by Yunus Cetin
Berlin-based Ilgar Hajiyev, who fled Russia in the face of death threats after his $100-million Russian business was illegally seized, is taking his case to the European Parliament. Hajiyev will discuss what the Russians called reiderstvo, or corporate raiding, with three members of the parliament. The native of Azerbaijan, who moved his operation to Berlin after he was raided, is also arranging meetings with members of the U.S. Congress.
Hajiyev started a London-based international centre in February to counter raiding, which Russian journalists say has destroyed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Russian business owners and foreigners who have invested there. In addition to casting a global spotlight on raiding, the centre will discuss steps that could be taken to end the destructive practice – including punitive measures – with government officials and politicians in the West.
The first meeting that the Center for Business Transparency and Countering Corporate Raids in Russia will have with a member of the European Parliament will be with the human-rights champion Attila Ara-Kovács of Hungary. He is a respected politician, philosopher and journalist.
Hajiyev started the raids-countering centre a month after he lost his Moscow-area property- development business to a forced, uncompensated takeover at the hands of a partner.
Igor Bitkov, one of the world’s most high-profile victims of illegal corporate asset grabbing, recently joined Hajiyev’s centre as a director-in-absentia. His attempts to fight the seizure of his paper-making businesses led to assaults against his family and death threats. He fled to Guatemala, where Russia pressure prompted the government to place him under house arrest.
Hajiyev and Bitkov will speak with Ara-Kovács by teleconference about reiderstvo and their individual cases. A representative of Berlin-based Alcon Development GmbH, whose business was impacted by the raid on Hajyev’s Russia operation, will take part in the discussion at Ara-Kovács’ office in Brussels.
Ara-Kovács is a member of the EU Parliament’s Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and its Subcommittee on Security and Defense. He is also an alternate member of the EU Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Hajiyev has also set up meetings with two other members of the EU Parliament. Members of the U.S. Congress who have championed Bitkov’s case are open to meetings as well, Hajiyev said.
How Hajiyev’s raiding case unfolded
Hajiyev’s case involves allegations that Moscow-based billionaire God Nisanov illegally seized hundreds of millions of dollars in property from Hajiyev.
The seizure came after the partners disagreed over the mix of residential versus commercial property in three high-rise projects that Hajiyev was developing. Their partnership involved Nisanov lining up the land and permits for the developments, and Hajiyev financing and constructing the high-rises.
When there was no resolution of their disagreement after several weeks, Nisanov ordered armed security guards to seize the projects by force and without compensation to Hajiyev.
The German company, Alcon Development, became part of the dispute when it acquired 80 per cent of Hajiyev’s SDI Group, the Russia-focused property developer whose assets Nisanov seized.
Hajiyev is far from being Nisanov’s only victim. More than 1,000 Russian families put money down on the apartments he was building at the three complexes.
After Nisanov seized the properties, someone transferred millions of rubles in the families’ down payments out of SDI Group’s accounts, Hajiyev contends in court documents he filed in Russia to try to get the complexes back.
The Russian government has stayed out of the stand-off. Before it surfaced, however, Russian federal police had raided outdoor markets in Moscow that Nisanov’s family runs to investigate unrelated allegations of tax evasion and money-laundering. But the investigations soon disappeared.
Nisanov’s reputation caught up with him not long ago when Israeli officials refused to let him into the country to attend the wedding of former Israeli cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman’s son. Lieberman heads Israel Our Home party.
In addition to going to court in Russia to try to get their Moscow property back, Hajiyev and Alcon Development have been talking with the German-Russian Business Council and with members of the Bundestag about the situation.
News of the centre appears to have touched a nerve with Nisanov. Since its launch, low-tier Russian media that demand money for their articles have published a number of false, scurrilous stories about Hajiyev.
The goal appears to be whitewashing Nisanov’s reputation by making bogus allegations against Hajiyev, such as that he was the subject of a criminal case opened in May 2018. Hajiyev has said that he never heard of the case and that authorities have never contacted him about it or any other matter.
The Wild West nature of the asset grabbing
The seizure of Hajiyev’s Moscow property is a tale out of the Wild West. The ground was laid in 2018 when Nisanov secured the land for the three high-rise complexes and Hajiyev began building them.
In late 2018, Nisanov demanded that Hajiyev convert the residential high-rises he was erecting into more lucrative commercial properties, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported. Hajiyev refused, noting that hundreds of families had already signed contracts.
The climax of the feud came in mid-January 2019 when a group of men took control of the residential complexes that were going up — the VernadSKY on Vernadsky Prospekt, the Pirogovskaya Riviera in Moscow’s Mytishchi District, and the Akkord Smart Kvartal in the Odintsovo District.
On January 24, 2019, another group of raiders bounded into SDI Group’s offices on Kutuzovsky Prospekt in the centre of Moscow and demanded the keys to the building. Some were in ordinary clothes and some were wearing uniforms of the Vityaz security company, which guards some of Nisanov’s properties and is run by his confidant, Maksim Kotov.
Meanwhile, Hajiyev received a number of death threats, prompting him to flee to Germany.
Suddenly, a partner-turned-rival had expropriated a sizeable chunk of Hajiyev’s assets, strong-arming them away in mafia fashion without compensation, Novaya Gazeta reported. Nisanov has not publicly commented on the situation.
The overnight loss of three prime real estate developments was a rare but devastating setback for Hajiyev, whose rags-to-riches story has become legendary in Azerbaijan. Hajiyev came to Moscow as a teenager in the 1980s and built a retailing, construction and real-estate empire from scratch.
Igor Bitkov’s story
Bitkov is one of the world’s most high-profile victims of illegal corporate asset grabbing. He lost his paper-making companies in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, Russia, to a bank-loan scam engineered by ruthless, well-connected business and political figures.
Bitkov became co-director of the anti-raids centre that Hajiyev founded in absentia because of his house arrest in Guatemala. He, his wife and daughter fled there in 2008 after the loss of their company — North West Timber Company — to the bank-loan scam and after facing assaults, death threats and trumped-up fraud charges in Russia.
The Bitkovs lived under the radar in Guatemala until 2013, when Russian authorities connected to the figures in the bank-loan scam learned where they were. Although Guatemala refused to extradite them to their homeland, it first sentenced Igor to 19 years in prison and his wife and daughter to 14 years on trumped-up immigration-related charges that Bitkov said the Kremlin orchestrated. Later Guatemala placed them under house arrest.
Because the Bitkovs’ persecution has been particularly cruel, and their suffering prolonged, human-rights organizations have taken up their case. In addition, in 2018 various U.S. senators — Marco Rubio of Florida, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Chris Smith of New Jersey and others — began championing their cause, starting with putting pressure on Guatemala to release them.
When Bitkov joined the anti-raids centre, Hajiyev said:
“Igor Bitkov and his family have endured so much suffering from reiderstvo that the Bitkovs became a symbol of the harm that the practice wreaks on its victims. I am truly honored that Igor Bitkov is joining in the center’s efforts to counter this scourge.”
The anti-raiding centre’s ultimate goal
Hajiyev said he hopes to enlist more high-profile victims of Russian corporate raiding to his centre’s goal of stopping the illegal, livelihood-destroying practice of reiderstvo.
“With their help, we will be asking countries in the West to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to outlaw reiderstvo and to take steps to compensate its victims, both in Russia and abroad,” he said. “Reiderstvo is theft on a trillion-dollar scale that not only costs victims their livelihoods but in all too many cases their lives. It needs to stop – and to stop now.”