It’s no secret that the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
likes to buy expensive buildings around the world, although it’s rarely
clear where the money comes from.
But the history of the US$ 7.3 million house at 39 Popa Soare Street in
Bucharest’s old city is even murkier than usual, involving offshore
transactions, links to corrupt officials and organized crime, insider
deals and a peculiar cult of personality for a dead leader.
The house today is the headquarters of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a
non-governmental organization set up and run by the family of the
current Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, the late Heydar Aliyev’s
Heydar Aliyev, who died in 2003 at the age of 80, was a former KGB
general and first secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee
in Azerbaijan “who for 30 years ruled his native Azerbaijan with an iron
fist,” according to his obituary in the New York
The elder Aliyev also developed a cult of personality around himself,
which, thanks in part to the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, persists more
than a decade after his death with thousands of portraits of the dead
leader on billboards and official structures across Azerbaijan, often
shown with his son. Scores of streets, buildings and parks bear his
name, statue or image, including as many as a dozen in foreign
But what, exactly, is the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and what does it do?
In Romania, officials don’t seem to be too sure. When asked about the
status of the building at 39 Popa Soare St., the Romanian Gendarmerie
and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs give conflicting answers.
For example, the building is guarded round the clock by the Gendarmerie,
a law enforcement branch under the Romanian Ministry of Internal
“This is a diplomatic building,” says one of the gendarmes, asking OCCRP
reporters who are filming the building to present their IDs. As he
speaks two other gendarmes emerge from a side street.
When reporters ask what diplomatic mission is located in the building,
they are told, “the Azerbaijani Economic Representative Offices in
Romania.” When reporters ask why the building is identified as the
Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a second policeman says the foundation “has a
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation
says on its website that it exists due to “the nation’s wish to express
its esteem for the memory of Heydar Aliyev, who entered our history as a
builder of an independent state, and the necessity of reflecting his
rich moral heritage, underlining the importance for our country of the
philosophy of Azerbaijanism and cultivating the national statehood ideas
in our children.”
Whatever the foundation does, the building itself appears to be nothing
more than another multi-million-dollar property owned secretly by the
Aliyev family. Previous OCCRP and other media stories have noted their
extensive purchases in London, Moscow, the Czech Republic and Dubai.
A search through business records reveals that the Bucharest house is
owned by a Romanian private company in which the Azerbaijani
presidential family is involved via an offshore company. That private
company has placed the whole house, more than 600 square meters, at the
disposal of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, free of charge. It also enjoys tax-free status
as the foundation’s home.
The building at 39 Popa Soare St., Bucharest, Romania, co-owned by Aliyev family.
An Offshore Family
The members of Azerbaijan’s First Family – Ilham (head of state),
Mehriban (First Lady) and their three children, Leyla, Arzu and Heydar
Jr. – have been involved in numerous secretive business operations
across several continents in recent years. Using offshore companies and
middlemen, the First Family took over considerable chunks of the
Azerbaijani economy – including gold mines, tourism, telecom companies
and banks – while buying up luxury properties in various European and
Azerbaijani journalists who investigated and exposed the presidential
family’s hidden affairs suffered retaliation. They were first targeted
by smear campaigns and then imprisoned on what many rights organizations
say are trumped-up charges.
As many as 80 other local activists and political opponents have been
arrested after criticizing the Aliyev regime, which is fast becoming one
of the region’s more repressive states.
In June 2015, the First Family was actively involved in the organization
of the first-ever European Games, a pre-Olympic series of athletic
events. The First Lady headed the competition’s Organizing Committee.
While about 6,000 athletes participated in the competitions, most
European leaders boycotted the games in protest over Azerbaijan’s
worsening human rights record.
Only a handful of Eastern European officials, including Romania’s Prime
Minister at the time Victor Ponta, attended the lavish opening
festivities at the Heydar Aliyev Stadium in the Azerbaijani capital of
The Heydar Aliyev Foundation claims that it has official
with at least one ministry in Bucharest, the Ministry of Labor, Family
and Social Protection. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation also has a
relationship with the foundation run by former Social Democrat Prime Minister Adrian Năstase, who served
time in prison for corruption.
But in a letter to OCCRP the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
insists there is no official partnership with the Azerbaijani foundation: “Over the time, the foundation organized a series of events and actions where different representatives of the Ministry were invited. But there is no formal cooperation agreement between the Ministry and this foundation.”
There is, however, a history of deepening ties between the countries.
Romania was the second country in the world to recognize Azerbaijan’s
independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then
the relationship has evolved, as Romania is counting on Azerbaijan’s oil
and gas to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.
President Aliyev has twice received
honors in Bucharest, from both President Traian Băsescu and
his predecessor, Ion Iliescu. Iliescu was among the few heads of state to meet with both
Aliyevs (father and son) in their respective capacities as presidents of
the Azerbaijani state.
The final price of the house was € 6.5 million (US$ 7.3 million), paid in full by an offshore in Seychelles, Asbet Ltd. - the majority shareholder of Curzon Properties at the time of the sale.
