INTERVIEW: Usmanov’s sister Saodat Narzieva battles sanctions imposed on her by the EU

INTERVIEW: Usmanov’s sister Saodat Narzieva battles sanctions imposed on her by the EU
The sister of Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov was placed on the EU sanction list after an investigation linked her to 27 of his bank accounts. In an exclusive interview with bne IntelliNews she describes what really happened. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin July 29, 2022

Saodat Narzieva, the sister of Uzbek-born oligarch Alisher Usmanov, was placed on the EU sanctions list on April 8. An investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that she was briefly a shareholder in a number of her brother’s companies and it was assumed that she was acting as a front to help hide his wealth.

However, an investigation by bne IntelliNews based on a comprehensive set of confidential banking documents seen by bne IntelliNews showed that she held the shares for one year in 2013 – a year before Russia annexed Crimea, and before the sanctions regime – and that she was merely listed as one of several “Ultimate Beneficiary Owners” (UBO) by the bank, but was not an executive, and crucially, had no signing power or control of any of two dozen bank accounts linked to the companies. The documents clearly stated that her brother controlled all of the companies in which she was a shareholder and he controlled the bank accounts.

Usmanov’s spokesperson explained that the scheme was a way for him to share some of his wealth with the rest of his family as he was getting ready to retire. However, in 2014 Usmanov changed his mind and continued to set up trusts to own the assets he intended to give away. He bought Narzieva out of her shareholding for $15mn, and the company through which she owned the shareholdings, as part of the arrangement, was closed.

Even the OCCRP report was unsure of her role in Usmanov’s empire, which covers metallurgy, tech and finance, as evidenced by the very title of its report: “Sanctioning an Oligarch Is Not So Easy: Why the Money Trail of Alisher Usmanov, One of Russia’s Wealthiest Men, Is Difficult to Follow.” But that didn’t stop The Guardian newspaper running a salacious story “Oligarch linked to billions in 27 Swiss bank accounts in sister’s name.”

Based on these reports and the flimsy evidence in the OCCRP report, the EU decided to add her name to its list of sanctioned individuals. Narzieva has taken the case to court and is demanding that the sanctions be lifted. The same documents seen by bne IntelliNews were presented to the court in Luxembourg, while The Guardian walked back its original claims in a follow-up piece in June, but a final ruling is not due until the end of this year.

bne IntelliNews exclusively interviewed Narzieva in Tashkent in an email exchange and asked about the effect that sanctions had had on her, and about her relationship with her brother.

How do you feel about the EU sanctions, and how have they affected you?

First of all, I feel a sense of bewilderment and injustice. I could never have imagined that in someone else’s eyes, I could be seen as being involved in terrible events in foreign countries.

They say that these sanctions are directed against Russia, but I've lived in Uzbekistan all my life. I have never been a Russian citizen, nor have I ever participated in politics in my own country. I don’t travel to Russia and don't conduct any commercial activities there.

I am a gynaecologist. My mission on Earth is to help women and their families medically – that's what I know how to do. Even in my worst nightmares, I couldn't have imagined that instead of being recognised for helping to bring new life into the world, someone would decide to punish me for the fact that other individuals are taking other peoples’ lives. As a human being, I feel the pain of what is happening in Ukraine, and I sincerely sympathise with the Ukrainians who are suffering right now. This is not the world we all dream of for our children; it shouldn't be like this.

But I am confused and do not understand the logic of those who initiate these sanctions. In my profession, international ties are very important for exchanging knowledge and experiences with other countries. It turns out that I, an Uzbek doctor, am restricted in my rights because of the sanctions imposed against me, although I have nothing to do – either directly or indirectly – with the events for which they were imposed.

I also feel anxious for my brother, who is ‘guilty’ only of being too well known and prominent because of his success. And I personally cannot help but feel uneasy that a person close to me, who during his lifetime has done more good things for the world than most people are capable of, is now being denigrated in front of the entire world. It seems my only fault is that I am Alisher Usmanov's sister.

The EU has accused you of serving as some kind of cover for your brother’s business but a bne IntelliNews investigation found you were only briefly involved as a shareholder before sanctions were imposed on Russia. Can you give some more details of the arrangement?

The story with the accounts is unbelievable nonsense. As I have already said, Alisher is an exceptionally generous man, and his support for his family never carried any kind of subtext.

Around 2010, his health became very poor due to problems with his eyesight. He underwent several complicated surgeries, and he began to think about how he would distribute his fortune in the future. As you know, my brother has no direct heirs. He began to gradually transfer the operation of his business over to his managers, increasingly devoting himself to charity and sport. He was actively involved in the activities of the International Fencing Federation.

And in 2013, a terrible tragedy occurred in our family with the death of our nephew, Babur. It was a terrible blow for Alisher. At such moments, you begin to look at life in a new way: you change a lot of things.

My brother had already begun the process of creating trusts, whose beneficiary was my elder sister, Gulbakhor. I know for a fact that all these processes were carried out strictly in keeping with the law. They were set up and administered by lawyers and were never concealed from anyone. Alisher is a very thorough person in this regard – for him, compliance with the laws of the country where he is carrying out any activities is important, not to mention the fact that we're talking about our family here, and he would never do anything that could bring us harm.

