Farkhad Akhmedov. Photo: social media
“What’s your formula for success?”
“There’s no one-size-fits-all recipe. You can’t replicate the skills [needed for success] or teach them to others. You need a range of qualities: resilience, focus, talent, patience, determination. The most important thing is to realise that there are no impossible tasks. And another thing — you can only achieve your dreams by making an effort. Being relaxed is being passive, and it’s what the weak do. I work 24 hours a day. Even when I’m asleep. I often flip over my pillow because the temperature [in the room] becomes unbearable due to the number of thoughts running through my head…”
This is what Farkhad Akhmedov told Forbes Russia in 2009.
Fourteen years later, the 35-minute recording of the audio featuring the alleged voices of Akhmedov and Russian music producer Iosif Prigozhin is making headlines. This recording could inspire a play. As we know, one of the alleged interlocutors in the recording, Iosif Prigozhin, immediately called the audio a “fake generated by AI”. However, he later indirectly admitted that at least part of the recording was real — an admission that caused the situation to escalate still further. Meanwhile, Farkhad Akhmedov, businessman and former senator of Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, is keeping silent.
Before the scandal, the public didn’t know much about Akhmedov. Novaya Gazeta Europe has attempted to find out more about the businessman and why he’s been sanctioned if, as “his” voice on the recording says, he hasn’t seen Putin since 2008.
Farkhad Akhmedov was born in 1955 in Baku. In 1969, his father was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to death by firing squad. Farkhad was 15 at the time.
He finished school in Moscow, where his family moved after his father’s execution. In 1975-1977, he served his compulsory time in the Soviet army; afterwards, he enrolled in the Moscow Veterinary Academy. He went on to study in the Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas for his postgraduate degree.
In 1986, Akhmedov moved to the UK and went into the oil-trading business. According to rumours, his initial fortune didn’t come from oil but rather from trading fur at the London Stock Exchange; it was only later that he started working in the energy sector. The company he founded, Tansley Trading, provided Russian enterprises, including Gazprom, with equipment.
In the mid-90s, Akhmedov received a share in the Northgas company, founded jointly by two companies — the Russian Gazprom and the American Bechtel Energy — to develop the deposits located in the Yamal-Nenets region.
In 1999, after issuing extra shares, Akhmedov diluted Gazprom’s share in Northgas.
Lawsuits followed; by the end of it, Akhmedov was left with 49% of Northgas shares, while the controlling stake went to Gazprom. After years-long proceedings, the two sides came to an agreement which mandated that — if the deal were in any way breached — Gazprom would buy out Akhmedov’s shares at the market price.
Soon thereafter, Akhmedov went to court, accusing Gazprom of violating the conditions of the shareholder agreement and presenting the Russian state company with the bill for his shares. Gazprom refused to comply. At the end, Akhmedov had to sell his 49% to Russia’s Novatek for $1.375 billion.
Thus, Akhmedov went from an oil and gas trader to a private investor. In the leaked audio, the man whose voice resembles Akhmedov’s talks about this period of his life. (The following quotes include profanity.)
Akhmedov, allegedly: “They [the initiators of the sanctions — editor’s note] write that I’m a close friend of Putin’s. I’m saying: ‘For fuck’s sake, the last time I saw Putin was in 2008, damnit. I fucking sold [Northgas] in 2012, after a fucking 12-years-long war with fucking Gazprom […] and [then I] left Russia.
Prigozhin, allegedly: “Can’t you write [to the sanctioners] that actually your business was taken away from you?”
Akhmedov, allegedly: “Yes, for fuck’s sake, my business did get taken away! It was all covered in the fucking media. Well, it got covered in [the wrong] light, and you can’t fucking prove anything to anyone. That I’m fucking busy with agriculture, that I’m fucking planting, fuck knows, vineyeards, pomegranates, etc. I don’t serve the Kremlin, I don’t fucking work for them, I haven’t even met with him since 2008. Fucking shit, they won’t hear it. Useless. So, explaining yourself to them is ‘mission impossible’. This is politics. Dirty politics. So…”
Having sold the shares, Akhmedov invested part of his money into shares of Russia’s Novatek, Lukoil, Gazprom, Nornickel, Sberbank, and Magnit.
This is likely the reason for his ending up on the sanctions list in April 2022, two months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Akhmedov has neither condemned nor supported the war publicly.
The EU authorities justified putting Akhmedov on the sanctions list because he is a businessman “working in the economic sectors which provide a substantial source of income for the Russian government”.
