In his first interview since October 2008, Bosnian businessman Damir Fazlic tackled the rumours and criminal allegations which have beset his career, reveals how he became an influential figure in the Balkans and beyond, and speaks of his grandiose plans for the future.
By Lindita Cela, Semir Mujkic, Eronida Mataj, Ana Novakovic, Gordana Andric, Lawrence Marzouk/
Nothing is quite as it seems in the spy-thriller world of Damir Fazlic.
The Bosnian has been called a CIA agent, atomic waste smuggler, money launderer and shady businessman; allegations, often with little substance, which have never been proved.
Simultaneously, he has the ear of some of the most powerful politicians and businessmen in the Balkans and Washington DC, has worked on scores of major election campaigns and has even been touted as a future Bosnian Prime Minister.
“I’m exactly who you think I am,” the Bosnian fixer claims enigmatically on his Twitter profile, but the identity of the 38-year-old is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Lounging in the sumptuous setting of a five-star London hotel, Fazlic appeared comfortable flaunting his jet-set lifestyle – an existence he likes to contrast to his Bosnian refugee status.
Except Fazlic’s story is a world away from those of his fleeing countrymen, seeking refuge from murder and rape.
The Bosnian, the product of a mixed Serb-Muslim marriage, left his homeland before the war to take up a place in one of the world’s most expensive and prestigious schools, not a life of dishwashing penury.
With his ‘Hollywood smile’ and Martha’s Vineyard chic, he looked every bit the powerbroker who wheels and deals across hotel lobbies as he settled into our two-hour conversation at Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel.
But while confident and brash, his interview with Balkan Investigative Reporting Network was his first since October 2008, when a money-laundering probe in Albania was launched. He also refused to be photographed, claiming he was “camera shy”.
He flits between DC – where he owns a multimillion dollar serviced apartment in the Ritz; Virginia, from where his well-connected Bosnian-American wife, Amra, hails and Aspen, where until recently he owned a share in one of the ski resort’s most prestigious condominiums.
But he emphasises that he is still “based in Europe”, where he earns most of the bucks to pay for the lavish lifestyle, using, and some have claimed abusing, his gilt-edged contacts book to open Balkan doors for Western investors. He calls it access.
Documents obtained by BIRN, however, show he took 50 private jets to and from Albania alone between 2005 and 2008, as a cost of at least 500,000 euro. A former business colleague revealed he was also happy to rent a private jet for $20,000 to take his family on holiday.
Fazlic boasts of his 15 worldwide companies, but he is also fond of obscuring his business dealings in the secrecy offered by offshore tax havens. Of those BIRN was able to track down in the UK, Albania, Cyprus and the US, many appeared inactive and none was generating large profits.
While working with former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha and building his business in Tirana, he spent months living in the city’s most exclusive hotel, the Sheraton.
But at the same time, his family home, which he used as his official address for his UK-based holding company, Virtu Capital International Limited, was an unremarkable house in a dead-end-road outside the unremarkable Midlands city of Northampton.
His holding firm, owned in turn by a British Virgin Islands firm, went bust earlier this year, leaving the UK taxman 80,000 euro out of pocket.
He also lost his Aspen penthouse in 2011 when it was repossessed after he failed to keep up with the repayments, according to documents obtained by BIRN. Fazlic says he decided to sell the property.
Prime ministers, senators, top US lobbyists, UK foreign secretaries, Bundesliga coaches, NATO generals – Fazlic has many friends in high places. But he has also faced a money-laundering probe in Albania, remains under investigation for fraud and tax evasion in Bosnia and has faced a slew of lurid allegations in the press.
Fazlic remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma.
“Greed is good”
Fazlic told BIRN that at the age of eight he had an unusual role model – Gordon Gekko, the lead in the film ‘Wall Street’, whose signature line is “greed is good”, although the film wasn’t released until the Bosnian’s twelth birthday.
A rich British visitor, who frequented the Bosnian hotel managed by Fazlic’s father, was intrigued by this “really weird kid” and his ability to cite the notorious stockbroker.
