Alisher Usmanov: How a billionaire-turned-philanthropist is essential to Uzbekistan’s global future
Uzbek tycoon Alisher Usmanov once quipped to a Western journalist that his life story would require more than a couple of vodka bottles to tell in full. A quick look at his biography, one that begins with his humble origins in Chust, a medium-sized city in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley, to being ranked among the 100 wealthiest people in the world.
Usmanov is unique amongst those from the former Soviet Union who made their fortunes in the wild 1990s following the collapse of the Communist command economy in that he accumulated his wealth through open market deals or by launching new businesses; a stark contrast to those who amassed vast sums of wealth, often illicitly, through dubious privatization schemes.
Having the right business intuition to recognize the changing world around him as the Soviet system was on life support, Usmanov became wealthy after establishing a plastic bag company – a commodity that was in high demand during the late Gorbachev era. From those early investments, Usmanov was later moved to investing in international markets and was later appointed as head of Gazprominvest, the investment arm of Russia’s gas giant, Gazprom.
In the early 2000s, Usmanov bought up mines and steel plants, and through these acquisitions built up the Metalloinvest group – one of the world’s leading metallurgical companies, which is still a core part of Usmanov’s business empire.
Despite the reservations of many other investors at the time, Usmanov’s interest in the tech world led his successful investments in Apple and many of the world’s tech unicorns: Alibaba, JD.com, Twitter, Spotify and Uber. He also invested $460 million directly into Facebook and bought stakes in the Russian telecom company MegaFon, the email provider Mail.ru, and the Russian-speaking world’s Facebook analogue, VKontakte.
From business to philanthropy and charity
Internationally recognized for his ground-breaking investments in Facebook and Alibaba, his longtime shareholding in the Arsenal football club and his many charitable actions, including the restoration of cultural monuments around Europe, particularly in Italy, a country with a history and culture that has long been dear to Usmanov. So much so that Usmanov provided €1.5 million in financial assistance to the authorities of Rome for the restoration of the aisle of the Basilica Ulpia and the Colonnade of Trajan’s Forum, as well as the Dioscuri Fountain on Quirinale Square. He also donated more than €6 million for the restoration of the Villa Berg, which has been housing the Italian Embassy in Moscow since 1924.
Usmanov’s numerous projects, aimed at forging closer ties with Italy, have extended far beyond historical preservation and have included taking on the traditional role of an arts patron in the fields of cinema, architecture, theater and music – all of which have amounted to millions of euros in investments.
Further investments have extended to other European countries including Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Greece, Monaco and Cyprus; running the gamut from sponsoring COVID assistance, and other medical and pharmaceutical improvement projects, to sponsoring major sporting institutions. (Usmanov is an avid fencer and served as the president of the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime, the international governing body of the sport of fencing, for 14 years from 2008 to 2022.)
Returning to his roots
In his native Uzbekistan, Usmanov has whole-heartedly backed President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who is moving rapidly to re-make and open his country to the world after the Central Asian nation struggled for a quarter century under Mirziyoyev’s predecessor, Islam Karimov, who largely kept the country isolated from the international community and who stubbornly clung to outmoded Soviet-style economic policies.
Usmanov has in the past said that he’s willing to invest as much as he can in Uzbekistan, thus far he has donated $25 million to equip Uzbek hospitals to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. His charitable work in the country has already amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars through the financing of a number of key social and modernization projects, with a World Bank-supported housing development program in various Uzbek regions.
Much like his activities in the West, Usmanov has supported the cultural and historical preservation of Uzbekistan’s dozens of heritage sites, including the development of the ancient Silk Road city Bukhara and its surrounding region, home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Usmanov has repeatedly emphasized that all his investments in Uzbekistan are aimed, first and foremost, at the financing of the country’s development. In layman’s terms, everything earned in Uzbekistan will remain in the country and will be directed toward the social and economic development of the country.