Earlier, I didn’t really look into all the legal details, as this is far from my area of expertise. I have never had any involvement in my brother's affairs – I have worked as a doctor my entire life, that is my specialty and it is what I love. Following the publication of all these articles, I set out to improve my understanding of these legal matters; I received a thorough explanation and was even consulted on where and why the journalists were wrong.

They attribute these 27 accounts in a Swiss bank to me. It would have been funny, if it weren’t so sad to see how poorly the journalists who call themselves ‘investigators’ do their work. For only a single year, I, as well as our other members of the family, were shareholders in my brother's holding company. All of us held less than a percentage point of non-voting shares, which my brother bought back from us a year later. This was the way he chose to help us financially instead of giving us a stake in the business. If you look at the companies’ specimen signatures in the bank documents, which reporters from reputable publications failed to do, you will not find my name there, nor the names of my brother's other relatives. I never had access to any accounts. However, the justification for the sanctions claims exactly that. As it was explained to me, the bank forms usually list all the beneficiaries of the company, even if those people have no voting rights – this is how my name was found by the investigators. Although it is strange that they would single out my name, because the names of all the other beneficiaries for that period were also listed there, beginning with Alisher himself.

If we think rationally, there was no sense in hiding anything behind my name. Why would he do this if he was also a beneficiary of the company? What’s more, all these events took place long before the current events in Ukraine, so it is difficult to see any connection.

Part of the investigation by OCCRP mentioned that you received a “gift” of $3mn and the Guardian reported you transferred it to a “Middle Eastern businessman”.

I am well aware that for the vast majority of people, this sum looks enormous. But my brother is not an ordinary person – everyone knows the size of his fortune, and no one is trying to conceal it. This money was transferred by him from his bank account after all taxes were paid, and it was received and properly declared by me.

I did subsequently transfer this sum to another person. However, you left out the fact that this was not a random person – it was my son-in-law. Perhaps this may look strange to a Western reader, but such financial relationships in the family are the absolute norm in Asian traditions. Alisher has never set any conditions for us as to how we should dispose of his gifts, so I do not find anything objectionable in these actions.

Besides, this took place ten years ago – what does it have to do with the Ukrainian crisis? I should add that there are many obvious mistakes in the justifications for the sanctions against me: for example, that I have Russian citizenship, or that I allegedly own some offshore companies. Neither of these claims is true.

You say that your brother is very generous. Tell me what the generosity of a billionaire means in regards to his relatives.

Alisher's generosity is not the result of him becoming a billionaire. There was a time when he was not rich at all, but he still always offered his support – and not only to members of his family, but to anyone who needed help.

My brother is known to have donated several billion dollars of his personal funds to charity in recent years alone. These donations for public causes are in no way comparable to the value of the gifts he has given to his loved ones. If you are interested in the specific amounts of money he has shared with me and other relatives, I don’t have them at hand. Although you can imagine them yourself, after my story about me owning a small share in USM Holding for a limited period of time.

My brother gifted this share to me and then bought it back for the amount of $15mn, in what was a perfectly legal transaction. This was his honestly earned money – he was free to dispose of it as he saw fit. Once again, it's a lot of money, but it's not comparable to either his fortune or the amount of his charitable donations. It wouldn't occur to anyone to impose sanctions on the recipients of Usmanov's charitable donations, would it?

Are you close to your brother? Tell us about your childhood, your family relations.

My parents had four children: two boys and two girls. Alisher is the eldest, the cleverest, and he always studied very hard. As long as I can remember, from his earliest childhood, he supported my parents and considered it his duty to help them and us, to protect us and to take care of us.

One time, Alisher literally saved our sister Gulbakhor, who was very young and was lying in a stroller. There were many people around, everyone was distracted, and somehow the stroller accidentally fell into a ditch, and my brother was the only one who noticed it. He rushed headlong into the ditch and pulled her out. That's what kind of a person he is. He is always ready to help. Even now, in this situation, he worries more about us than about himself. And we worry about him.

To be the sister of such a man is a gift, not because he was always so generous to us, but because there are very few people in this world with such a big heart and depth of mind. If you look at his life story, you'll see how wise and astute he has been when it comes to business, how he was often ahead of the curve, as though he knew ahead of time which companies would succeed.

One can talk endlessly about his generosity and the number of people he has helped, including those here in Uzbekistan. He is much loved here; people know how much he has done, how much he invests in the country, how much has been achieved thanks to his money, and how he helps ordinary people who are in trouble.

And I am not exaggerating in the least. You can walk down the street of any Uzbek city and ask people about him.

Everyone knows that he has donated a lot – to cultural causes, to the restoration of historical monuments, to provide housing to improve people's lives. During COVID, he helped a great deal. And he also helped those who were left unemployed while living abroad.

Now, it has become more difficult for him to invest in Uzbekistan because of the sanctions. In the end, it is our country that suffers from sanctions against Alisher.

There are very few people like him, and being the sister of such a brother is a great source of pride.