At the time of the sale, Asbet Ltd. was owned by Ashraf Kamilov, an Azerbaijani employee of AtaHolding and one of the shareholders in a bank owned by AtaHolding, a financial group controlled by the Aliyev family. In March 2009, Asbet Ltd. transferred its majority stake in the Romanian firm to another offshore, Ciaba Ltd., registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Documents obtained by OCCRP/RISE Project show Ciaba Ltd. was owned by none other than Arzu Aliyeva, the Azeri president’s younger daughter.
The connections between the Azerbaijanis that set up shop in Bucharest
and the First Family in Baku go far beyond Romania’s borders.
Asbet and Ciaba have numerous cross ties and people in common including
the Aliyev family. In March 2009, when Asbet Ltd. gave up its share of
the company which owns the house to Arzu Aliyeva’s Ciaba Ltd., both
companies were represented by a British consultant named Metin Guvener
Gafar Gurbanov, manager of the offshore company, Ciaba Ltd.
Neither Gurbanov nor Guvener were reachable at their London headquarters
and their representatives did not answer OCCRP/RISE Project’s questions.
In 2012, the president’s daughter reduced her stake in the Romanian
business, after Asbet Ltd. paid off a €6 million (US$ 6.7 million)
loan - the final payment for the house in Bucharest.
The end result was that the First Family spent nearly US$ 7 million to
buy a building to house a foundation established to honor their late
Heydar Aliyev alley in Bucharest (Mediafax Photo)
The Bucharest Connection
The details of how the family of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
bought a US$ 7.3 million house in Bucharest shed light on a noxious
network of shady characters, insider deals and questionable
While the source of the money remains obscure, the players include
several who are suspected of links to organized crime.
The house, at 39 Popa Soare St. in the old city, is home to the Romanian
headquarters of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a charitable organization
with offices in several foreign cities.
Among other things, the foundation exists to promote the memory and
legacy of Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB general and 30-year ruler of
Azerbaijan who died in 2003. His son Ilham is currently the country’s
The foundation’s Bucharest headquarters was purchased through
connections to the Romania-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, an
organization founded by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Bucharest. Through
the same network, which also includes businessmen from the Republic of
Moldova, the Azerbaijani embassy spent millions of euros to have a lane
in Bucharest’s Tei Park named after Heydar Aliyev.
The transactions involved a number of well-connected players:
Dobrea family. Moldovan citizen Vladlen Dobrea received the € 6.5 million (US$ 7.3 million) for the house on Popa Soare Street. He is the son of Vladimir Dobrea, the first chief executive officer of the Romanian branch of the Russian oil company Lukoil and a former mayor of the Moldovan capital Chișinău.
Balaban family. The Balaban family is a partner of the Dobrea family in several businesses. Valeriu Balaban, the head of the family, born in Chișinău, is also a member of the Romania-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. Valeriu Balaban and his daughter, Natalia Balaban, owned the house on Popa Soare Street until 2004, when they transferred ownership to Dobrea Jr. The Balaban family set up the Heydar Aliyev park lane in 2007, paid for by the Azerbaijani Embassy. Valeriu Balaban was a general contractor and built gas stations for Lukoil in Romania.
Ruslan Valadov is the vice-president of the Romania-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce. Valadov, 46, another business partner of the Balaban family, conducted business in 2003 in the house now hosting the Azeri foundation. He was also involved in companies with other members of the Chamber of Commerce, including the current administrator of the Azerbaijani embassy Elshan Baghirov.
Alev Balgi-Curpedin is the former president of the Romanian-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce. An administrator for several companies owned by Valadov, Balgi-Curpedin served at the chamber following General Gheorghe Dragomir, who was the deputy chief of Romania’s Foreign Intelligence Service in 1990-1992.
Balgi-Curpedin then became the executive director of the International
Fund for Cooperation and Partnership of the Black Sea and the Caspian
Sea in Bucharest. The fund’s secretary-general is Azerbaijan’s former
ambassador to Bucharest, Eldar Hasanov, who founded the
Romanian-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce.
Cristina Trelea is a member of the Romania-Azerbaijan Chamber of
Commerce, the lawyer for the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and also for the
firm that bought the house in Popa Soare Street. She also offered
consultancy services to the Moldovan businessmen who sold the house. In
2007, the Aliyev family foundation registered its first headquarters in
Trelea’s law office.
The Retired Spy
General Gheorghe Dragomir, the deputy chief of Romania’s Foreign
Intelligence Service after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the
first president of the Romania-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, between
2005 and 2007.
Before 1989, Dragomir went on missions to Asia as a Romanian spy. “I
never met Heydar Aliyev,” says the general today, adding that the
Chamber of Commerce was set up at the initiative of the former
Azerbaijani ambassador in Bucharest, Eldar Hasanov.
Dragomir said he retired from the chamber in 2007 due to health reasons
but organized economic delegations to Azerbaijan in 2005.
Dragomir said the organization started when he proposed members from
Romanian companies and the Azerbaijani embassy proposed companies that
operated on the Romanian market.