In line with this policy, Usmanov and his partners supported the construction and launch of a metallurgical plant in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, the country’s leading metallurgical enterprise, in which a subsidiary of the holding owns a significant share. USM, the global conglomerate with investments in the metals and mining industry, telecommunications, technology, and media – where Usmanov owns a 49% share – created a joint venture with partners in Uzbekistan that included the leading Uzbek telecommunications company Ucell.
Earlier this year, Akkerman Cement, a subsidiary of USM, acquired a 98.6% stake in a large cement plant in Uzbekistan to help further foster the country’s economic growth.
In a nod to his strong personal bond with Italy, Usmanov helped the Italian metallurgical company Danieli enter the Uzbek market and has pledged to continue promoting and protecting European business investments in Central Asia. Usmanov believes this should be advanced as part of the framework at the forthcoming EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference in Samarkand on November 17-18. The conference aims to develop cooperation between the EU and Central Asia to promote sustainable connectivity in line with the EU’s Global Gateway.
The overwhelming majority of Usmanov’s activities are largely unknown to the general public, including those who are close watchers of the post-Soviet space, largely due to his personal aversion to self-promotion. The fact remains, however, that he has already given away $2.6 billion in the last two decades, including hundreds of millions to Uzbekistan.
Despite Usmanov’s many proactive activities in the West and in Uzbekistan, he was included on both the European Union and US’ lists of sanctioned billionaires following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite never having any known ties to Russia’s antebellum activities in Ukraine.
The European Union has not given any details as to why Usmanov was included with the extensive list of individuals and business entities tied to the Kremlin, but a summary review of his activities that are aimed at closer relations with the West raises questions as to the rationale behind his inclusion on the list.
In an exclusive interview with New Europe’s Federico Grandesso, Usmanov discussed his current situation, as well as his past and future endeavors in Europe and Uzbekistan.
New Europe (NE): You and your sisters were sanctioned by the EU because of your alleged relations with the Russian government. For the record, and for European politicians to understand, have you ever had any links with Moscow?
Alisher Usmanov (AU): I am formerly a big businessman, and in recent years I have been deeply engaged in the development of fencing and in philanthropy. I treasure particularly humanitarian values and initiatives that bring people together: sports, art, and even business. In other words, I am as far distanced from politics as possible and have in fact deliberately been avoiding it all my life. So, the EU’s accusations against me and my sisters are completely groundless on all counts and, in particular, with regard to my connections with the Kremlin. Of course, as a businessman and as the FIE President, I have over the years met leading figures from many different countries, including heads of states and the heads of various international sports organizations. Moreover, I have received a number of high awards from Uzbekistan, Italy, Kazakhstan, Russia, and the International Olympic Committee. My meetings with these officials were usually public and were covered by the media. All other accusations claiming that I am allegedly a “pro-Kremlin oligarch”, or that I have some sort of financial connections with the Russian leadership are nothing but baseless fantasies.
NE: Your past activities in Europe, and the achievements that followed, have been quite remarkable over the years. How can you help the EU further cooperate with Uzbekistan and assist both in deepening their relationship?
AU: Although I am an Asian by birth and upbringing, European culture is deeply ingrained in me. All my life I have been closely linked to Europe. When I was still an entrepreneur, I acquired a lot of business partners and made real friends here. In fact, I owe the success of my first business in the 1980s to a German businessman who helped me with advice and supplied me with the best equipment available in the world at that time for the manufacture of plastic bags. That was how I got started in business. But subsequently, my career was also connected with European business partners. And it was these connections and the trust of these people that helped me later when I left the business world and focused instead on social and charitable work. I responded with great pleasure and without hesitation to requests from European countries and institutions and supported various charitable initiatives. The most well-known of them are restoration projects in Italy, but, of course, there were many more, which in fact cover the entire European continent. Today, due to the sanctions, a number of restrictions have been placed on this work, but I intend to continue with my philanthropy in Europe as soon as I am able once again.
For the last 14 years, I have been heading up the FIE, and it is for me personally one of the most important humanitarian projects of my life. Sport is a truly powerful means of bringing nations closer together, defusing conflicts and creating universal opportunities for everyone irrespective of where they come from in the world and what state of heath they have. This is what fencing is about, and I am proud that my team and I have managed to make our achievements truly global. Of course, this also applies to European fencing, to the success of which I have also contributed as head of the European Fencing Confederation for four years, from 2005 to 2009.
