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In a German refuge, Oliarch Villas disputes a “silent contract”


ROTTACH-EGERN, Germany – Nestled in snow-capped mountains an hour’s drive south of Munich, the villages around the alpine lake of Tegernsee have for centuries been the playground of the super-rich – whether Bavarian kings, Russian tsars, Nazi elites or pop stars.

They were drawn not just by the pristine views, but also by the warm air of discretion that in recent years has made the area a favorite destination for Russian oligarchs.

“This valley has been a refuge not only for the wealthy, but also for the very opaque. It’s a long tradition,” said Martin Calsow, a German detective novelist, who lives in Tegernsee and sets many of his stories there. “We live on them, they are the source of our wealth, and as long as we don’t talk about them, everyone can prosper. It’s like a silent contract.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine – and sanctions targeting Russian elites in response – have stirred the calm waters of Tegernsee, convulsing the calm veneer with nagging questions about whether it’s still right to look the other way. sources of wealth for those in the region. hosted.

At least that is the intention of Thomas Tomaschek, a Green politician who sits on the council of Rottach-Egern, a village on the Tegernsee where prominent Russian oligarchs maintain their lakeside hideouts.

Mr. Tomaschek has done something unusual in these regions: challenge local complacency by pushing the federal government to seize or freeze assets — not an easy task given the financial shields that are so much a part of the lifestyle super rich than the fluorescent colored Lamborghinis. this speed on mountain roads.

“We have a moral problem here with these oligarchs,” Mr. Tomaschek said. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t make noise, it’s none of our business.’ Well, I think that’s our business.

He notably targeted Alisher Usmanov, a magnate of Uzbek origin and ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Usmanov made his fortune through metallurgical and mining operations and owns three villas on the lake.

Nearby is a sprawling hillside estate linked to Ivan Shabalov, a Russian pipeline magnate. No sanctions were imposed on him, but some wonder how he earned his billions, as his company works with Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom.

The doubts at Tegernsee reflect similar soul-searching at the national level. The decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia symbolized how politicians and businessmen have been forced to recognize that their motto of ‘change through trade’ has not moderated the ‘approaching Moscow, but rather compromised their own reputation.

But Tegernsee’s arguments show that despite the government’s shift in stance, some who have benefited from links with Moscow’s elite still seem determined to wait out the current furor and quietly get back to business as usual.

Mr Usmanov, who locals say visits at least three times a year, was staying in Tegernsee when he was added to the European Union sanctions list in February.

Nevertheless, his private jet was able to take off from Munich a few hours later. Airport officials told local media that the plane was registered with an Isle of Man company, not Mr Usmanov himself, and that none of the passengers had used any Russian passport.

“It shows that the authorities were sleeping,” Mr. Tomaschek said.

Mr Usmanov’s press team, in response to questions from The New York Times, said the properties in question had been transferred to a trust years ago in a “completely transparent and legal” manner. Mr. Usmanov had nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis and was not close to Mr. Putin, the team added.

“To demand the expropriation of someone else’s lawfully acquired property is legal nihilism in its purest form,” the press team said, noting that Rottach-Egern had “a special place in his heart. “.

Mr Tomaschek disagrees and compares Germany’s response unfavorably to that of Italy, where authorities have rolled out anti-mafia laws to relatively quickly identify and seize the yachts and villas of oligarchs.

In recent weeks, Germany has tried to consolidate its legal framework, under the leadership of a new working group. But that could still take months, which could give time to move or hide assets.

At the end of March, Mr. Tomaschek organized a demonstration in front of the Usmanov villas. Some 300 people showed up, shocking many in the usually sleepy Bavarian quarter.

“You are not demonstrating in Tegernsee. It takes a lot, a lot indeed,” said Josef Bogner, owner of Voitlhof, an upscale Bavarian restaurant in Rottach-Egern.

“It has something to do with these mountains,” he added. “Your view of the world is narrow.”

The mayor of Rottach-Egern tried to dissuade Mr Tomaschek from organizing the demonstration, calling it a “witch hunt”, a phrase he repeated on television. The plan was also not popular with other council members – one of whom worked as an architect for Mr Usmanov.

Since then, Mr Tomaschek said he had regularly received hate mail and angry phone calls, and had been accused of being a troublemaker or a “pig Nazi”.

The same goes for Christina Häussinger, editor-in-chief of the Tegernseerstimme, a local newspaper. As she wandered the streets trying to interview locals on a recent afternoon, many declined. “You bring shame and trouble here,” grumbled one man.

Ms. Häussinger’s diary regularly investigates the properties of oligarchs and other super-rich residents.

“We live in an idyll, which most people here only want to affirm, not question,” she said.

One reader who dislikes his articles is Andreas Kitzerow, a local craftsman who renovates Usmanov villas.

“I find it outrageous. He’s always been reserved and he has nothing to do with the war, as far as I know,” Mr. Kitzerow said of Mr. Usmanov. ‘he knows Putin or because he’s Russian, they can do it. You shouldn’t be judgmental.

Mr Kitzerow said he and other workers owed around $1 million for work the oligarch cannot pay now because of the sanctions.

Tegernsee’s roots as a glamorous getaway began with Bavarian King Maximilian I Josef. He invited Tsar Nicholas I of Russia to visit in 1837.

It was also a favorite of SS officer Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff and liaison to Hitler, who often hosted guests there. The property used to entertain Nazi elites is the villa that would be Mr Usmanov’s favorite today.

The international superrich arrived in the 2000s, with the opening of Hotel Überfahrt, a “five star plus” lakeside hotel with a golden fountain.

Mr Usmanov, a former competitive fencer, reportedly asked waiters to open bottles of champagne with sabers at parties he hosted there.

Some locals say critics like Ms Häussinger represent a silent majority ignored by politicians and businessmen who profit even as locals are driven away by ever-higher prices.

A few weeks after Mr. Usmanov left Tegernsee, two of his neighbors noticed a pair of luxury cars in the parking lot of a building where Mr. Usmanov’s bodyguards lived.

Residents asked not to be identified as they feared reprisals. But they said they had repeatedly asked authorities to check the vehicles in case they could be seized under sanctions.

After a reporter caught wind and published photos of the cars, they disappeared. Neighbors of Mr Usmanov said they saw one of the bodyguards flee with the vehicles.

Even if investigators had tried to seize the cars, they might have struggled. Assets deemed to belong to Mr. Usmanov and Mr. Shabalov – as is often the case with the super-rich – are difficult to trace through shell companies and relatives who own them on paper.

Germany’s current laws don’t help: not all asset tracking authorities have access to the country’s transparency register. It is also not clear, in many cases, which government agency is responsible for what.

“Germany has really fallen behind on these laws internationally,” said Konrad Duffy, an official with the independent watchdog Finanzwende. “And the only explanation for that is the feeling here that as long as it’s good for us, it’s good for Germany.”

As the war in Ukraine drags on, the villas on Tegernsee remain closed and untouched. Some worry that the momentum for action is running out of steam because that’s how local leaders like it.

Mr. Tomaschek is not planning any more demonstrations. “We sent a message,” he said. “We did what we could. Now the state must act.

Ny

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