Turkish Businessman Was Behind Purchase of Luxury London Residence For Azerbaijani Official’s Son

Turkish magnate Erdal Aksoy proudly describes himself as a fixer of major business deals between Turkey and Azerbaijan. His family is also behind a mystery shell company at the heart of a previous OCCRP investigation.

Key Findings

  • A new corporate filing reveals that the offshore company Vremax Properties Limited is owned by the family of Erdal Aksoy. A previous OCCRP investigation found that Vremax bought the luxury London residence of Juma Ahmadzada, the son of Azerbaijani official Ahmad Ahmadzada.
  • Ahmad Ahmadzada, Erdal Aksoy, and Turkish construction magnate Mehmet Cengiz were all involved in a major dam-building project in Azerbaijan. Cengiz’s company paid $3 million to Vremax Properties after it won a tender to build the dam.
  • A book and film on Erdal Aksoy's life reveal his links to Azerbaijan's political elite, including the President and the official who oversaw the dam's construction.

To a melodic piano soundtrack, the subject of a biopic titled “Life Is All About Solving Problems” strolls the shore of the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Neatly dressed in a suit and tie, he takes a seat in front of the city’s Government House and tells the filmmakers how he helped Azerbaijan “open up to the rest of the world.”

“Whenever Azerbaijan had a problematic situation to be solved… people would say, ‘Let’s refer this to Mr. Erdal. He can handle it,’” he says.

“Mr. Erdal” is prominent Turkish businessman Erdal Aksoy. In a reverential 2022 documentary about his life and career, featured on the YouTube channel of his family business Aksoy Holding, he promotes himself as an influential power broker who helps make deals between Turkey and Azerbaijan.

A screenshot from the documentary
Credit: YouTube/Aksoy Holding A screenshot from “Life Is All About Solving Problems.”

But a recent corporate filing to the U.K.’s offshore ownership registry has shed new light on a series of transactions that don’t feature in any film, and fill in the missing piece of a puzzle left over from a previous OCCRP investigation.

The filing, required under new U.K. transparency legislation, shows for the first time that a member of the Aksoy family owns a shell company called Vremax Properties Limited, which was at the heart of a 2020 OCCRP story.

🔗What We Found in 2020

Reporters on the original investigation found Vremax had bought a luxury London apartment in 2008 in which young businessman Juma Ahmadzada, the son of the head of an Azerbaijani state company, lived. He was immediately given permission to continue living there.

Vremax was a shell company without a clear line of business, but months before buying the apartment, it had received millions in “consultancy” fees from a U.K. company owned by Turkish tycoon Mehmet Cengiz.

During this time, Cengiz’s construction firm, Cengiz Inşaat, was contracted to build Azerbaijan’s largest dam by the state-owned company run by Juma’s father, Ahmad Ahmadzada. Vremax went on to buy two neighboring apartments and allowed Juma to remodel them, spending a total of more than $5 million on luxury London real estate for the son of the Azeri official to live in.

Credit: Edin Pašović/OCCRP

While the transactions we uncovered raised questions about the links between Cengiz and the Ahmadzadas, reporters on the original story were unable to pin down the owner of Vremax since it was registered in the British Virgin Islands, a notoriously secretive jurisdiction. But the revelatory U.K. filing, made in January 2023, showed Batu Aksoy, Erdal’s son and the current CEO of Aksoy Holding, as the offshore company’s only “beneficial owner.”

The filing was required under the U.K.’s Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act. The legislation obliges all overseas entities that own properties in the U.K. to declare company ownership. The result has been a flood of new insights for journalists into the ownership of companies based in secretive jurisdictions.

Read more about how OCCRP’s data team made the U.K. property data more easily searchable by journalists.

When OCCRP approached Cengiz Holding about the new information, the company confirmed that Vremax was owned by the Aksoys. It said the consultancy fee it paid to Vremax was for services related to market research and new business opportunities, including in Azerbaijan. Its response did not mention the London apartment.

Exterior of luxury apartment in London
Credit: OCCRP The luxury apartment in London owned by Vremax where Juma Ahmadzada lives.