I wish to share my own experience and expertise that I have accumulated throughout my life and to use that knowledge to strengthen humanitarian and business ties between Uzbekistan and the EU members. I see this as my mission.
NE: What is your relationship with the EU institutions? Have you been to Brussels or Strasbourg to discuss potential projects or ways to deepen the collaboration between Uzbekistan and the European Union with any EU officials?
AU: I am an ardent supporter of expanding cooperation between Uzbekistan and the EU member states. Six years ago, after Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president, the country began to change rapidly. Today, Uzbekistan is a dynamically developing democratic republic that is open to investment and has enormous potential. In many respects, the country is focused on developing cooperation with Europe and is looking for models that could be applied here. Reforms are being successfully implemented here in many areas, and strengthening the investment climate is a key priority. Special institutions have been created to provide information and legal support to foreign entrepreneurs, and many barriers to foreign investors have been removed.
I really have made and continue to make a considerable effort to communicate with our European partners, telling them about this and inviting them to invest in the republic and build a dialogue with it. This is one of my top priorities. And this work has concrete results. European companies, including German, Austrian and Italian ones, are already working in Uzbekistan. Bilateral and multilateral cooperation with EU member states is being developed, with regular public and business events like annual “EU – Central Asian” ministerial meetings, the “Italy – Central Asia” conference, a dialogue with German businesses and many others. This results in European partners taking a fresh look at Uzbekistan. Further events will, I am sure, completely change attitudes to investing in Uzbekistan. I must admit that I am very pleased to realize that my modest contribution has helped improve the relationship between Uzbekistan and the EU.
I have been publicly urging everyone to invest in this country. And the companies of which I am a shareholder, are actively investing in Uzbekistan’s metallurgy, cement production and telecommunications industries. As for myself, I firmly decided that any money earned in this country will be invested in Uzbekistan. And I also intend to support any undertakings that are in line with Uzbekistan’s development strategy and aimed at strengthening its relations with the EU. Of course, sanctions on me make it difficult to develop this support.
NE: What are your thoughts about your case at the European Court of Justice? Are you positive about the outcome? In the case of a negative outcome, would you consider an appeal?
AU: I have already experienced injustice in my life, so I feel it keenly. The collective responsibility that I feel has been extended to me and my next of kin — that is an injustice and a big mistake.
None of the accusations against me and my sisters, apparently justifying the EU sanctions against me, are true. In our lawsuits, we have provided ample evidence to that effect.
For example, my sisters are being accused of allegedly receiving improper benefits from me. They have their own families, their own children, who are now being punished along with them simply because they are my relatives. Meanwhile, for 25 years, all my incomes and property have been audited annually by the Big Four firms, their transparency has been confirmed by audit reports, and all these reports have been disclosed.
I also believe the European Court of Justice will be fair and unengaged in this situation and I will fight until I win. It is my duty because the sanctions do not mostly affect me personally, but rather my relatives, employees of the enterprises where I am a shareholder, people dependent on my charitable activity, and my fellow citizens from Uzbekistan. Thousands of innocent people are being affected by these measures. I have been spending nearly half my income on charity — so should the recipients of this charitable support be sanctioned as well?
NE: If you were able to speak directly to the citizens of Europe about your activities in both the EU and Uzbekistan, what would be your main message to them? One that you would want them to relay to the politicians that they’ve democratically elected to make decisions on issues like international sanctions?
AU: I am convinced that the strength of human civilization lies in its ability to create together. This should not be forgotten, even at difficult times such as today. We are closer to each other than we think, and not everything can be sacrificed for the sake of the political moment. It is necessary to keep a cool mind and not alienate true friends. As for me personally, I am a man of peace who has devoted his whole life to bringing people together. In no way am I an enemy of Europe. On the contrary, I am eager to continue building bridges between European countries, Uzbekistan and Central Asia. And I will certainly continue to do so as I see a great future in this.