Owner of Kyrgyzstan fuel depot speaks out

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Valery Hon owns what in local business jargon is described as a “tasty morsel.”

Hon is founder and chairman of the board of the VOSST company, located just outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Among his holdings is one of the most sought-after pieces of real estate in Kyrgyzstan: a fuel storage facility located about half a mile from the country’s main international airport, Manas. 

Given the facility’s size and proximity to Manas, it is in a perfect position to supply fuel for civilian flights at the airport and for the major United States military base located on Manas’ territory.

Early last year, Hon says that he received a phone call from one Sergei Kim.

Local businessmen and Kyrgyz officials say that Kim is the right-hand man of Maksim Bakiyev, the much feared entrepreneur son of recently deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Kim got straight to the point, says Hon: Maksim wanted Hon to sell his fuel storage facility to another company.

“He said that he was calling from Maksim — that was the first thing that he said,” said Hon.

This was in fact not the first time that the facility was a takeover target. In late 2003, Hon said, a collection of people linked to the Kyrgyz government, using the country’s tax police, attempted to seize his business. He was saved by the fact that Kyrgyzstan underwent a sudden change in government — the so-called “Tulip Revolution” — and most of those he accuses had to flee the country. Then in 2008, the same thing happened: High Kyrgyz officials tried to commandeer the same storage facility.

This second takeover attempt in 2008 and 2009 was more successful, however: Hon avoided selling his property outright, but companies closely linked to Omurbek Babanov, a former deputy prime minister, forced him to lease them the facility for five years while they paid a fraction of the cost for the fuel stored there.

“This wasn’t a hostile takeover, as it’s called,” Hon said recently in the VOSST offices overlooking the facility. “This was open theft — they grabbed my business and that was that.”

Hon’s story is a window into the hard-knuckled business methods and possible corruption that thrived during the President Bakiyev’s administration. Last month, Bakiyev was forced to flee the capital, and then ultimately the country, after throngs of protesters — outraged at the millions of dollars that Bakiyev and his family were said to have extracted from the Kyrgyz economy — overpowered riot police and stormed his presidential administration.

But the case of the VOSST fuel depot has much wider ramifications, potentially stretching all the way to the highest echelons of power in Washington, D.C. Hon believes that Maksim Bakiyev, 32, President Bakiyev’s younger son, was the driving force behind the facility’s seizure in an attempt to corner the highly lucrative sale of aviation fuel to the U.S. air base.

Were that story to prove true, it would be more than just an embarrassment for U.S. officials. America’s standing in this small but strategically located ex-Soviet nation could be deeply damaged, given that Washington would be viewed as helping enrich a widely detested regime, all for the sake of holding onto a key U.S. military installation.

American citizens and possibly officials would also be open to prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), 1977 legislation that forbids U.S. businessmen from bribing foreign officials.

“The political accusations in Kyrgyzstan boil down to a claim that American officials made corrupt payments to Kyrgyz government officials in order to secure the Manas base arrangements,” said Scott Horton, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on international law, who testified recently before a House of Representatives sub-committee looking into the matter.

“American criminal law contains a number of anti-bribery rules, including provisions that prohibit a U.S. person from providing consideration, directly or indirectly, to a foreign government official to secure or retain business,” he added.

Horton also noted that all the evidence presented so far consists of only “red flags” and no actual proof of any wrong-doing. Nevertheless it does raise troubling questions that show the case merits a full investigation, he said.

“All the evidence I see concerning these dealings suggests to me that if a conscious decision was taken to make these payments, that decision was reached at a very high policy-making level in the government, not by low-level contract administrators,” Horton testified.

Kyrgyz authorities have launched a number of their own investigations into the matter and have asked their Latvian counterparts to arrest Maksim Bakiyev. The ex-president’s son was last seen in the Baltic nation, where he shares business interests with a local millionaire. Interpol has also issued an arrest warrant for Bakiyev, for fraud.

According to Kyrgyz officials, Maksim Bakiyev allegedly built a business empire using his connections and strong-arm tactics. Ultimately, they claim, he snatched up all of the major money-making enterprises in the country, including the main gold mine, electricity producer and mobile phone operator. The younger Bakiyev was also appointed to head the official body overseeing the government’s holdings and business economic strategy.

The Kyrgyz further claim that Aviation Fuel Service, one of the companies that took over Valery Hon’s fuel storage facility, was controlled by the younger Bakiyev. This Kyrgyz firm, they say, indirectly did business with the U.S. air base by working with Mina Corp, a company that won an exclusive contract from the U.S. Defense Department to sell fuel to the base. Mina is registered in London and Gibraltar; its director of operations is Chuck Squires, a former military attache at the U.S. embassy in Bishkek, and it is staffed by other Americans.

The labyrinth of companies involved in the VOSST case however also give an indication of the difficulties Kyrgyz and U.S. investigators face in their attempt to get to the bottom of the Manas air base fuel sales. The Kyrgyz, for example, have not produced any documents backing up their assertions; they say that the information is confidential while the investigation is ongoing.

Nevertheless, Valery Hon says that, for him, the connection with Maksim Bakiyev was clear from the start. Hon says that he met with Sergei Kim, Bakiyev’s reported representative on “numerous occasions,” after Kim’s initial phone call.

Hon ended up renting his facility to a company called Munai Myrza Bazis, which later changed its name to Atek Oil. Atek Oil in turn signed a contract with two companies to run the fuel installation: Neftesintez and Aviation Fuel Service.

But Hon has supplied registration documents indicating strongly that all companies are linked to Babanov, the deputy prime minister under Bakiyev. Babanov’s mother, for example, originally owned Munai Myrza Bazis. After her death, the documents show, ownership passed to her son.

Zhanybek Sagadylda uulu, Babanov’s nephew, also plays a prominent role in the management of two of the companies. Babanov, speaking by telephone from Bishkek, confirmed that Sagadylda uulu was his relative, but denied that he owned any of the companies, now or at any point in the past. “These documents were forged,” he said.

Kim was not able to be reached at any of the phone numbers he had previously provided to Hon. Sagadylda uulu, writing by email, refused to answer specific questions, but said the matter was a “typical business dispute.”

An FCPA brochure states that, “to avoid being held liable for corrupt third party payments,” U.S. companies should carry out full due diligence to make sure that, among other things, entities that they are dealing with do not have ties to the government.

A Mina Corp spokesperson said that the company does not disclose the names of the firms it does business with, “for security and commercial reasons.” Also, he said that “Mina Corp has no access to the ownership structure of its counterparts.”

The spokesperson added, however, that to the best of Mina’s knowledge when they entered the contracts, Maksim Bakiyev was not a part of the companies they did business with.

The FCPA does not apply to Mina’s dealings, he continued, because the contracts were not created “to ingratiate us with the government.”

“The FCPA does not bar doing business with foreign governments, foreign officials, or family members or agents of officials,” the spokesperson said. “It bars doing business with them corruptly.”

“We have no concerns over the FCPA,” he added.