Billions of pounds linked to Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov and his business empire appear to have been kept in secret Swiss accounts belonging to his family, an analysis of leaked documents suggests.
Usmanov’s 56-year-old sister, Saodat Narzieva, appears to have been the one time real owner of at least 27 secret corporate accounts with Credit Suisse, including one that held nearly 1.9 billion Swiss francs (CHF) (1.6 billion pounds) . Usmanov is subject to EU sanctions.
Narzieva is a gynecologist and obstetrician at a maternity hospital in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.
Her name is linked to Credit Suisse accounts appearing in the Suisse Secrets project, a leak of data concerning 30,000 customers of the Swiss bank. It is not clear why her name would be linked to accounts associated with her brother’s business empire.
A spokesman for Usmanov suggested that the Credit Suisse data were “false and inaccurate” and that there was nothing unfortunate about his financial relationship with his sister that was legal and indicative of his “generosity”.
Information from several financial leaks, including Suisse secrets, the Panama Papers and FinCEN files, has allowed Guardian journalists to highlight the enormous wealth associated with Usmanov.
The revelations highlight the potential challenges that Western governments face when sanctioning or freezing the assets of oligarchs.
The Russian Asset Tracker project has included relatives and partners because in some cases their wealth comes almost exclusively from the person being sanctioned. Including family provides a more complete picture of the extent of their fortunes, and in some cases they may have been used to conceal or disperse assets.
Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department highlighted the issues of ownership by stating, “Sanctioned oligarchs and powerful Russian elites have used family members to move assets and to hide their enormous wealth.”
Usmanov was worth an estimated $ 18.4 billion (£ 14 billion) in 2021, when he was listed as one of the world’s 100 richest people by Forbes magazine.
When The Guardian first asked Usmanov about links between Credit Suisse accounts showing his sister as a beneficiary and his business group on February 15, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he instructed London law firm Schillings to respond on his behalf. At the time, they said “true or false, information about a person’s finances is private. We see no reason at all for our client to discuss financial matters with journalists.” Schillings did not answer the question of whether the firm still represented the oligarch.
The spokesman for Usmanov has since stated that Narzieva had “no possession or control over any accounts in Swiss banks on behalf of his brother”.
“Any financial relationship between Mr Usmanov and his sister would have been that [the] result of his well-known generosity and support that he has always legally lent to his relatives, ”they said.
His spokesman added that “all of Mr Usmanov’s businesses have been audited by Big 4 [audit] companies, since their inception, as well as were his personal tax returns and expenses. All his investments, his expenses and his income have undergone strict compliance procedures. “
Usmanov, an Uzbek-born businessman, has been subject to a freeze on assets and EU travel bans since late February, after the bloc identified him as “one of Vladimir Putin’s favorite oligarchs” for whom he is alleged to have paid millions one of Putin’s influential advisers. and has been “entrusted with servicing financial flows”.
Usmanov accused the EU of “false and defamatory allegations” that “damaged his honor, dignity and business reputation”.
Sanctions have also been imposed on him in the US and UK, where he once had a 30% stake in Arsenal football club. Switzerland has followed suit and rejected political neutrality to match EU action.
While Western governments have imposed sanctions on relatives of some Russian oligarchs, none of Usmanov’s family members have so far been included on any lists.
According to documents in Suisse Secrets data, the 27 accounts with Credit Suisse, which listed Narzieva as the rightful owner, were opened between 2004 and 2014, and 16 listed Usmanov’s metal, mining and telecommunications holding company, USM, as a contact.
The largest of accounts had almost 1.9 billion. CHF in 2011, while two others had up to 1.3 billion. CHF and 460 million. CHF in 2014.
While a handful of accounts were closed in 2016, about 18 are still believed to have been active in recent years. All the assets were held in business accounts, some of which are believed to be linked to offshore companies. Credit Suisse said it was unable to comment on the accounts due to Swiss banking secrecy laws, saying it applies all sanctions “as a matter of principle and policy.”
Narzieva’s brother earned his fortune producing plastic bags, which were a rare commodity in the former Soviet Union, and later continued to manage the investment portfolio of Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom from 2000 to 2014.
He built shares in a number of metal, mining, telecommunications and media companies through USM, which owns Russia’s second largest mobile phone operator, MegaFon, as well as a 49% stake in Metalloinvest, the metal and mining company Usmanov founded in 1999.
A leaked email from the Panama Papers lists Narzieva as one of several close relatives for whom offshore companies were set up in 2013, to hold shares in another of Usmanov’s holding companies, ABU.
The email, sent by the now defunct Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, suggested that each of the so-called special purpose vehicles would have bank accounts with Credit Suisse and another Swiss bank, Julius Baer.
According to documents reviewed by The Guardian, a US bank raised suspicions of transfers worth $ 1.6 million. made between accounts linked to Usmanov and his employees between 2003 and 2015, including through one of the Credit Suisse accounts that named Narzieva as a real owner.
The bank reported that there was a suspicion that the company at the center of the report – Usmanov’s Cyprus-based Gallagher Holdings – appeared to be a shell company carrying “a significant amount of wires with numerous other shell devices”.
The Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) – filed in 2016 and later obtained by BuzzFeed and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – said the bank could not determine the purpose of any of the transactions.
The SAR added that it was concerned that “Gallagher appears to be owned by people with links to Putin.”
Banks and other financial institutions submit SARs to law enforcement agencies when they suspect that a client may use their services for potential criminal activity. However, SARs do not mean that a client is guilty of misconduct or requires a bank to stop trading with the customer.
A separate SAR filed in 2017 suggested that Usmanov was the original source of more than $ 2.5 million that Narzieva used to send money to a steel company chief in the Middle East in 2013.
According to SAR, it appears that Narzieva passed on the money to the Middle Eastern businessman shortly after Usmanov gave his sister a “gift” of $ 3 million. She later sent at least $ 50,000 back to Usmanov – which was related to “current expenses”, according to the payment reference.
This businessman was the head of a joint venture established by Usmanovs Metalloinvest in 2010. The bank said in SAR that it could not determine the purpose of the bank transfer between Narzieva and the Middle Eastern businessman as they “appear to be engaged in various business lines as doctor and CEO of a steel company ”.
The spokesman for Usmanov and Narzieva did not explain the purpose of the transfer, but said the Middle Eastern businessman was her son-in-law.
Usmanov’s spokesman said: “All of Usmanov’s capital was built through successful, sometimes risky, investments as well as through the efficient management of his assets, which is the essence of business.”
The representative also stressed that Usmanov, unlike some other wealthy Russian businessmen, did not earn his fortune by acquiring newly privatized Russian assets after the end of the Soviet Union.
They added: “Mr Usmanov has never acquired anything, nor has he benefited from the Russian government or any other state.”