Without a son of his own, the rich traveller, who Fazlic did not name, decided to help Fazlic secure a place at Harrow School for Boys, one of Britain’s most prestigious private schools.
From there, armed with a string of top exam results, he went on to the London School of Economics, among the world’s best universities, where, Fazlic claims, he was handpicked by Lord Desai, a leading member of the UK’s Labour Party and economics professor, to be his tutee.
His first big break in business came during a summer internship with NatWest Markets, the investment arm of one of Britain’s biggest banks, which had been brought in by the Milosevic regime to help privatise Serbia Telecom and boost the country’s faltering economy.
A secretary to Douglas Hurd, who had just moved to NatWest after working as UK Foreign Secretary, discovered Fazlic’s Bosnian roots and asked him to meet her illustrious boss.
“Ten days later, I’m on a private jet with Douglas Hurd flying to Serbia,” said Falic, who provided translations and context for his superiors at the bank.
“We land, and Milosevic, whose politics basically ripped my country apart, who is the main reason I am a refuge, whose family is a refugee, is waiting for me on the tarmac, with all the pomp of a ceremonial visit.”
Tobacco factories and fraud allegations
Fazlic then joined AC European Finance, a London boutique financial firm set up by his former boss at NatWest, Alby Cator.
The firm’s main business, according to company records analysed by BIRN, was advising the Bosnian government on privatisation. AC European Finance’s man in Bosnia was Fazlic.
He claims the deal came after he met the then Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic after a speech at Oxford University.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you come and see me? Maybe we could find something for you to do.’”
Business started well for Fazlic and AC European Finance, and between 1999 and 2001, the Bosnian operations raked in almost 400,000 euro, the lion’s share of the firm’s turnover.
But in July 2001, the Sarajevo office was closed with 50,000 euro of bad debt amid allegations of fraud.
An audit by the OSCE revealed a 12,500 dollar loan to AC European Finance to help “create 100 jobs” as part of the construction of a five-star Rogner hotel, which was never built.
The transaction was uncovered as OSCE auditors investigated a public agency set up by the then Prime Minister Edhem Bicakcic, a friend of Fazlic’s. Bicakcic was eventually barred from office because of irregularities with the agency’s fund, but was later pardoned.
AC European Finance had also been involved in the privatisation of Sarajevo’s tobacco factory.
When the government blocked the deal, Fazlic switched to working with another company, Capital Investment Management Corporation (CIMC), owned by Palestinian-American businessman Hani Masri.
Masri is a major donor to Hillary Clinton and managed a $60 million dollar, US-backed investment plan in Gaza and the West Bank.
The privatisation through CIMC also fell through, leading to a lawsuit from the tobacco factory, alleging that it paid 250,000 dollars to CIMC for nothing.
The case was listed against the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, CIMC and GTZ Representative, the German development agency charged with helping with the privatisation, which, the tobacco factory argued, had forced it to take on CIMC as advisors.
When asked about the investigation into Damir Fazlic related to the privatisation of Sarajevo’s tobacco factory and the AC European Finance loan, a spokesman for the prosecution said: “We inform you that the Cantonal Prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo is investigating D.F. for criminal charges of fraud and tax evasion.”
The prosecutor went on to explain that the investigation had not progressed due to difficulties collecting evidence against Fazlic, CIMC and AC European Finance.
Fazlic told BIRN he had attended the prosecutor’s office in person in order to resolve the issue, but the file was deliberately being left open in order to damage his reputation.
He claimed the allegations were part of a plot from the “Taliban wing” of the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, one of the country’s main parties representing Bosnian Muslims.
Fazlic said: “They are the cancer – that part of their wing – of Bosnian politics.”
Fazlic retains strong contacts in his native country, however, and the political outlook improved significantly when his wife’s uncle, Zlatko Lagumdzija, was appointed Foreign Minister in 2010.
