Azerbaijani Strongman’s Business Partner Builds Property Empire in Georgia

Turkish businessman Emin Uchar has made a fortune in Nakhchivan, an autonomous Azerbaijani territory between Iran, Turkey, and Armenia. New documents and interviews provide evidence he previously acted as an agent for the family of autocrat Vasif Talibov, who ruled Nakhchivan for 27 years before resigning on December 21.

Key Findings

  • Turkish national Emin Uchar has in recent years built up a $270-million business and property empire in Georgia, including three hotels his company operates in partnership with French hospitality giant Accor.
  • Evidence suggests Uchar was a front for Vasif Talibov and his family, who ruled Nakhchivan for over a quarter century.
  • Uchar heads companies with large holdings that have been publicly tied to the Talibov family, raising questions about whether his Georgian holdings were connected to the Talibovs.
  • Uchar’s lawyers deny he acted as a proxy, saying his investments came from loans which are still being repaid.
  • Companies he ran have received dozens of state contracts in Azerbaijan.

Across the street from the opera house in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, well-heeled patrons enjoy local and international cuisine at the upscale Dinehall restaurant, whose motto is “Good food is a human right.” Nearby, a five-star hotel is under construction in partnership with the French hospitality giant Accor.

The hotel and eatery are part of a $270-million business empire in the small Caucasian country registered to a Turkish national named Emin Uchar. But OCCRP has discovered evidence that the businesses of Uchar, whose financial history doesn’t easily explain his wealth, are deeply intertwined with those of the family of Vasif Talibov, the autocratic ruler of a secluded region of Azerbaijan for 27 years until he abruptly resigned on December 21.

In fact, Uchar and the Talibovs have at times claimed businesses as their own, and Uchar has acted as a frontman for the family in big deals. The information raises questions as to where Uchar’s wealth ends and the family’s begins. Uchar, through his lawyer, has denied his company held assets owned by the Talibov family, saying the wealth came through loans. Accor has told OCCRP it is re-evaluating its relationship with Uchar and his company in light of their reported connections to the Talibovs.

Talibov had ruled with an iron fist over Nakhchivan, which is often referred to as “Azerbaijan’s North Korea,” since being installed in December 1995 by the country’s president, Heydar Aliyev, his relative by marriage.

An autonomous republic that is politically part of Azerbaijan, Nakhchivan is geographically separated from the main part of the country by a corridor of land belonging to Armenia, and bordered to the west by Iran.

A view of the capital city of Nakhchivan
Credit: Ilya Buyanovsky A view of the capital city of Nakhchivan, the autonomous Azerbaijani territory where Uchar made his fortune.

OCCRP revealed in February 2022 Uchar’s ties to the family of Talibov, whose regime silenced independent media, forced dissidents into psychiatric hospitals, and oversaw beatings and torture of detainees. Reporters also found that Talibov amassed a fortune during his time in power, despite an official annual salary of just $26,000.

A major holding headed by Uchar owns hotels and other properties in Georgia, as well as companies in Turkey that produce construction materials.

A lawyer for Uchar said the Georgia companies are 100 percent owned by him. This corporate network involving Uchar and the Talibovs –– which includes multiple companies known as Gamigaya in Azerbaijan, and as Maqro Group in Georgia –– has also received dozens of state contracts in Azerbaijan since the first firms were incorporated in the early 2000s.

But the Talibovs’ fortunes appear to have declined dramatically in the past few weeks, with the patriarch stepping down as Nakhchivan’s strongman leader, amid a political crackdown from Azerbaijan’s central government.

The ownership of Gamigaya remains murky. The week after Talibov resigned, Gamigaya was renamed Arkoz –– the name of another company associated with Uchar.

Human rights organizations had long alleged the Talibovs controlled Gamigaya, but company ownership information is not public in Azerbaijan, making the claim impossible to prove. But a former Gamigaya employee told OCCRP that, based on his observations working security for the company, Uchar took orders from the Talibovs.

“They simply entrusted the Gamigaya Holding to him. But everything was done according to the instructions of Vasif Talibov,” Nadir Mammadov said in a video call from Germany, where he settled after fleeing Nakhchivan because he was beaten by police.

Newly uncovered documents show that Uchar has acted in the Talibovs’ interests in neighboring Georgia. He bought properties in Georgia on behalf of Rza Talibov, the Nakhchivan former leader’s son. They also owned companies together in Turkey and Nakhchivan. Rza did not respond to questions, but lawyers for Uchar’s company, Maqro, and for the youngest Talibov son, Seymur, made contradictory claims about the business relationship between Uchar and the family.

