What do a a Maltese academic, a Swiss lawyer, and a fugitive Kazakh oligarch have to do with each other? Quite a bit, apparently, according to a recent investigation, which highlights the reality that while international corruption is tremendously complex, the cast of characters is shockingly small.
A new BuzzFeed investigation out this week alleges that Joseph Mifsud’s lawyer, Stephan Roh, had a hand in controlling dozens of offshore companies with links to Mukhtar Ablyazov.
So who is Mifsud? And who is his lawyer? And how could they be connected to both Donald Trump and Ablyazov?
Mifsud is a Maltese academic whom BuzzFeed describes as “an improbable central figure in Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.” Mifsud reportedly met with George Papadopoulos in Rome shortly after the latter was named a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign in 2016. They met again in London and Mifsud allegedly introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian woman he claimed, falsely, was a niece of Vladimir Putin. It was from Mifsud that Papadopoulos learned the little tidbit he would later tell the Australian High Commissioner in London, Alexander Downer: the Russian government allegedly had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton via the theft of Democratic National Committee emails. Downer told American authorities and the FBI began an investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Former FBI Director James Comey has referred to Mifsud as a “Russian agent.”
Everyone named above denies the various allegations. However, Papadopoulos pled guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials. In a statement outlining Papadopoulos’ falsehoods, there are repeated references to an “overseas professor” — that’s Mifsud.
Then there’s this:
Reported here for the first time, the apparent link to Ablyazov — a business tycoon who has often been likened to Bernie Madoff, the former financier who ran a massive Ponzi scheme — is a further twist, showing Roh entangled in a massive and complex money laundering case.
The material seen by BuzzFeed News shows that over several years, Roh and his legal and business partners were used to move assets and funds that, according to BTA Bank, ultimately belonged to Ablyazov and his close associates. During that same time, legal proceedings against Ablyazov were ongoing in the US and UK. He was also under multiple freezing orders and had been found guilty of contempt for concealing the scale of his assets.
Roh denies the accusations, reportedly threatened legal action against BuzzFeed News, and then called the reporter a British spy.
Ablyazov, as all Central Asia watchers know by now, is a complex figure. He’s wanted in multiple countries on various charges but has also cast himself as an opposition politician. This makes approaching the subject difficult: are Kazakh authorities hounding him because of his corruption and enlisting other states to do so too, or is Nur-Sultan after him because he is a potential political threat? Or could it be both?
BuzzFeed’s report illustrates one link between Ablyazov and Roh via a Marshall Islands-registered entity, FM Company. In a 2012 contempt of court judgement, a British justice said Ablyazov had lied when he denied being the beneficial owner of shares in FM Company — it should have been subject to a freezing order. Later documents indicated a 2006 transfer of $15 million from FM Company to R&B Investment Group, a Dubai-based entity belonging to a Hong Kong-based company. According to BuzzFeed, the sole shareholder of R&B Investment Group is Roh.
Mifsud has his own individual Kazakhstan connection. In 2015 he was one of 858 international observers of the state’s presidential election — in which Nursultan Nazarbayev won 97.7 percent of the vote. Mifsud whitewashed the polls, saying they “met all the standards” and were “like a holiday for the people.”
There’s much more in BuzzFeed’s report but the takeaway for Central Asia watchers is a reaffirmation of just how connected some of the region’s richest people are to broader networks. Corruption is often cited as a serious problem in Central Asia, and it is, but the region’s most corrupt — elites squirreling billions away in offshore companies, for example — are aided and abetted by an international financial system full of holes through which money can slip, then be stored, washed, and used fresh on the other side.
The BuzzFeed report, bylined by Europe editor Alberto Nardelli and investigative journalist Jordan Ryan, is worth reading in full. You can do so here.