Vladimir Milov, former Russian Deputy Minister of Energy — and current Economic Adviser for Alexey Navalny, knows Akhmedov personally, from when they both worked in the gas industry. He told Novaya Gazeta Europe:
“The story is quite simple. Akhmedov’s wealth today is mostly made up of the money he received by selling Northgas shares to Novatek. And as we know, Novatek is a company with close ties to Putin; one of its biggest shareholders is [Gennady] Timchenko [a close friend of Vladimir Putin — translator’s note]. The money Akhmedov has today, which he, it’s true, mostly invested in Russian state companies, came from Timchenko and Putin’s other cronies. So [the reason why he’s sanctioned] is quite obvious. Just because of the way he got his money (from a group affiliated with Putin), Akhmedov is sanctionable. But his rhetoric plays a part, too: just read his quotes about the ‘US’s economic terror against Russia’. It’s all pretty obvious [in this situation].”
As is often the case for certain big-name Russian businessmen, at one point Farkhad Akhmedov served as a senator for two Russian regions. First, from 2004 to 2007, he represented the Krasnodar region, and then, from 2007 to 2009, the Nenets region. The first time, his appointment was thought to be related to his friendship with Alexander Tkachyov, then the Krasnodar regional governor. In the second case, as Akhmedov himself has explained, Gazprom and the leadership of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) proposed that he represent the Nenets region.
Akhmedov’s official biography states that while he was a senator and member of the Committee on Judicial and Legal Issues he “helped develop and approve a series of legal acts”. However, it does not specify which ones. He also “actively participated” in the work done by the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and served as an international observer during elections, Azerbaijani ones among them.
Akhmedov and suspicion of high treason in favour of Russia
In the leaked audio, the man whose voice resembles Akhmedov’s claims that he hasn’t left Azerbaijan in a long time. Akhmedov does, indeed, have a special relationship with Baku. In recent years, he has invested big money into development of Azerbaijan’s agricultural sector — including fishing, cattle breeding, beekeeping, and viticulture. (Today, Akhmedov’s largest asset in the country is the Goychay Juice Plant AZNAR.) He has also invested in hospitality and medicine.
As of 2020, Akhmedov had invested over $200 million into Azerbaijani projects.
Akhmedov has also given money to charity organisations in his home country. At the peak of the pandemic, JSC AZNAR, which he heads, donated 1 million manats [€540,000] to the National Fund for Combating Coronavirus. During the Second Karabakh War in autumn 2020, AZNAR donated 2 million manats [€1.1 million] to help Azerbaijan’s Armed Forces and to the Support Fund for families of those killed. Akhmedov was even awarded the Dostluq Order by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev for achievements in “developing mutual relations between Azerbaijan and Russia”.
But two years later, Akhmedov came under closer scrutiny in Azerbaijan.
In November 2022, a number of Azerbaijani web outlets and news agencies reported that the businessman was suspected of high treason in favour of Russia
— and that his house and other facilities had been raided while Akhmedov himself had been questioned for almost 10 hours. He was then prohibited from leaving the country. There have been no developments in the case since then.
Akhmedov and London’s High Court of Justice
It is also widely known that Akhmedov’s divorce proceedings took 21 years and were one of the most expensive in UK history. He married his ex-wife Tatiana in 1993, but seven years later they got divorced. Three years after that, Tatiana Akhmedova, who has dual citizenship, petitioned to have the divorce be conducted under English law.
In November 2012, when Akhmedov sold 49% of the Northgas shares to Novatek for $1.375 billion, Tatiana Akhmedova filed a suit with the High Court of Justice, demanding to split the money acquired during marriage. Akhmedov himself noted that his ex-wife had secretly submitted a divorce petition to the High Court of Justice a mere three days after he received the money for the Northgas shares.
Tatiana Akhmedova. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images
Akhmedov offered to settle the dispute with £100 million, but Akhmedova refused. In 2017, the court ruled that Akhmedov had to hand over art objects worth £90 million to his ex-wife and pay her £350 million. However, the businessman refused to do so, stating that the English court’s decision was worth about the same “as toilet paper”.
Soon after, Akhmedov’s 115-metre yacht Luna, worth $436 million, which he bought from Roman Abramovich in 2014, was arrested in Dubai. For two years, the yacht was stranded on the dock. The arrest was lifted only in February 2020.
However, this wasn’t the end of the story. Akhmedov’s ex-wife filed a lawsuit against their son, accusing him of helping his father withdraw assets. In January 2021, London’s Higher Court of Justice sided with Akhmedova ruling that the son had to pay her £70 million.
