Did Karabakh Fighting Weaken the Panama Papers’ Impact?
Gold mines for Azerbaijan’s presidential offspring, an ex-Georgian leader’s offshore company, a key Armenian official’s questionable income, the grounds for a clamoring public outcry in the South Caucasus over the Panama Papers were all there. But, so far, it hasn’t come.
Publication of these reports coincided with fresh fighting between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone that many feared could erupt into full-scale war. The fear of war -- the 1988-1994 Karabakh conflict was arguably the most devatating of the ex-Soviet Union's separatist conflicts -- easily outweighed any fear of corruption.
Details about the Azerbaijani presidential family’s alleged control over Azerbaijan’s goldmines and its supposed business alliance with Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov hit on April 4, a day before a ceasefire which more or less ended three days of fighting with Armenian and separatist Karabakhi forces.
A 2012 report by RFE/RL, an OCCRP partner, had found that Aliyev’s daughters had stake in the goldmines; a revelation that OCCRP believes cost RFE/RL investigative journalist Khadija Ismyailova her freedom.*
But with thousands of Azerbaijanis taking to the streets to reassert the nation’s claim to Karabakh and surrounding occupied territories, and to grieve those killed, last week was definitely not the time to expect any sort of push for an investigation into the Aliyevs’ dealings. In the face of the struggle against Armenia and breakaway Karabakh, domestic critics of the government kept their mouths shut.
Armenia got hit by the Panama Papers, too, though on a far less high-profile scale.
Attention focused on the offshore business shares and Swiss bank accounts of the country’s bailiff-in-chief, Mighran Poghosian. The Armenian investigative journalism service Hetq.am, which sifted through the Armenia-related records from Mossack Fonseca, said that Poghosian lied when he asserted that he had given up all of his private business stakes after becoming Armenia’s chief compulsory enforcement officer, or the official responsible for execution of court verdicts. Based on the records, Hetq argued that Major-General Poghosian owns shares in three Panama-based companies and manages an account in Switzerland’s LGB Bank.
Hetq.am told a reporter for EurasiaNet.org that they have received no immediate response from the government to the report.**
Poghosian, formerly a national security official, previously has been implicated in banana smuggling as well as incongruously large loans. His wife, meanwhile, has been accused of lavish shopping, though declaring in official financial statements no income.
The latest allegations about Poghosian surfaced on April 4, after Armenia claimed that it had repulsed an Azerbaijani takeover of territory in Karabakh. Rather than chasing after Poghosian, defending ethnic Armenians amidst allegations of Azerbaijani war crimes became the national priority. Thousands took to the streets of Yerevan on April 11 to protest the deaths of reportedly scores of people in Karabakh during the fighting.
OCCRP’s Regional Editor Dave Bloss said that the timing of the publication of these stories was unavoidable. Months before, news outlets made privy to the Panama Papers had agreed upon the timing for the stories’ release “to the hour,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
The hushed reaction was not limited to participants in the Karabakh conflict. .
According to OCCRP, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s prime minister from 2012 to 2013, failed to disclose ownership in an offshore company called Lynden Management Limited when he took office. That ownership allowed Ivanishvili and “a close associate” to control “about 20 percent of the stock in Raptor Pharmaceuticals, a major US-based company," OCCRP reported. Ivanishvili, though, declared that ownership in his income declarations while in office, it added.
The claims about Ivanishvili’s offshore hobbies ring a bell for many. According to a 2014 report by Transparency International Georgia, the former premier allegedly has owned a number of businesses through offshore shell entities. Even Ivanishvili’s famed Tbilisi residence, a James Bond-like glass palace overlooking the nation’s capital, and the palace’s rooftop heliport were owned by two separate offshore companies, TI claimed.
Attention also has fallen on another former government official, ex-Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, who served during the 2008 war with Russia. The Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève reported, based on the Panama files, that three offshore companies were opened for Kezerashvili within ten days of his resignation in late 2008, and were used, allegedly, "to transit important sums from business in oil."
For now, it is unclear if the latest revelations will result in a legal inquiry against any of the individuals named.
The Armenian chapter of Transparency International has filed a petition for a parliamentary ethics committee investigation into Poghosian’s business dealings. Georgia is introducing a new law allowing authorities to fact-check officials’ asset declarations. An incomplete declaration will be subject to a 1,000 lari fine – a big $442.48.
Nothing indicates as yet that it would apply retroactively to Ivanishvili, who, in any case, could afford to pay the fine without noticing.
Despite the modest results so far from the reports, OCCRP told EurasiaNet.org that there is much more to come, as they have reams of files to sort through. The body of records is so large that “For the rest of my life, there will never be a day when I wake up thinking 'What should I do today?'” OCCRP’s Bloss said.
*Khadija Ismayilova formerly worked as a freelance reporter for EurasiaNet.org.
**Marianna Grigoryan and Caucasus news editor Elizabeth Owen contributed reporting to this post.