Russian oligarch gave Trump warm welcome from start
Business ties to real estate magnate based on trust
MOSCOW» In 2013, the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, arranged an extravagant party entrance for their guest, Donald Trump: an armored Mercedes stretch limo driving off a freight elevator right into a ballroom with 3,000 bedazzled Russian guests.
They were worried Trump’s security detail might spoil the surprise. Then Trump waved his team off.
“Don’t bother with them,” he said, Emin Agalarov, a pop singer, told The Washington Post last year in an interview. “I’m going where I want to go because I trust you.”
That trust has helped to draw Trump into the most punishing scandal of his six-month-old presidency, as revelations of a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 brokered through the Agalarovs have raised alarms about dealings by Trump aides and family members with Russian lobbyists, some with ties to government officials and intelligence services.
Aras Agalarov, the real estate magnate and amiable purveyor of high-end goods in all sizes and shapes, has emerged as a possible conduit from the Kremlin to Trump. He is a man who rose through the Moscow luxury, real estate and entertainment worlds by playing the role of consummate fixer and reliable executor, building political capital in the Moscow region, and increasingly in the Kremlin itself.
“Agalarov understands what service is. He understands that doing business is more than just sending the bill,” said Yves Gijrath, the founding director of the Amsterdam-based LXRY Media Group, who had dealings with him going back to 2005.
For years, Agalarov has built a reputation as an eager-to-please tycoon who helped bring bling to Russia, from the luxury footwear boutique he opened in 1991 on Moscow’s prestigious Stoleshnikov Lane, to the suburban estates and pristine golf courses he has built to satisfy the Madison Avenue aspirations of Russia’s hyper-wealthy.
A series of important government infrastructure projects, including a $1.2 billion university campus in Russia’s Far East and stadiums for the upcoming World Cup, have made him a trusted executor for the Kremlin, if not a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Agalarov, 61, was born in Baku, the capital of the then-soviet republic of Azerbaijan, and studied computer engineering before moving to Moscow. He started his career by selling bootleg films and by 1990 had moved on to organizing trade fairs. But if he had a vision for Russia, it was in the luxury market, which he said was immune to the economic downdrafts of the 1990s. As he once joked in a 2002 interview with the business newspaper Vedomosti: “The worse the country is doing, the better the luxury retail profits.”
Primarily through real estate, his wealth has blossomed to nearly $2 billion, according to Forbes, and his son Emin was married to the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan in 2006. (They divorced in 2015).
Long before Trump brought the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013, Agalarov was adept at charming foreign clients.
Gijrath came to Moscow in 2005 to pitch a Millionaire Fair, which Agalarov hosted at his then brandnew Crocus City complex, a luxury shopping center playground for Moscow’s rich and famous.
Gijrath gave an example of Agalarov’s hospitality: the fair was ground zero for Russia’s flourishing culture of conspicuous consumption, with diamond-encrusted cellphones, yachts, Turkmen stallions and entire islands for sale.
But even for a blowout dedicated to luxury, Gijrath found he had booked too much space. Over vodka shots at a posh Italian restaurant, Agalarov forgave him a more than $1 million obligation from the contract and offered to kick in on electricity costs.
The fair went forward, at an expo center Agalarov had built at Crocus City. In 2009, he opened a concert hall and the country’s only privately owned metro station nearby.
The huge complex is located just outside Moscow’s city limits.
“The mere possibility of a huge construction project in the Moscow region; construction of a private metro station — no one else has a private metro station — this all shows the level of his connections,” said Ilya Shumanov, the deputy director of Transparency International’s Russian office.