry shop chain Siebel. The enterprise is suspected to be part of a complex money laundering operation implicating not only Gaydamak and a number of cronies, but also Mukhtar Ablyazov, as well as a number of other dark-sounding names such as Viktor Bout from Tajikistan and Alizhan Tokhtakounov nicknamed Taivansky (the Taiwanese) from Uzbekistan but at the same time one of the most powerful and most dangerous criminals just just in the former USSR but in the whole wide world. While he is at large, and believed to be shuttling between Russia, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, both Bout and Gaydamak are serving prison terms in the USA and France respectively, and thereby at the disposition of prosecutors to unravel the criminal empire they are parts of. So far, however, no prosecutor anywhere in the world including America, France and The Netherlands have shown any interest in the case and the criminal network keeps flourishing.
Arkady Gaydamak was born in Moscow back in 1952. He was among the first Russian Jews allowed to emigrate to Israel in the early 1970s, which he did. But the harsh conditions in the warmonger state did not appeal to the young Soviet-educated immigrant and after hardly more than two years he decided to move to France, where he made his first fortune by opening a private translation service for delegations to and from the USSR. After the downfall of the Iron Curtain, Gaydamak used his business instinct along with the contacts he had preserved with former Soviet republics – mainly Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan – to join the band wagon of the notorious cash-for-assets scheme through which former Soviet career makers turned “capitalist” and better known as oligarchs. In later times, he made no secret of it that he had been the one, rather than the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev both of whom were eventually serving prison terms for it. Khodorkovsky and Lebedev established their tax circumvention scheme through the Menatep Holding, based in Gibraltar, which cost the Russian taxpayers hundreds of billions in roubles in fiscal loophole gains pocketed by Yukos’ leading shareholders and executives. But the architect, and financial director of Menatep Holding and the bank of the same name, was no one else than Arkadi Gaydamak.
From white-collar to cloak-and-dagger
The early 1990s witnessed an outburst of former Soviet heavy criminals on the underworld scene that looked like the opening of a Pandora’s box. Gaydamak, who till 1992 operated through an enterprise called Compagnie internationale de technologie et developpement (CITI) downtown Paris, thereby obtained a rich arsenal in assistance where it would come to opening up the former Realm of Proletarian Brotherhood to the world of crime – varying from white-collar to cloak-and-dagger types of malfactors. Among the consultants he had hired for CITI figured Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, involved in extortion, illegal gambling, contract killing, as well as smuggling of arms, narcotics, sex slaves, toxic waste and other dodgy merchandise from and to the former Soviet Union. Through Tokhtakhounov, who is believed to have been in the service of Vyateslav Ivankov, the “godfather” of the powerful Moscovite Ismailov cartel, Gaydamak provided a safe haven in Europe for Russia’s organised crime. Inspectors of Tracfin, France’s economy ministry’s agency in charge of tracing illegal money and its laundering proceedings, later uncovered a bank account opened by Gaydamak on the name of Toktakhounov at Barclay’s Paris branch for the purpose.
As of 2013, Gaydamak’s name was already known to be intensely connected with some of the world’s most notorious mobsters who find their origins in Central Asia Alizhan Toktakhounov and Lev Levayev, both from Uzbekistan, and last but not least Viktor Bout from Tajikistan. But for Kazakhstan, there are even more stringent reasons to get Arkadi Gaydamak, a born Russian turned Israeli, to justice – especially in connection with a number of deals clinched by two associated criminals: Mukhtar Ablyazov and Mukhtar Dzhakishev. While the latter serves a 14-year term in prison for having squandered assets belonging to Kazakhstan’s valuable uranium mining sector, the former found himself behind French bars awaiting his extradition, probably to Ukraine and possibly to the Russian Federation, for banking swindle. While Dzhakishev duly served his prison term, Ablyazov, who had pocketed the bulk of the illegitimate income from the uranium kickbacks, found himself at large in 2016 only to continue his money laundering operations, this time from France.
As for Gaydamak, he was wanted at the time in France for smuggling arms and precious goods (the so-called blood diamond scandal). In the second half of November and the first half of December, he spent about four weeks in a Swiss prison – apparently because of a row over payment to a former football player. Swiss authorities first told media that a request for extradition to France had been filed – which they later denied. However, after his 6-year prison term in France was cut down to half, he turned himself in and ended up serving his 3-year term in a French jail.
Phosphate and uranium
The Kazakh connection, however, seemed, and still seems to have been largely overlooked.
