Children of Uzbekistan's elite have bought property in Latvia, given birth in the Baltic country, and allegedly used its banks to handle millions of dollars in bribes. While more than 1,500 Uzbeks have taken advantage of Latvia’s controversial “golden visa” program, it remains a mostly silent and closed community.
According to his Facebook posts, Azim Ganiev, the son of Uzbekistan's foreign trade minister, enjoyed his life as a student in Riga, although sometimes he felt homesick.
His posted pictures show a dark-eyed, baby-faced young man, dining with friends and traveling around Europe.
Ganiev was far from his native Uzbekistan, studying international tourism at Turiba University, one of Latvia's business schools. He never finished his studies, though, and was expelled in 2014, officials at Turiba told investigative journalism organization Re:Baltica.
Ganiev did not respond to questions sent via Facebook about why he chose Riga, or why he left. His status updates indicate he is now back in Tashkent.
His brother, Aziz Ganiev, is still a student in Riga, hoping to get a degree in business administration from Baltic International Academy (BSA) this year, BSA’s administrator told Re:Baltica.
Uzbek nationals have become the second-biggest group of foreign exchange students, comprising 13.5 percent of the total, with almost 900 students scattered around Latvia's higher-education establishments. Only Germany has more, according to the Latvian Ministry of Education.
Latvia owes its popularity in part to aggressive regional advertising of its degree programs, which are cheaper than those in other education destinations, such as Britain. And it’s the only Baltic country with an embassy in Uzbekistan, making it relatively easy for prospective students to get visas to enter the EU, according to Turiba Deputy Rector Imants Bergs.
The Ganiev brothers are not the only children of the Uzbek elite to have made their way to Latvia.
Since the mid-1990s, Latvia has nurtured its diplomatic relations with Uzbekistan. Diplomatic passport holders can travel without visas. Since 2004, Uzbekistan Airways has flown from Tashkent to New York via Riga, providing Latvia with its only transatlantic service.
Then-Latvian President Andris Berzins (right) and his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, after meeting in Riga on October 17, 2013
Three of Latvia’s five presidents since independence in 1991 have made official visits to Uzbekistan, while Uzbek President Islam Karimov has visited Latvia three times. His last visit in 2013 outraged Uzbek human rights activists, who pleaded with Latvian diplomats to prevent a leader they called “one of the most ruthless dictators of our time” from laying flowers at the Freedom Monument, the symbol of Latvian independence.
Latvia dismissed the activists’ plea, perhaps not wishing to jeopardize its role as intermediary between Uzbekistan and NATO, which has long moved cargo through Uzbekistan to NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
There are other ties.
In 2010, Latvia introduced a “golden visa” cash-for-EU-residency scheme which gives five-year residence permits to people who invest substantial sums in property or the country's many banks. Since then, 1,525 Uzbek nationals have obtained the permits, more than from any other former Soviet republic except Russia and Ukraine, Immigration Board (PMLP) statistics show.
Other arrivals have not obtained “golden visas,” focusing instead on banks that cater to nonresidents. Several banks have been embroiled in international money-laundering scandals.
Banks And Bribes?
When the 2008 global economic crisis took down Latvia’s largest domestic bank, Parex Banka, Gulnara Karimova arrived in Latvia to save her multimillion-euro deposits.
Gulnara Karimova (left), Akbar Abdullaev (center), and Lola Karimova (Drawing: Mārtiņš Upītis)
The elder daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, Gulnara Karimova has reportedly been under house arrest since early 2014 following her fall from grace amid investigations in Western countries involving suspicions of involvement in the alleged extortion of hundreds of millions in bribes from three major international telecom companies, as well as money laundering. She is also at the center of a financial-crimes probe in Uzbekistan.
Documents filed in U.S. Justice Department lawsuit suggest that Karimova deposited some $446 million in suspected bribe money in two Latvian banks: Aizkraukles Banka (now ABLV) and Parex Banka (renamed Citadele after a bailout). ABLV declined to comment , saying that it is cooperating closely with investigators. Citadele said it acted in line with the relevant laws at the time.
The lawsuit states that between 2004 and 2012 “a close relative of a high-ranking Uzbek government official” received more than $800 million in corrupt payments to shell companies.
The lawsuit never names Gulnara Karimova, 43. The case revolved around massive bribes from Scandinavian and Russian telecom companies who were interested in getting access to Uzbekistan's market.
The Other Daughter
Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva is the younger daughter of Uzbekistan’s president. Unlike her sister, the 37-year-old Lola is relatively unknown to the public.
In the summer of 2006, she gave birth to her second child, a son, in Riga. She was hosted by Gulam Gulami, a businessman of Afghan origin who has been living in Latvia for a long time and has gained citizenship.
Karimova-Tillyaeva spent the last months of her pregnancy near the seaside in a new house in Jurmala, a Baltic Sea beach resort town and playground for the nouveau riche. The home was purchased for about 2 million euros in the name of Gulami’s wife, Valentina, according to data from the Land Registry.
Karimova-Tillyaeva's family drove around in Hummer and BMW SUVs with vanity plates reading TT (the initials of her husband, Timur Tillayev) and 1LK.
In autumn 2006, Karimova-Tillyaeva and her family left Latvia. Her lawyer says she has “no business interests in Lativa whatsoever.” According to the Business Registry data, her husband established a company called Euro West Invest, but it never operated.
Akbar Abdullaev's House in Jurmala
Gulnara and Lola’s cousin Akbar Abdullaev arrived in Latvia at the same time as Karimova-Tillyaeva, and settled into a house next to hers, planting evergreens in the big backyard. According to the Latvian Land Registry, Abdullayev -- who was 23 at the time -- paid 1.4 million euros for the home with a swimming pool and a guesthouse.
Abdullaev, once seen as a potential successor to Karimov, cut quite a swathe in Latvia. He bought a 200,000-euro Bentley, which when it was registered in 2011 was one of the most expensive cars in the entire country. A year later, he bought an apartment in a prestigious Riga neighborhood near the Daugava River, with a view of to the picturesque Old Town, according to the Latvian Land Registry.
Abdullaev turned his apartment into an office for his two hotels, bought in the mid-2000s for at least 18 million euros in partnership with the Gulami family; later, they ended up in Gulami’s hands. How that happened is the subject of legal battles and of speculation that reads like a detective novel, with allegations of a beating, attempted murder, a bribed judge, and suspicious court rulings involving murky offshore companies.
Today, the gutters at Abdullaev's Jurmala home are overrun by weeds.
By the time votes were cast in Uzbekistan's 2015 presidential election, Abdullaev had been sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of leading an organized crime group in the Ferghana Valley.
Another offspring of a high-ranking official who got an EU residency permit from Latvia is Timur Kerimov, a son-in-law of Rashid Qodirov, the former prosecutor-general of Uzbekistan. After 15 years in the post, Qodirov was sacked in April 2015 and transferred to a job at the Constitutional Court.
According to the Latvian Land Registry, Kerimov bought an apartment in central Riga in 2010. He has also registered two enterprises, ITIR Solutions and IVT Solid Energy, but the companies show no activity. IVT Solid Energy was sold to a Cyprus-based company a few months after it was founded in 2013.
For several years Kerimov headed the regional office of Uzbekistan Airways in Riga. When Re:Baltica tried to find him there recently, the sole worker at the office said that he had been gone for a year. Uzbekistan's embassy in Latvia did not respond to several requests for a meeting and did not reply to questions sent by Re:Baltica. Several members of the Uzbek community in Latvia have declined to speak to Re:Baltica.
Journalists with RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed to this report