the hunt for the Russian oligarchs

In retaliation for the Russian attack in Ukraine, Europe is knocking on the wallets of the Kremlin-friendly oligarchs.

At the end of the Cap d’Antibes, between the Tire-Poil path and the Garoupe lighthouse, the senses rejoice and marvel. The nose is delighted by the aromas of farigoulette, witch’s claw or sea fennel. Hearing is filled with the song of crickets and cendrillard buntings. The eye is saturated with azure and Majorelle blue. Then appears, hieratic, bathed by a low sun, the bay of billionaires. In the past, only old money, aristocrats and descendants of great industrial lines could afford this exceptional panorama with a view of the Lérins Islands and, in the background, the foothills of Mercantour. Today, it is the “novarichs”, the newly rich Russians, who have taken control of these Belle Époque mansions overlooking the Mediterranean.

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The jewel of these exceptional properties is the Château de la Croë. Built in 1927, in the Victorian style, for an English aristocrat, it stretches over 8 hectares of pine forest and exquisitely scented gardens down to the sea. The Duke of Windsor, and former King Edward VIII, stayed there. The Greek shipowner Stavros Niarchos was the owner. But, since 2004, the master of the house is called Roman Abramovich. The most famous of the Russian oligarchs spent between 150 and 200 million euros on renovations to bring it to his liking. The castle is made up of eight suites, twelve bedrooms, three lounges, two dining rooms, a 15-metre swimming pool located on the roof, a cinema for 20 people, a spa… At the Abramovichs, the taps are made of 24-carat gold. And no less than 50 small hands are active 24 hours a day in the service of the dark bearded man, his seven children and his Natacha of the moment. The former petrochemical student still weighs 12 billion euros. Not bad for an orphan of father and mother from Saratov, an unadorned quagmire on the banks of the Volga where the temperatures are negative from the end of October to the beginning of April.

From the judoka banker Boris Rotenberg – at the Èze pass –, childhood friend of Vladimir Poutine, to Gennady Timchenko – at Lavandou –, oil and gas magnate and 49th world fortune via Souleïman Kerimov – at Saint-Jean- Cap-Ferrat – potentate of the gold mines, the oligarchs have offered themselves the most beautiful properties in the south of France. Tracfin and the Treasury estimate the number of properties held by the Russians on the Côte d’Azur at 3,000. Patibular faces, shoulders of quadrumane, prominent stomach, all have more or less the same morphotype and the same attraction for the French Riviera, much sexier than the taiga or the Moskva.

But, today, there is danger in the house. In response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the European Union has decided to strike where it hurts: by cutting off the supplies of these money pumps. Paris, London, Bern and even Monaco decided to freeze the assets and seize the property of the oligarchs. « It was time, » says political scientist and Kremlinologist Hélène Blanc. We have turned a blind eye to this weed that has infiltrated our economy and our political class for too long. Their strength lies in our weakness and our blindness. »

The superyacht,

The superyacht, « Dilbar », of Alisher Ousmanov estimated at some 600 million euros. © Geoff Moore/REX/SIPA

The history of the oligarchy goes back a quarter of a century. In the mid-1990s, in the shreds of the former USSR, the government liberalized the economy after rigged auctions. Energy, raw materials, banks, insurance… the flagships of the Soviet economy are confiscated by a handful of businessmen. « When the rubles fall from the sky, the unlucky don’t have a bag », assures the old Russian adage. They don’t miss it. They increase tenfold, a hundredfold their stake in ten years and influence, in their favor, the reforms of the country. “During Yeltsin’s time, these oligarchs prided themselves on politics. Some have even obtained positions of power such as deputy secretary of the Security Council or deputy prime minister of the government,” explains Carole Grimaud Potter, professor of geopolitics of Russia at the University of Montpellier. Vladimir Putin puts the kibosh, asking them to concentrate on their business. Those who resist, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, pay for it with ten years in the gulag.

Thanks to them, the Russian regime « crunches ». They put private jets and immense means at the disposal of the first circle

Only three oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, the most clever, Alicher Ousmanov, banker and steel magnate, financier Mikhail Fridman and Roman Abramovich, will manage to hold on. Vladimir Putin replaces Yeltsin’s cronies with those close to him, often KGB veterans, such as Nikolai Tokarev – oil and gas – or Igor Setchin – oil – or even close friends like Arkadi Rotenberg. Former uke, partner of young Putin’s judo exercises, this colossus is today at the head of a chain of Gazprom subcontractors. It was to him and his brother Boris that 15% of the Sochi Olympics contracts were awarded in 2014, i.e. more than 6 billion euros. « With Putin, the oligarchs have a contract of trust: they must not criticize the state and put national interests before their personal interest », explains Carole Grimaud Potter.