It highlighted the case of Stepnogorsk which used to be one of those Soviet cities that one could only find on classified maps. It was built in the 1950s with the aim to locate processing facilities for a wide variety of metals and chemicals, many of which were used for military purposes, close to the fields where they were mined, in order to avoid the necessity of long-distance transportation across Soviet territory and keep the industry veiled from the public eye. After independence, the government of Kazakhstan transformed the entire former all-Union-governed complex into a joint venture called Stepnogorsk Mining and Chemical Complex Unlimited.
The plant’s management was first outsourced in early summer 1996 to a Canadian company called World Wide Minerals, through a contract that also provided for an option to purchase the facility as collateral for financial provisions to be supplied by the contractor. The contract was revoked by the government in 1999 for financial shortcomings, shortly before the share option deadline would come. In 1999 the entire conglomerate of SMCC was turned into a new joint stock company called KazSabton, majority-owned by an Israeli enterprise called Sabton, in turn the property of the Africa Israel Holding, controlled by Israel’s tycoon Levi Leviev, also known under his original Russified name Lev Levayev – for the price of hardly more than a million US dollar. The contract was signed with a company called Sadco, controlled by Levayev,
Sadco’s performance at Stepnogorsk proved to be little better than World Wide Minerals’, and in 2004 the company’s management contract was revoked as well. The main difference with its predecessor was, however, that ownership rights had been granted along with the management contract, and up to this day it seems unclear who owns the plant. Ultimately, the plant’s management contract was played into the hands of a British-owned Singapore-registered company called New Power Systems Ltd. According to a report by Novosti published on August 9, 2007, no one less than Mukhtar Ablyazov stuck behind New Power Systems. But the story did not end even there.
Turning Kyrgyzstan into a mobster state
For the name of Gaydamak, who refutes all charges against him as does Leviev up to this day, had also been brought in connection with two even more hideous-sounding names. The first one, as already mentioned, was that of Viktor Bout under which he was registered as a Belgian citizen – or Viktor Butt as the “trader of death” from Tajikistan was originally called. The second one was hardly less bloodstaining and concerned no one less than the already mentioned Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, the Uzbek mobster who ranked third among Forbes’ most-wanted in the world after Osama Bin Laden and the Mexican drugs baron Joaquin Guzman Loera. Both Bout who then had already been in a Thai jail for some years and Tokhtakhounov who was on the run were suspected of having maintained strong ties with the smuggling gangs operating in the Fergana Valley that brought the Bakiyev regime to power in the so-called Tulip Revolution of 2005 – obviously in the hope that the latter would be able to turn his country into the mobster-state they were all dreaming of and which in the course of time would come dangerously close to reality. It is worth noting that only recently Mukhtar Ablyazov, after his outrageous release by the government of France overruling the country’s’ complete judicial apparatus, boasted to have financed the entire operation and has plans to do the same in Kazakhstan any time soon.
Only in the aftermath of the “Blue Revolution” of April 2010 it appeared that the ousted head of state’s clan, in particular his son and poised successor Maxim Bakiyev, had kept a fat finger in Kyrgyzstan’s notorious smuggling networks through which fuel (including jet fuel for the US air base at Manas Airport which for years appeared to have been purchased from the black market), arms and ammunition, and most likely drugs and prostitutes as well have been trafficked from east to west, from south to north. Crucial for the link in the chain that leads from Viktor Bout to Mukhtar Ablyazov and vice versa has been Prime Minister and presidential man of confidence Danyar Usenov – now on the run and supposedly entrenched in London where he could well regularly go shopping with Ablyazov.
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Charles van der Leeuw
FUGITIVE LONG-FINGERED GENTRY FROM THE PLAINS
The story of Mukhtar Ablyazov, one-time major shareholder and chief executive of Kazakhstan’s BTA bank, tells how well over 10 billion US dollar is supposed to have been reaped through his network of close to 800 fake companies.
On April 20 and 21 2010, confusing reports appeared in Kyrgyz and Kazakh media. A man of US nationality, believed to be born in Kyrgyzstan in the waning years of the USSR, had been “arrested” (according to Kyrgyz sources) in Almaty while on the run from Bishkek on request of the Kyrgyz authorities. His name was Eugene Gourevitch, and he was believed to have escaped carrying $226 million in funds belonging from Kyrgyzstan’s public coffers in transfer sheets. Perhaps the most colourful of Gourevitch’s alleged associates, among the 55 others for whom Judge Morgigni issued arrest warrants in July 2011, is Gennaro Mokbel, the son of an Egyptian military officer and Italian mother. Mokbel is alleged to have used contacts in the Calabrian mafia. There are at least two observations to be made here. First of all, the “African diamonds” link points at two figures all too well-known in Central Asia, being Lev Levayev and Arcadi Gaydamak. Both of them have been involved in Kazakhstan’s nuclear industry (as well as the country’s obsolete phosphate and fertiliser industry) and are believed to have profited from asset squandering operations as described above.