The former spouses came to an agreement only in 2021. Akhmedov paid his ex-wife £150 million in cash and art objects and kept the yacht. The businessman was satisfied with the decision, telling journalists that his ex still “ended up with nothing” and ruined her relationship with their sons. Judge Gwynneth Knowles in her final ruling referred to the Akhmedov family as “one of the unhappiest ever to have appeared in my courtroom”.
Akhmedov and sanctions
In the leaked audio, the man whose voice resembles Akhmedov’s spends quite a long time lamenting life under sanctions. But sanctions actually became a painful topic for Akhmedov even before the Ukraine war.
At the beginning of 2018, he was mentioned in the so-called “Kremlin report” — the non-legally-binding list of Russian officials and businessmen worth over $1 billion, according to Forbes. All the people on the list were considered by the US government to be affiliated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The report was part of Washington’s response to Russia’s alleged interference in the American presidential elections.
The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act required that such a list be drawn up, though the White House clarified at the time that the individuals mentioned in the report would not automatically be sanctioned.
However, the listed individuals faced an increased risk of sanctioning.
Akhmedov made no secret of his opinion of the report. Three months after the “Kremlin report” was published, he publicly criticised the US for imposing sanctions on Russia in general. In an interview he gave to Nezavisimaya Gazeta — which sounds more like a pre-written speech (the journalist agrees with all his comments and does not ask any uncomfortable questions — Akhmedov focused on the “genuine economic terror [imposed by] the US against Russia” in response to the Russian Armed Forces’ involvement in the Syrian Civil War.
The interview included these words from Akhmedov: “It seems to me that the current anti-Russian campaign should be utilised in our favour as much as possible, [so that we] go from passive defence to a decisive attack. Sanctions are also an act of war. And wars aren’t won by defending. I think that the US deep state is behind the escalation of this crisis. Thus, there’s the danger of the military industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about long ago. The most prominent representative and ideologist of the deep state is Senator John McCain who doesn’t hide his hatred towards Russia.”
In the same interview, Akhmedov had only good things to say about President Putin: “Everyone needs to know that the Russian constituents’ support of the president is all-encompassing and sincere”.
Five years later, in the leaked phone conversation, “Akhmedov” would call the president a “midget with a chip on his shoulder”.
Nevertheless, despite the sincerity of his “support for President Putin”, Farkhad Akhmedov was noticeably quiet after the start of the invasion. He came out neither against nor in favour of the war.
But staying quiet didn’t save him. In April 2022, two months after the start of the war, he was added to the EU sanctions list. Then the UK, Canada, Ukraine, and Switzerland also introduced sanctions against him. His accounts were frozen, while the yacht Luna was seized once again.
In summer 2022, Akhmedov tried to contest the EU sanctions. His lawyers claimed that he no longer worked in Russia’s energy sector, had not held office for over ten years, and was “not close to the Kremlin, having never been part of Vladimir Putin’s circle.” In essence, they invoked the same evidence summoned by the man with Akhmedov’s voice in the leaked recording.
Iosif Prigozhin. Photo: creative commons
Akhmedov, allegedly: “I did [file a lawsuit], I did, yes. I just yesterday sent the appeal their way, to the European Council, that I was sanctioned illegally, that it was wrong. And if they won’t agree, then I’ll sue them. But the suit could go on for a year, two. <…> God help [anyone who] ends up on that list. And now… I can’t even fucking use a credit card. And you can’t even have an account in dollars, or in any foreign currency — only rubles and the local currency. And you see what’s going on with the ruble — up and down, down and up, fuck, you can’t invest like that. For example, we exported pomegranate juice to 52 countries. Now, we export it to 26. Cut by half. All the transactions are denied. That’s the way it is.
“You listen to me, Iosya [short for Iosif — translator’s note]. If there’s any chance of you being sanctioned — fucking sell everything. [All your assets] will be frozen. <…> They have files on everyone, every one of us has a file — what properties we have, where. They just push a fucking button, shit, and everything is blocked, frozen — “court injunction” it’s called. The end.”
At the time of the audio leak, Farkhad Akhmedov was ranked (as he still is now) the 49th richest Russian billionaire, according to Forbes Russia. His fortune is estimated at $1.7 billion. What the future has in store for him is unknown. The Kremlin hasn’t publicly commented on the leaked audio, in which the war, Putin, and his entourage are all criticised. At the time of publication, neither Farkhad Akhmedov nor his lawyers commented on the audio.
“Will you have regrets if you suddenly lose everything?” Forbes asked Akhmedov in 2009. “I haven’t thought about it. I don’t think I could lose everything. In general, I’m an optimist. I don’t use negative thinking, I don’t speak ill of people, about nature, I look at everything positively.”
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