Seymur’s lawyer said that Rza Talibov and Uchar “are co-owners of the different companies with the name Gamigaya in Nakhchivan,” indicating the relationship was a current one.

But the lawyer for Maqro and Uchar said they “unequivocally reject this claim.”

“As of today, Mr Emin Uçar has no business-related associations with any member of (the) Talibov family,” the lawyer said.

He added that Uchar had previously partnered with Rza Talibov, but Uchar began terminating those relationships in a “reorganizational process” that began in late 2021, and said this was accelerated after OCCRP’s previous report on the Talibovs was published in February 2022.

No one can “prove the partnership with any document dated the end of 2022,” he added.

In Azerbaijan, “trade secret” legislation in place since 2012 means shareholder information is beyond the reach of journalists and citizens. The lawyer said that because of this legislation, he could not provide details on how the firms that Uchar and Talibov had partnered on had been structured.

The lawyer said Uchar has never been a frontman “of anyone’s business other than himself, neither in the past nor now,” and has at all times acted legally.

The sources of various investments outlined by OCCRP, he added were “loans taken from public and private banks, the payments of which are still being made.” He said Uchar, “as a respected businessman,” is audited by major accountancy firms “in order to ensure transparency in all companies of which he is a partner and founder.”

🔗Uchar’s Evolution

A 2010 Turkish media report described Uchar as someone “Vasif Talibov has great confidence in.” But little is known about his origin in business and how he built his seemingly vast wealth.

According to regional Turkish media, Emin Uchar first became involved in construction in Nakhchivan in 1999.

Turkish corporate records show Uchar co-founded a wholesaling company in 2001 with a Turkish partner. His name appeared in Azerbaijani state media in 2004 in connection to a “Turkish company” building a school in Nakhchivan. In 2005, he received the “Progress” medal from President Ilham Aliyev, an award for “entrepreneurs who distinguish themselves in implementation of the program of social progress of the regions of Azerbaijan.”

Corporate records show Uchar first became a publicly-known partner of the Talibovs as part of the team behind Nakhchivanbank, which was founded in April 2008.

Rza Talibov, his mother and cousin, and several businessmen were also part of the deal. By the end of 2017, annual reports show the majority of the bank’s shares were owned by Talibov family members, with Uchar having no stake. Amid the recent political backlash against the Talibovs, the former ruler’s daughter, Baharkhanim Talibova, was removed on January 12 from the bank’s board.

The lawyer for Maqro confirmed that Uchar “held a small percentage of shares in Nakhchivanbank for a little time period,” but then left the company. The lawyer said he “didn’t sell his shares to anyone, just withdrew” and “took the value of a property corresponding to his shares” in return.

Uchar co-founded another company in 2009 called Gemikaya Turizm. It opened a hotel the same year, the Blue Regency in Bakırköy, Turkey. In 2019, the hotel rebranded to become the four-star Mercure İstanbul Bakırköy, in cooperation with Accor.

Georgian Expansion

In January 2012, Vasif Talibov traveled 420 kilometers north to Georgia’s Black Sea resort city of Batumi to become “acquainted with the economic and tourist potential of the region,” according to a press release by the local government. A month later, Talibov’s eldest son Rza, then 29, purchased a historical building there for $1.5 million.

OCCRP has discovered a document that spells out the close relationship between Uchar and the Talibovs: It turns out that Uchar traveled to Batumi to sign the purchase papers on Rza’s behalf.

“I have confidence in him to buy any properties to my name in the Batumi city of Georgia,” reads the document signed by Rza, which granted Uchar power of attorney for one month beginning February 21, 2012.

In June the same year, Rza granted Uchar power of attorney again, this time for two months. He bought more than $1.2 million worth of properties adjacent to the historical building, with Uchar signing the sales papers as his representative.

“The purchase of real estate on behalf of Mr Rza Talibov with power of attorney refers to the time period when they were partners in the business,” Maqro’s head of legal affairs said by email, adding that it was “absolutely natural when one partner asks another to assist in such kind of issues.”

A month after the purchases, ground was broken on the building site. Media reports on the groundbreaking ceremony reported that construction was being carried out by the Azerbaijani conglomerate Gamigaya –– which they spelled as Gemikaya –– and Rza appeared in a photo of the event, although he was not named.