“I didn’t know Ruslan Valadov; I met him when the (Romania-Azerbaijani) Chamber of Commerce was set up. He didn’t work for the embassy, he was just an Azerbaijani businessman in Romania. I don’t know the Moldovans either, they came along with the people from the Azerbaijani embassy.”
The general’s house served as the first headquarters of the
Romania-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce, but in 2007 he said he asked
them to change their headquarters.
Since 2011, Romanian investigators had suspected several illicit
dealings, including a money laundering case of more than € 2 million
(US$ 2.3 million) involving several limited liability companies
administered by the two Romania-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce
officials. They seized documents at the firm.
One of the companies under investigation was Intelect Prestige
controlled by Valadov and administered by Balgi-Curpedin’s husband
Ridvan Curpedin. In 2011 Intelect Prestige, a member of the
Romania-Azerbaijani Chamber of Commerce, went insolvent and had debts to
the state budget. This was at the time when Balgi-Curpedin started
working for the firm as a special administrator.
The investigation became public last year when a former employee of the
firm, Mihai Corsate, took his former employer to court. “I sued the
company because I had not imagined a company would hire a manager and
then not register their work contract. They evaded the law and didn’t
pay taxes, as employers, to the Romanian state. They didn’t pay
Former Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc, right, attended the inauguration of the European Eye Center. The British company, represented by Balgi-Curpedin, was still involved in the family business alongside Turkish investors.
Contacted by OCCRP/RISE Project, Valadov claimed he was out of Bucharest
and did not understand the questions. He also asked reporters to call
him back in several days, but never returned the calls.
When asked the same questions, Balgi-Curpedin gave very few details: “I
don’t understand why you need these data. I had nothing to do with the
things you are talking about. I was involved for a very short period of
time in the (Romania-Azerbaijani) Chamber of Commerce. But I can tell
you no archive of Intelect Prestige was seized. I really do not know
what information you have.”
Organized Crime Ties
The inquiry targeted two firms on suspicion of money laundering: Stones
Invest Capital and European Eye Center.
The former was controlled by Valadov and administered at first by
Balgi-Curpedin, while the latter was founded by Valadov and sold to the
Turkish family Hacisuleymanoglu in Istanbul. Valadov remained partners
with the Turkish family in other businesses in Bucharest.
The Hacisuleymanoglu family used the company to build an ophthalmology
hospital in Bucharest, after signing a partnership with the British
represented in Bucharest by Balgi-Curpedin.
The British company had been set up by New-Zealander Ian Taylor, an
“offshore consultant” involved in deals with proxy businesses across the
The British company was further owned by a company registered in the
state of Delaware, USA.
An investigation by OCCRP in November 2010 showed how Taylor worked his global network, providing offshore services to organized crime rings from arms dealers to Mexican drug cartels.
His partner in Bucharest, Romanian lawyer Kiss Laszlo, was arrested in
October 2010 for embezzlement and money laundering in the Petromservice
case. At that time Petromservice was a member of the Romania-Azerbaijan
Chamber of Commerce.
After his man in Bucharest was arrested, Taylor delegated power of
attorney to Balgi-Curpedin on behalf of the Delaware-registered company,
to allow the hospital to continue functioning.
Balgi-Curpedin claims the opposite: “I had nothing to do with Ian Taylor
and I really don’t want to talk about this now. (…) I am abroad, let’s
talk in a few days. As for the rest, there is public information you can
easily get from anywhere you like.”
She never subsequently answered calls. The British company,
HCS-Providers, retired from the businesses with the Turks in the summer
Basar Hacisuleymanoglu, 41, the administrator of the European Eye
Center, was a Turkish citizen whose arrest for involvement in organized
crime was ordered by Turkey in 2007. He was extradited last year at the
request of Turkish authorities.
Charges brought against him by Turkish authorities include homicide,
setting up an organized crime group, blackmail, deprivation of freedom,
threat, and forgery.
Cristina Simion, former lawyer for the Turks, says: “Basar
Hacisuleymanoglu was the only person I was in touch with. I no longer
work for them. Unfortunately, the business didn’t have the success they
expected, mostly once Basar was extradited.”
In front of Romanian judges, the Turk claimed he committed no crime and
that he had come to Romania 10 years before as a businessman, not as a
While he administered the hospital, Hacisuleymanoglu had gambling
businesses on the side in Bucharest.
Prosecutors’ investigations into the deals involving the Azerbaijani
citizen Valadov, the Turkish businessmen and the Romanian Balgi-Curpedin
Liquidators called on judges to order Valadov to pay from his personal
wealth € 400,000 (US$ 450,000) in unpaid taxes. (P57) Valadov’s
bankrupt company, Euroasia Exim, had its fiscal address in the house on
Popa Soare Street back in 2003 before the Aliyev foundation settled
This story is dedicated to our colleague Khadija
a reporter for OCCRP, a RISE Project partner organization, and for Radio
Free Europe. She was arrested in Baku after uncovering and reporting on
the secret affairs of the Aliyev regime.