OCCRP also approached Aksoy Holding and the family’s other firm Turcas, where Batu Aksoy is CEO. The chief legal officer for Turcas responded, saying Vremax had bought the London properties after deciding to invest in the U.K. and that the offshore company’s owner, who it did not name, had “decades of acquaintance” with Juma Ahmadzada. Turcas added that Juma “temporarily resides in the units as a guest in lieu of covering associated expenses” and does not own them.

Juma Ahmadzada did not respond to a request for comment, but in 2020, the press office of the state company where his father worked — the Amelioration and Water Resources Open Joint Stock Company of Azerbaijan — said the family didn’t have any ties to Vremax.

“We would like to inform you that the theoretical suggestions mentioned in your letter are based on wrong and misleading assumptions,” they wrote. “Separately, mentioned infrastructure project was realized in accordance with the jurisdiction of the Republic of Azerbaijan and in line with the international norms.”

Erdal Aksoy and the Shamkirchay Dam

The corporate filing prompted reporters to look for other connections between the Aksoy family, the Shamkirchay dam, Cengiz, and the Ahmadzadas.

Although there has never been any official announcement that Aksoy Holding was a part of the Shamkirchay project, other evidence in publicly available documents and publicity material around the dam suggests that “Mr. Erdal” was involved in some way.

One trove of information about the dam is an official book published in Azerbaijan in 2014, titled “The Ideas of Great Leader Heydar Aliyev to Build the Shamkirchay Water Reservoir Are Being Successfully Implemented.”

“The Ideas of Great Leader” mostly focuses on how Mehmet Cengiz’s construction firm built the dam, but Erdal Aksoy appears in several photos in the book, including sitting alongside Ahmad Ahmadzada in 2008 at the signing of the dam contract. Aksoy can also be seen in a photograph taken at the dam’s opening ceremony and later posted to the official website of President Ilham Aliyev.

Aksoy Holding’s website also suggests the family business was connected to the dam project: Although it only makes a general reference to the company’s involvement in “dam projects” in Azerbaijan, it uses a picture of Shamkirchay to illustrate this.

Erdal Aksoy’s authorized biography, published in 2022 and also titled “Life Is All About Solving Problems,” states that a consortium he established “made its mark on the Shamkirchay dam, one of the largest dams in the world, upon the request of Aliyev.”

Both Turcas and Cengiz Holding told OCCRP that Cengiz was the only firm contracted to build the Shamkirchay dam.

However, the Turcas statement referred to unspecified collaborations with Cengiz Inşaat. “Aksoy Holding has supported this firm to execute successful projects in Azerbaijan through various agreements. Memories mentioned in the book about the Chairman of the Board of our company are a mere reflection of this collaboration,” the statement said.

Erdal Aksoy and Ahmad Ahmadzada
Credit: Government of Azerbaijan Erdal Aksoy (right) and Ahmad Ahmadzada (left) signing the agreement for the dam project in 2008.

Meanwhile, Ahmad Ahmadzada is featured in both the film and the book versions of “Life Is All About Solving Problems.”

The book describes Ahmadzada, who is now an assistant to Azerbaijan’s prime minister, as one of Aksoy’s “Azerbaijani friends.” In the biopic he makes an appearance to praise Aksoy for wanting to help Azerbaijan “from the very bottom of his heart.”

Aksoy is also complimented in the film by another former top official in Azerbaijan: former Central Bank Chief Elman Rustamov, whose daughter Gyunel is married to Juma Ahmadzada and lives together with him in the luxury London flat purchased by Vremax. (Both Gyunel and Juma still give the expansive London home as a correspondence address, according to public records listed by the U.K.’s Companies House and the Czech Commercial Register.)

“We have always seen Mr. Erdal by our side as a true friend no matter what,” says Rustamov, referring to Azerbaijanis. Rustamov, who is now an adviser to the Prime Minister, is also described in the book as a friend of Erdal.