Rza opened the five-star hotel Divan Suites Batumi opened two years later, in 2014, inside the buildings purchased by Uchar on his behalf. He posted a photo of the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Facebook, and identified himself as the chairman of Gamigaya Holding –– contradicting Azerbaijani media reports at the time which identified Uchar as chairman of the corporate group.

Georgian corporate records show that Rza owned the building personally, before transferring ownership to his local company, Kervan Tourism Ltd., when the hotel opened in 2014. Yet, Gamigaya’s website listed the hotel as one of its holdings until 2017.

In the midst of the crackdown by Azerbaijan’s central government culminating in Vasif Talibov’s recent resignation, Rza put Divan Suites up for sale for $18 million.

Maqro in Georgia

Gamigaya established its first business in Georgia in 2012, opening a furniture factory in Batumi. That company rebranded as Maqro in the country the following year, expanding into sectors including construction, food services and tourism.

Maqro acquired $27 million worth of properties between 2012 and 2016 –– the years Uchar and Rza were in business together, raising questions about whether Maqro’s investments in Georgia were connected to the Talibovs.

Maqro said it invested $270 million in developing those properties, as well as two others in Georgia.

Made with Flourish

Maqro owns Green Budapest, a mid-range residential development near the center of Tbilisi with 350 apartments. Further outside the city center, it’s building a larger, $120-million development it has dubbed Green Diamond.

Aside from the Swissôtel, which is currently under construction, Maqro has teamed up with Accor on two more hotels in Tbilisi’s Old Town: a Mercure that opened in 2015, and an Ibis that began welcoming guests in 2017.

Contacted about its partnership with Uchar, and his relationship with the Talibov family, a spokesperson for Accor said the group conducts “stringent due diligence procedures (Know your counterparty process - KYC) before signing any new hotel developments.”

“In this specific case, the latest KYC process was undertaken in 2020, through an international third party firm (namely Dow Jones Risks Center) and no concern was raised then.

“Given the recent public reports, we are currently reevaluating this counterparty and have requested updated due diligences and further investigation.”

The investment of money accrued through possible corruption in Azerbaijan also “carries the risk of corruption for Georgia,” said Sandro Kevkhishvili, an anti-corruption expert with the advocacy group Transparency International.

“A person who accumulates wealth through corruption will try to use the same methods in the country where he invested this money –– especially if the country does not have strong anti-corruption mechanisms and a decision-making system to reduce these risks,” he said in an interview in Tbilisi.

“There is no such thing in Georgia.”

Cement and Real Estate

One of the most confusing parts of the Talibov and Uchar business structures are the companies with the name Gamigaya — or Gemikaya, the Turkish spelling — which are named after a mountain in Nakhchivan. Uchar and various members of the Talibov family would lay claim at different times to companies that all shared this similar name.

There were more than 20 companies in Azerbaijan with the Gamigaya name. They were commonly referred to as members of a group called Gamigaya Holding, although that is not a registered entity. Ownership of the various Gamigaya companies has not been publicly available, but Azerbaijani media regularly called Uchar the chairman of Gamigaya Holding. More recently, after Vasif Talibov’s resignation, media began referring to Gamigaya as being under his control. Since Talibov’s exit, the Gamigaya companies have all been renamed to variations of the name “Arkoz.”

Another set of companies called Gemikaya were registered in Turkey, Georgia and UAE. All are connected to the Talibovs or Uchar.

Turkish corporate records show Gemikaya was registered by Rza Talibov and Uchar together in 2010. Rza left that company in 2017, according to corporate records. It’s not clear what the company’s business was.

The UAE company Gemikaya Real Estate held a license for property purchases, sales and leasing and was co-owned by Talibov’s younger son, Seymur, and an Emirati citizen.

Finally, the Georgian version of Gemikaya was registered in 2012 as a real estate company at the same time Uchar was on his property buying spree for the Talibov family. Uchar was listed as the owner in Georgian records but in 2013 Vasif Talibov, hosted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and gave his guest a tour of Gamigaya’s Nakhchivan furniture factory. He told his guest that Gamigaya was opening showrooms in Georgia referring to the work being done by Uchar’s Gemikaya company. That company, a few months after the speech, would change its name to Maqro.

Clarification: This article has been updated to provide more detail on connections between Emin Uchar and the Talibov family and their firms, and to point out that Uchar developed certain facilities using loans which they say are being repaid.

Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID. Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

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