Looking at the impressive arsenal of weapons used in the coup in 2005, but also at the amazing arsenals found hidden all but everywhere in the country following the next change of regime five years later, it can only be concluded that the Bakyev clan and its supporters must have had the support of experienced professionals in the process. Looking at the list of aircraft and air transportation enterprises registered in Kyrgyzstan that have been linked to Viktor Bout in the half-decade or so running up to the Tulip Revolution, the interaction suggested looks all the more plausible for it.
Bout’s Belgian and Swiss connections
Another even more noteworthy case within this context was publicised little later in January 2002 by a Belgium-based NGO called International Peace Information Service (IPIS) and concerned supplies from war-torn Rwanda of coltan, a mix of columbium and tantalum, to the metal processing plant of Ulba, in the north of Kazakhstan. There are only a few places in the world where the polymetallic ore is being mined, with one of the largest mining sites being located in Rwanda. Coltan is being used in electric and electronic hardware industries. Its ore and the rock structures in which it is found are highly radioactive, and without proper protection miners can easily be exposed to several hundred times the maximum radiation below contamination levels. The waste left after deriving the metal mix from the ore contains tens of times the allowed maximum radioactivity level as well. It almost speaks for itself that in Rwanda, especially in rebel-controlled areas, there has never been any protection to speak of while child labour in the mines and on primary processing sites is rule rather than exception.
Under the spotlight came a businessman from Switzerland called Chris Huber, who, in the IPIS report’s words “… appears to play a major role in the financing of the Rwandan war effort”. “Research shows that his offshore companies Finmining and Raremet buy coltan from Rwanda Metals, a company acting as a front for the Rwandan Patriotic Army [RPA – or the Tutsi rebel movement responsible for extensive massacres among the ethnic rival Hutus] and sell it to the Ulba processing plant in Kazakhstan,” the report reads. Through agreements with the Kazakh air freight company Ulba Aviakompania/Irtysh Avia, which handles Finmining’s shipments to Kazakhstan, Chris Huber may be linked to Viktor Bout, a notorious arms trafficker who supplies various groups and armies in Africa.”
In 1997, the Swiss entrepreneur’s company Finconcord SA clinched a long-term deal with the Ulba combine for supplies of coltan. “Under the provisions of the agreement, Finconcord was responsible for all raw material purchases and sales of the Ulba plant’s tantalum-based end products,” the IPIS report reads. “According to the Kazakh newspaper Novoye Pokolenye [New Generation], Finconcord sold the tantalum bars to its Gibraltar-based mother company for 75 US dollar per kilogramme, at a moment when the market price was no less than 174 dollar. Ulba, which is located in the Ust-Kamenogorsk region, has a capacity of 250,000 tonne per year. Its largest shareholder at the time was the governor of the region, Vitaly Mette.”
Mette’s supply chain was set up shortly after the Ulba plant, which also includes processing chains for uranium, potassium and other metallic half-fabricates, was privatised. Not all details have become known, but in the end Mette turned up as the biggest single shareholder and president of the new “private” enterprise. The illicit trade flourished, not in the least thanks to Bout’s logistics and transportation services.
At least two Almaty-based air transportation companies have been linked by international investigators to Victor Bout’s network and are believed to have been under his control either directly or by proxy. The first one has become known as Irbis Air, based in Almaty – which from 2002 on changed its name into Dolphin Air. Most observers tend to believe that Irbis did not own any aircraft but instead leased its planes from other local companies, in particular Ulba Air and Irtysh Air initially, and subsequently from Irtysh Avia Service after their merger. According to the report published in January 2002 by the Belgium-based NGO International Peace Information Service (IPIS) quoted earlier, though it does not mention the name of Ablyazov or any of his associates, it does refer to Irtysh Avia which, given its history, can only lead to Ablyazov – and thereby clearly demonstrates the latter’s affiliation with Bout’s smuggling network.
As we shall see not for the first time and probably not for the last in following episodes of this never ending dark epic, mass media can be roughly divided into two categories: those howling along with “human rights” advocates trying to portray the likes of Ablyazov and Khrapunov as “victims of political oppression”, and those who at least try to uncover a glimpse of the dirty truth behind that charade. The worrying thing is that even media of the second category need a lot of sensation smell to present their research, which, fortunately, is being presented to the on a day-to-day basis by Trump. Digging deeper, Trump or no Trump, is only being done by a handful of diehards at the risk of their lives, for at stake here are not just fraudsters and launderers but indeed some of the most dangerous criminals in the entire world, who stop at nothing to protect their business including kidnap and murder. If Sherlock Holmes had to cope with only one Professor Moriarti, now the world is being confronted with a small army of them.