The businessman is also friends with the head of Bosnian Federation’s public electricity firm, Elektropriveda BiH, Elvedin Grabovica. They were snapped in a dimly-lit Sarajevo bar, sparking controversy.
When asked about meetings with Lagumdzija and Grabovica and his plans in Bosnia, Fazlic said he was looking at “six or seven” government projects worth hundreds of millions of euros.
“I am actively looking at bringing, mostly American [investors]. Bosnia has huge energy potential in building new plants.”
“At least say that I’m a big crook”
Fazlic is an inveterate namedropper, furnishing conversations with mentions of his “dear friends”.
Among them are three US Presidents and one contender – two Bushes, two Clintons – as well as NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark, the first director of US Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s election chief Stuart Stevens.
The Bosnian’s extraordinary contacts book has been built up, he claims, partly by being in the right place at the right time, but also because of his ability to bridge cultures.
“If I can now not be falsely modest, you do now see the pattern here: I do somehow, always, end up working with these big influential people and you don’t get to do that if you are a little crook, like they always write that I am,” he joked.
“So I always say to them when they ask me: ‘At least say that I’m a big crook, because I can’t be a little crook and get to do this, at least say that.’”
He boasts of having worked on 11 election campaigns, in Montenegro, Croatia, Congo, Romania, Serbia and, most controversially, Albania.
He grafted alongside Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in the 2012 campaign against Obama, and helped secure election success for Joseph Kabila in Congo and Sali Berisha in Albania.
He helped BGR Group, formerly Barbour Griffith & Roger, one of DC’s top lobbyists, land a lucrative contract with Berisha, negotiated a deal between the firm and former Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova, which was never signed, and worked with the company in Serbia.
Mero Baze, a former Berisha advisor who became an outspoken critic of the former PM and Fazlic, travelled with Berisha to Washington DC in order to sign the BGR deal. He claims Fazlic was the “middleman” in the negotiations and that Berisha’s Democratic Party paid $500,000 to the lobbyists for help in securing victory.
Fazlic later introduced Tom Ridge, the US’s first director of Homeland Security and senior Republican, to Berisha, after which the American was brought in by Tirana as a lobbyist.
Earning $500,000 in a year, Ridge smoothed relations between the White House and Tirana, helped Albania in its bid for NATO membership and was a key advisor on economic issues, such as the signing of a controversial road-building contract with US firm Bechtel.
Fazlic claims he received nothing for his work alongside BGR and Ridge in Albania. The Bosnian says he still “does business” with Ridge, who he describes as a “very dear friend”.
Centre of the storm
Former Bosnian PM Edhem Bicakcic, formerly a close associate of Fazlic, makes the unsupported claim that his ex-colleague works for the US and British intelligence agencies – a suggestion that Fazlic laughs off, alongside the other far-fetched allegations of being involved in atomic waste and gun smuggling.
Bicakcic also said: “He appears in no document and has no companies, at least for a long time, but he is using his friendships to get deals.”
Fazlic’s business dealings are shrouded in layers of secrecy, often using offshore companies to hide ownership.
He uses luxury hotels as his offices and prefers to avoid publicity.
But one set of business transactions in Albania brought him into the eye of a media storm.
Following Berisha’s successful election campaign 2005, his advisor Fazlic set up at least five companies with Erion Isufi, brother-in-law of the Minister of Transport, as his administrator, and the daughter of the PM as his lawyer.
Among his co-owners was a Jurgen Rober, former football manager with Hertha Berlin and Partizan Belgrade, and the controversial football agent Fali Ramadani.
On October 2, 2008, Fazlic was hauled from a small cafe in Bosnia by balaclava-clad police, setting off political tremors 400 kilometres away in Tirana and unleashing an extraordinary sequence of events.
The businessman claimed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time – an innocent witness to the arrest of Fazlic’s acquaintance Naser Oric, a war crimes and extortion suspect, who was sitting at the only other table in the eatery.
Fazlic was freed without charge, but this did nothing to quell the media frenzy linking the Bosnian to Albania’s political elite and a host of Balkan criminals.
