Ea­ger-to-please ty­coon drives Trump’s Rus­sia con­nec­tion

Aras Agalarov has built po­lit­i­cal capital in Moscow and the Krem­lin it­self through the lux­ury, real es­tate and en­ter­tain­ment worlds

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY AN­DREW ROTH an­drew.roth@wash­post.com

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 busi­ness 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 brand-new 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 di­a­mon­den­crusted 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, close to the of­fices of the Moscow re­gional gov­ern­ment, where Agalarov forged a close al­liance with Boris Gro­mov, the pow­er­ful re­gional gov­er­nor un­til 2012.

“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.

Now the re­gion, which en­com­passes the towns and cities sur­round­ing Moscow proper, is the seat of power of Gov. An­drei Vorobyov, who pre­vi­ously served as an aide to Sergei Shoigu, his pre­de­ces­sor as gov­er­nor and cur­rently Rus­sia’s de­fense min­is­ter. Along with Yuri Chaika, Rus­sia’s pros­e­cu­tor gen­eral since 2006, the of­fi­cials are seen as an im­por­tant in­ter­est group within Rus­sian pol­i­tics, Shu­manov said.

They reg­u­larly cross paths with Agalarov. Vorobyov cut the rib­bon at the open­ing of Agalarov’s Ve­gas con­cert hall in the city of Krasno­gorsk last year, and Agalarov wrote a sharply worded de­fense of Chaika in the news­pa­per Kom­m­er­sant af­ter a 2015 cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tion by the op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny.

“A lie told a thou­sand times be­comes truth,” Agalarov wrote acidly, not­ing that he was quot­ing Nazi pro­pa­ganda min­is­ter Joseph Goebbels. “I don’t want to draw any par­al­lels. But let’s think about that.”

De­spite hav­ing strong re­gional con­nec­tions, Agalarov was still seen as a mi­nor player in the Krem­lin com­pared with the heavy­weights who dom­i­nate Putin’s in­ner cir­cle. “We’re talk­ing about some­one sev­eral steps lower than them,” Shu­manov said.

A break­through came in 2009, when the Krem­lin had a par­tic­u­larly thorny prob­lem to solve: con­struc­tion of a sprawl­ing, 70build­ing university cam­pus on the all-but-aban­doned Russky Is­land on Rus­sia’s Pa­cific Coast, where Putin was to hold a sum­mit for 21 coun­tries at the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion meet­ing.

Igor Shu­valov, then first deputy to Putin as prime min­is­ter, sum­moned Agalarov to dis­cuss the project.

“It wasn’t like I said no and then they forced me to do it, but it was a very dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion,” Agalarov said in a 2013 ra­dio in­ter­view on Ekho Moskvy. “If I take this project on and don’t de­liver, I would have let down first of all my­self, but also the coun­try, the pres­i­dent, the prime min­is­ter, and so forth.”

The Krem­lin ex­pects the coun­try’s wealth­i­est busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives to take on, when asked, large-scale in­fra­struc­ture projects, some­times at a loss, to sup­ple­ment the bud­get and pro­mote Rus­sia’s na­tional in­ter­ests. The for­tunes of Rus­sia’s rich can rise and fall pre­cip­i­tously based on the out­come of these prestige projects.

Agalarov’s work in the Far East earned him an Or­der of Honor at a Krem­lin cer­e­mony, be­stowed by Putin him­self in 2012. That year, Shu­valov and Vladimir Kozhin, a se­nior Krem­lin of­fi­cial, at­tended a 10th an­niver­sary party held at Cro­cus City.

Soon there were more re­quests. In 2014, Agalarov signed on to save two trou­bled foot­ball sta­di­ums, in Kalin­ingrad and the south­ern Rus­sian city of Ros­tov, for the 2018 World Cup, as well as a 30-mile stretch of a new Moscow belt­way.

“At the very top level, these kinds of re­la­tion­ships can be give and take,” said a Moscow in­vest­ment man­ager in­volved in the real es­tate mar­ket who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to pro­tect his pro­fes­sional re­la­tion­ships. “But even with the added risk and pos­si­ble losses, you can make up for it in in­flu­ence and con­nec­tions.”

One ex­am­ple of the give was a “strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion agree­ment” an­nounced in 2013 with the state-run Sber­bank to fi­nance a $3 bil­lion Cro­cus Group de­vel­op­ment, pos­si­bly in­clud­ing a Trump Tower.