Two figures sum up their omnipotence: these new apparatchiks represent only 0.01% of Russians. But they own more of their country’s wealth than the other 99.99%. Their offshore assets exceed one year of national GDP, or 1.5 trillion euros. In exchange for their prebends, they feed all the slush funds of the regime. They put their jets and their immense resources at the disposal of Putin’s close guard. They pay hackers involved in computer attacks. Finally, they make Putin and his relatives crunch. And not just a little! According to political scientist Hélène Blanc, the master of the Kremlin has accumulated, thanks to the generous donations of the oligarchs, more than 200 billion euros: two and a half times the fortune of Bernard Arnault! “The current joke in Moscow is: Putin wants to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovich. »

NIKOLAÏ TOKAREV Chairman of the Transneft pipeline company (here in the Kremlin in 2008).  He was a colleague of Putin in the KGB in the German Democratic Republic.

NIKOLAÏ TOKAREV Chairman of the Transneft pipeline company (here in the Kremlin in 2008). He was a colleague of Putin in the KGB in the German Democratic Republic. © Alexei Nikolsky/AP/SIPA

The publication last week of a blacklist of 26 targets by the European Union, including the Rotenberg brothers, is the first step in this great cleaning. Real estate, yachts, luxury vehicles… their assets have started to be frozen. France plans to extend its list to 510 personalities and entities. In the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson announced, before Parliament, the confiscation of the assets of 100 individuals who « support Putin’s war machine ». In the line of sight, Roman Abramovich. A caricature of an oligarch, this silent man – he has never granted an interview – made his fortune in hydrocarbons: 100 million dollars invested in 1992 and 11 billion euros net of tax in profit in 2005. The neo- Israeli was even a deputy in the Duma, then governor of Chukotka.

This province, the northernmost in Russia, is as large as one and a half times the size of France and has a population of 50,000; the mercury there reaches – 40°C in winter. Pilloried and probably banned for life in the United Kingdom, the president of Chelsea has just announced the sale of his club for 3.6 billion euros. An extremely symbolic panic sale, as Roman Abramovich embodies the Putin system and its insidious dilution, with hundreds of millions of euros in the Western world. Not sure that his private Boeing Dreamliner (330 passengers on a commercial flight) can still land in Nice, where he is based, or in Saint-Barth. In the West Indies, the Russian owns a 90 million euro villa where Beyoncé, Gwen Stefani or the Red Hot Chili Peppers came to sing.

In Britain, oligarch poison is everywhere. The new Russians finance the very chic “private schools”. They send their children there, make donations to political parties, especially conservative ones, and maintain an armada of lawyers and real estate agents. London was renamed « Londongrad » or « Moscow-on-Thames ». Bus tours of the most beautiful properties of oligarchs, organized for Russian tourists, end in apotheosis in Eaton Square. This posh place in the Belgravia district has been renamed « Red Square » because it houses the hovel, valued at 120 million euros, of Roman Abramovich, still him, and the king of steel Oleg Deripaska.

Putin wants to rule like Stalin and live like Abramovich

In 2018, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee defined London as a « laundry room » for dirty money from Russia. The NGO Transparency International estimates the amount of real estate acquired by the Russians in London at 1.8 billion euros, particularly in the districts of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea. ! In question, the 2008 law which, against a minimum investment of 3 million euros, made it possible to obtain a permanent resident card in Great Britain.

This anti-dirty money tide could sweep away all the oligarchs and “minigarchs”, the simple multimillionaires established in the West. Even Monaco, where 800 very wealthy Russians live, is considering freezing ill-gotten gains. In the Eye of the Storm, Dmitri Rybolovlev. Although he proclaims loud and clear not to be part of this camarilla, the Siberian, a former doctor, ticks all the boxes of the perfect oligarch. Commodities: he built a huge fortune in potash, in Perm, in the mid-1990s, taking advantage of privatizations. Football: he bought the AS Monaco club in 2011. And smell of sulfur: he spent eleven months in prison in Siberia for a contract murder, of which he was acquitted. Since then, Dmitri Rybolovlev has made headlines with his real estate purchases: a 2,000 square meter penthouse acquired for 235 million euros in Monaco; the island of Skorpios, former property of Onassis, in Greece, bought for 117 million euros; a pied-à-terre in Manhattan at 80 million euros. And we spare you the yacht, the Falcon, the Airbus A319 and the canvases of masters: Van Gogh, Gauguin… In his defense, Rybolovlev has little taste for Vladimir Poutine. He has not set foot in Russia since 2018. But he appears on the “Putin Accountability Act”, the list established, and released on January 19, by the American Congress to identify Russian personalities to be sanctioned because of their proximity with Moscow.

In fact, from Marbella to Courchevel, from Kensington to Monaco, anything that is written in Cyrillic and displays a bank account with seven, eight and especially nine digits is considered suspicious. However, many of these ultra-rich have anticipated by investing in agriculture and agribusiness at home, or by turning to eastern Russia and the Chinese market. In Shanghai or Beijing, Poutine’s popularity rating remains at its zenith, but the air is much less sweet and the scents less captivating than in Juan-les-Pins or in the bay of Saint-Tropez.

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