GOTCHA

An Arrest in France Freaks Out the Kremlin Kleptocracy

The ‘pocket oligarchs’ close to Putin might have thought they were beyond the reach of law in the south of France. The arrest of Suleiman Kerimov shows they’re not.

MOSCOW—He was one of Russia’s untouchables: the country’s 21st richest man, a senator in the upper chamber of parliament. He is part of the circle of businessmen known for their loyalty to President Vladimir Putin and the benefits they’ve reaped as a result, a billionaire member of Putin’s United Russia party who has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in important state projects to curry favor.

Such “pocket oligarchs” earn official status, even diplomatic immunity when they travel. And Suleiman Kerimov, 51, reportedly has a Russian diplomatic passport. But according to the Russian press, when he landed in France earlier this week he was on a private trip, and didn’t bring it.

Then, almost as soon he got off the plane in Nice, he got arrested for alleged tax evasion and money laundering. And the vision of Kerimov behind bars splashed in the Russian press shocked the country’s elite. Many of them, like Kerimov, have gotten used to keeping their fortunes, their luxury properties, their yachts, and indeed their families abroad.

Before this week they thought of the French Riviera, especially, as a safe haven where resorts like Cap d’Antibes, St. Jean-Cap Ferrat, and Beaulieu-sur-Mer are home to whole colonies of ultra-rich Russians.

In the past couple of years, amid rising tensions between Russia and the West, Kerimov tried his best to protect his name, freedom, and fortune both in France and Russia.

According to Russian regulations, the senator—who is worth some $6.3 billion in Forbes’ estimate—has no right to own any villas abroad. So Kerimov told Moscow he had none. In France, meanwhile, he insisted that he, himself, had no property and that the villas where he and his family lived for much of the year belonged in fact to his lawyer, a Swiss citizen.

French investigators did not buy the story and, suspecting a scam, searched his alleged properties repeatedly over the last several months, confiscating some of his wife’s jewelry and other valuable property.

Olga Proskurnina, who has been covering Russian business news as an independent observer since 1992, keeps a close eye on Kerimov and many other Russian businessmen and officials enjoying their lives in the south of France.

“Several thousand Russian millionaires and eight billionaires own properties in Monaco and on the French Riviera,” says Proskurnina. “Their real life is abroad, so they come to Russia just to make money, creating all sorts of schemes to cover up their true deals.”

Both liberal and conservative experts believe that Russians keep around $1 trillion abroad in offshore banks accounts.

“Kerimov’s case made many in the elite concerned, as he seemed to be safe with his Russian diplomatic immunity,” Proskurnina noted.

French authorities were convinced that Kerimov actually owned four huge villas totalling more than 90,000 square meters in France. If that is true, Kerimov may have to pay fines and back taxes amounting to millions of euros in the tax evasion case. But wait—then Moscow would find out that the senator had been lying about his property, and penalties of many kinds will accrue in Russia.

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In the future, Kerimov’s example probably will inspire other Russian residents in France to have their lawyers build even more sophisticated schemes for protection. But in the meantime Russian officials condemned the French government, calling Kerimov’s arrest “a planned provocation.”

Rizvan Kurbanov, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party voiced what everybody had on their mind: “Any of us could find ourselves in such situation.”

But Kerimov’s main employer, the Federal Assembly, was mostly quiet and waiting.

Amid the general consternation, conspiracy theories abound.

Some Moscow officials and experts spread more panic by talking about “dekulakization”: repression targeting Russian oligarchs in Europe. The melodramatic neologism alludes to the persecution of kulaks, or wealthy peasants, under Stalin’s ferocious collectivization programs in the 1930s.

The head of the Institute of Globalization, Mikhail Deliagin, suggests that Karimov’s arrest could mean the West has begun recruiting Russian oligarchs to prepare for a coup in Moscow. “We need to find out whether France recognizes the diplomatic immunity of citizens from other countries. I suspect that it does not,” he told the nakanune.ru news website. “It could be a rehearsal of dekulakilization of Russian oligarchs by the West, or part of pressure on oligarchs, so in the upcoming ‘Maidan’ [a Ukraine-style pro-European Union revolt] they would take the side of the West.”

In any case, the Riviera has not been a lucky place for the 51-year-old Karimov. In 2006 the billionaire almost died when he lost control of his Ferrari Enzo and crashed into a tree on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice.

Kerimov spent several months in a French hospital, and when he was released, the billionaire made a decision to invest more than $100 million in President Putin’s big project, the construction of a huge new mosque in downtown Moscow. At least that was the story told in Kerimov’s home republic of Dagestan, where most of the population is Muslim. People there also praised the billionaire for investing millions of dollars in stadiums and the Anji soccer team.

At the official ceremony for Moscow’s mosque opening in 2015, Kerimov was photographed next to President Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Russian Chief Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin.

“He had a powerful position, he was allowed everything,” ex-MP Gennady Gudkov told The Daily Beast in an interview. “I don’t remember him ever coming to work, not a single time.” French police took Karimov’s passport from him and barred him from leaving the country. The senator is now free on bail on the Côte d’Azur and likely to spend this winter, at least, in one of the world’s more beautiful resorts.

Gudkov, an ex-KGB officer as well as a Duma deputy, is now an outspoken opposition activist.

“A few years ago I had a tour of Monaco,” he said. “My friends showed me the house of the guy who had reconstructed Putin’s palace in Saint Petersburg—palaces, villas of United Russia members, yachts for billions of dollars,” Gudkov said.

“This elite has been supporting Putin for more than 17 years. They know all the secrets of political life, but their wives, their lovers, their beloved homes are on the warm beaches far from Russia, and they would hate to lose them.”