Questions emerged about his purchase of land near Porto Romano, on the outskirts of Durres, and links to the Albanian PM Berisha.
A browbeaten Berisha decided to fly Fazlic back to Tirana for an interview with the friendly Klan TV in a bid to clear his and his friend’s name.
But unknown to Berisha, the prosecution had opened a money-laundering investigation into Fazlic a few days earlier.
When prosecutors heard their target had arrived by private jet, they issued a summons for Fazlic to appear for questioning but the Bosnian managed to leave the country without being stopped with the help of Berisha.
“There’s access. Then there’s corruption.”
Fazlic believes the allegations were part of a plot to destabilise the Berisha regime, led by the Prosecutor General Ina Rama and the then US Ambassador John Withers.
The investigation was dropped when requests for documents from Cyprus and Bosnia went unanswered and the evidence collected was never tested in court, something Fazlic regrets, as he was unable to fully clear his name.
He said: “Ina Rama, with clear help from John Withers has used anything and everything to try and conjure up and make up […] to connect me to Berisha to accuse him of corruption.”
Fazlic and Berisha have maintained that he had no business with the Albanian state and did not benefit from his political connections.
But new emails obtained between Fazlic and his US business partner, Meridian Telecommunications LLC, reveal he was actively working with state-owned Albania Telecom as well as quietly pitching for other state business.
“Do I daily use my contacts to open some doors? Yes. There’s access. Then there’s corruption.”
Fazlic, with his past and present brushes with criminal investigations, appears to have built his business on walking this fine line.
This article was produced as part of a programme titled “A Paper Trail to Better Governance”, with funding from the Austrian Development Cooperation (ADC) and implemented by BIRN Kosovo and BIRN HUB. The content does not reflect views and opinions of ADC.
My role in Fazlic’s Extraordinary Interview
By Desada Metaj – Editor at TV Klan
I have known Damir Fazlic since the electoral campaign in 2005, but was just somebody I knew. When the media began to trumpet his cooperation with the government and Berisha’s family, I was reminded of him.
For the first time he appeared in an interview in London with my colleague, Muhamet Veliu, who at the time was a correspondent there. While discussing the story with a few friends, one of them, at the time a recently resigned adviser to Berisha, told me that Damir was ready to speak to the press. They [the adviser and Fazlic] were in continuous contact and remained friends since the time they were together in the campaign.
I phoned him from his number [the adviser’s number] and strangely he me that he could come in Albania within two days. To be honest I did not believe it until the last minute that he would come.
I travelled with my personal car to Rinas [airport] and met Fazlic, who had arrived with a private jet and was well known in the [airport’s] VIP lounge.
He was in good humor and was even joking with his picture in newspapers he saw in the kiosks. We stopped only for a few minutes in the entrance of Tirana, where he met with a former adviser of Berisha, who was not in a high [governmental] position, but was given a high post immediately after.
Then we arrived in TV Klan, where his entrance and make-up did not draw any attention because no one recognized him. Only when we started recording the interview, journalists and cameras appeared in front of the building of TV Klan.
The heads of the TV station arranged for another car to take him out [of the building], so he could leave without drawing attention to himself.
Someone had informed them that the prosecutor’s office had started a probe and his exiting of the Klan [building] could put him in danger. He insisted that I accompany him to the airport although the flight was not scheduled for two more hours.
We jumped in the car and drove toward Rinas airport. During the way there he made sure that the plane was ready to fly and that he would not pass through the VIP lounge. Someone called me and presented himself as a prosecutor.
He asked me to stop the car and drop off the person in my backseat. I replied that I was driving and if he had a problem with me could find me in Rinas. The person [on the phone] did not insist and I continued driving. In Rinas we entered through the main entrance. There someone I did not know tried to escort Fazlic toward passport control. Fazlic refused, because as it is seen also from TV footage, he was scared.
I escorted him up to the security check and after he was on his way.
Caption: Fazlic used the Sheraton in Tirana as a base for his business.