Agalarov also sought to bring Trump and Putin to­gether. In last year’s in­ter­view, Agalarov told The Post that he se­cured a pre­lim­i­nary agree­ment to or­ga­nize a Krem­lin meet­ing with Trump when he vis­ited in 2013. When Putin can­celed at the last minute, Agalarov took his case to the head of the Krem­lin pro­to­col de­part­ment.

“You know what? I’m in a very com­pli­cated sit­u­a­tion. Could you tell him that your­self?” Agalarov asked the bu­reau­crat, he re­counted in his 2016 in­ter­view. His ef­forts pro­duced a hand­writ­ten note from Putin and a tra­di­tional lac­quered box, gifts that Trump hap­pily ac­cepted.

Those con­tacts put Agalarov in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion af­ter Trump’s un­ex­pected, and ap­par­ently Rus­sian-backed, rise to the pres­i­dency of the United States.

Ac­cord­ing to emails re­leased by Don­ald Trump Jr., it was Chaika who pro­posed pro­vid­ing Agalarov’s friend, Trump, with dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Hil­lary Clin­ton.

The con­tact with the younger Trump was made by Rob Gold­stone, a Bri­tish mu­sic pro­moter who had worked with Emin Agalarov. “This is ob­vi­ously very high-level and sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion but is part of Rus­sia and its gov­ern­ment’s sup­port for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin,” ac­cord­ing to Gold­stone’s email to Trump Jr. propos­ing the meet­ing.

Through spokes­men, the Agalarovs have de­nied Gold­stone’s ver­sion of the story, say­ing they were asked only to bro­ker a meet­ing.

Whether Chaika ini­ti­ated that project him­self has be­come a mat­ter of de­bate. Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya, the lawyer sent to the meet­ing in New York, ap­par­ently fo­cused pri­mar­ily on lob­by­ing Trump Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kush­ner and cam­paign chief Paul Manafort about U.S. sanc­tions against Rus­sian of­fi­cials un­der the Mag­nit­sky Act.

“I read this as a free­lanc­ing project by Agalarov Sr. and maybe Chaika to do a fa­vor to the Krem­lin on two fronts: pos­si­bly harm or kill the Mag­nit­sky Act and es­tab­lish a spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with the Trump cam­paign,” said a for­mer Rus­sian gov­ern­ment ad­viser, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to speak can­didly about the case. Agalarov would prob­a­bly have been in con­tact with the Krem­lin, he added, but “the Krem­lin may sim­ply have been ob­serv­ing where all this would go and main­tain­ing plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity.”

The use of Gold­stone as a con­duit to Trump Jr. sug­gests that this was not seen as an es­pe­cially sen­si­tive mis­sion, said Mark Galleotti, a spe­cial­ist on the Rus­sian armed forces and in­tel­li­gence es­tab­lish­ment. It meant there “would be an email chain a mile long, and you know it’s not go­ing to be kept quiet or se­cret,” he said.

While the meet­ing be­tween Trump Jr. and Ve­sel­nit­skaya ap­peared to pro­duce few con­crete re­sults, that does not mean that the Krem­lin came away emp­ty­handed.

“The net re­sult of the whole thing was that Moscow learned that Trump’s in­ner cir­cle was re­cep­tive to Rus­sia’s ef­forts to put down Clin­ton and would likely co­op­er­ate,” the for­mer gov­ern­ment ad­viser said, “which is es­sen­tially a com­pro­mis­ing sit­u­a­tion for Trump.”

Gi­jrath, the Mil­lion­aire Fair or­ga­nizer, had a dif­fer­ent take: “I think the truth is much fun­nier than peo­ple think. This is how Trump does busi­ness. This is how Rus­sia does busi­ness. I think this is also how Agalarov does busi­ness. You have to keep the lines open, not to agree on ev­ery­thing ev­ery day, but do busi­ness with each other, help each other, work to­gether.” Michael Birn­baum con­trib­uted to this re­port.

IRINA BUJOR/KOM­M­ER­SANT PHOTO VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

From left, Rus­sian oli­garch Aras Agalarov, Miss Uni­verse 2013 Gabriela Isler and pageant owner Don­ald Trump are shown dur­ing the fes­tiv­i­ties in Moscow in Novem­ber 2013. Agalarov has emerged as a pos­si­ble con­duit from the Krem­lin to the U.S. pres­i­dent.

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