🔗The Aksoy Family Empire

Founded by Erdal Aksoy in 1978, Aksoy Holding operates across the sectors of retail, power, hospitality, real estate and trade. Its ownership is now split between Erdal Aksoy, his son Batu, and his daughter Banu.

The firm is the majority shareholder of Turcas Petrol, an oil- and energy-focused investment company. Aksoy Holding’s assets and investments include the five-star Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus Hotel, and The Ritz-Carlton Residences in Bodrum.

In the years prior to the Shamkirchay dam project and the purchase of the luxury London apartment by Vremax, Erdal Aksoy facilitated lucrative buyouts in Turkey by the Azerbaijani state and first family, according to corporate records and claims made in his biography.

In 2006, Aksoy Holding and Turcas Petrol joined with Azerbaijani’s state-owned company SOCAR to buy 51% of Turkey’s state-owned petrochemical company Petkim for over $2 billion. In an interview given to his biographers, Aksoy claims he “convinced” Azerbaijan’s president and various bureaucrats to go ahead with the deal.

By the end of 2011, Aksoy Holding and Turcas Petrol had sold their shares in Petkim to SOCAR for more than $70 million.

Aksoy Holding also bought the Turkish unit of Bahrain-based TAIB Bank B.S.C. in 2013, and in 2015 sold it to a private bank owned by Azerbaijan’s first family.

Aksoy’s Ties to Another Major Dam in Azerbaijan

Aksoy Holding and Cengiz Inşaat had previously worked together on another major project, the Vaykhir dam and hydroelectric power plant in Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic.

In the winter of 2005, President Aliyev inaugurated the Vaykhir facility, built on the initiative of his father, Heydar. Official video and photos from the opening ceremony show Erdal Aksoy standing next to the president, clapping and smiling. Azerbaijani state media reported in 2020 that the dam was constructed jointly by Turkish companies it named as “Aksoy” and “Cengiz İnşaat,” the construction arm of Cengiz Holding.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stood with Erdal Aksoy and Ahmad Ahmadzada
Credit: 2010-2024 Official website of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (center) during the official opening ceremony for the Shamkirchay Dam, with Erdal Aksoy (left) and Ahmad Ahmadzada (right) standing next to him.

The biography of Erdal Aksoy claims that Heydar Aliyev had instructed his deputy prime minister, Abid Sharifov, to “call Mr. Erdal” to come and build a dam in the region, after Sharifov had introduced the businessman to Aliyev in Istanbul.

“When Aliyev gave the instruction, ‘Start now,’ Erdal Aksoy built the dam with a consortium he established,” the book said.

Cengiz Holding confirmed in its response to OCCRP that its construction arm’s first project in Azerbaijan was the Vaykhir dam and said that Aksoy Holding had a “1% share” in the project. The statement added that this was the only joint project the two companies had done in Azerbaijan.

The dams were built during a boom for Turkish companies in Azerbaijan, according to one Baku-based economics analyst who spoke with OCCRP on condition of anonymity due to the ongoing crackdown on media and civil society in Azerbaijan.

Turkish firms carried out infrastructure and construction projects worth 1 billion U.S. dollars in 2010-2011, he said, citing figures from a 2021 report by the Turkish Contractors Association. That report lists the Shamkirchay dam project as one of the biggest that a Turkish company has ever implemented in Azerbaijan.

The Shamkirchay reservoir
Credit: 2010-2024 Official website of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan The Shamkirchay reservoir in the Shamkir district of Azerbaijan.

The value of construction and infrastructure projects by Turkish companies in Azerbaijan rose to three billion in 2013, the year before the Shamkirchay dam was officially opened, before dropping to two billion dollars in 2022, according to reports from the association.

According to his biography, Azerbaijan has started the procedure of granting Aksoy honorary citizenship. (Government officials did not respond to OCCRP’s request to confirm this.)

In the film “Life Is All About Solving Problems,” the now 80-year-old Aksoy expresses his commitment to both countries.

“I am always thinking about what I can do further for my country Turkey,” he says. “I have considered it my duty to also think about what I can do for Azerbaijan.”

Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.

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