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CORRUPTION

Our man in Miami. Pro-Putin Russian billionaire accused of meddling in U.S. elections evades sanctions, moves family to America

Aras Agalarov, one of Russia's wealthiest people, publicly supports Putin's lifelong presidency. He has secured billion-dollar government contracts from the Kremlin without competition, collaborated with the United Russia party, and even got involved in a scandal related to meddling in U.S. elections. Surprisingly, he has yet to be included in Western sanction lists. Moreover, the oligarch's wife and daughter have become U.S. citizens and now reside in Miami.

He partied with Donald Trump at the Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas and arranged a notorious meeting between the real estate mogul’s presidential team and a sanctions-busting Russian lawyer. But for Russian-Azerbaijani billionaire Aras Agalarov, his admiration for the now serially-indicted former U.S. president pales in comparison to his fondness for Vladimir Putin. “I genuinely believe that for Russia, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the ideal option,” Agalarov said ten years ago. “If he agreed to a lifelong presidency, I would only welcome it.”

According to documents obtained by The Insider last year, Agalarov, the owner of the Russian development firm Crocus Group, has himself escaped U.S. sanctions following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. In June 2022, about four months after the war started, he legally transferred the deed to his $4.3 million apartment on Fisher Island in Miami to his wife, Irina Agalarova. Their daughter Sheila also resides there, documents show. The condominium apartment, located at 7600 Fisher Island Drive, has three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms, according to dated real estate listings. Irina and Sheila both have American citizenship and are registered to vote: Irina as a Republican and Sheila as a Democrat.

Fisher Island is reserved for the wealthiest people in America, as attested by the fact that it is home to the highest per capita income in the country, with a total population of 561. It’s also a floating private community, with access possible only by private boat, helicopter, or ferry.

In addition, Agalarov's acquisitions of other real estate properties in the U.S., such as a mansion in Alpine, New Jersey, were previously reported. He sold the mansion in 2017 for $5.8 million, following intense public scrutiny into his association with Trump.

The Agalarov family has special interest in American politics. They found themselves entangled in the investigation concerning Russia’s well-documented interference in the 2016 American presidential elections meant to, at most, hinder Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's chances of winning or, at least, diminish her victory. As The Insider was the first news outlet to report, Russian military intelligence (GRU) hackers from units 26165 and 74455, collectively dubbed Fancy Bear by Western cybersecurity experts, breached the servers of the National Democratic Committee and Clinton’s campaign chief John Podesta. Fancy Bear then leaked the hacked email correspondence through Julian Assange’s group WikiLeaks.

Yet, as U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller found in his report on the interference scheme, another episode involved a meeting between Trump’s campaign team, including its then-chair Paul Manafort and the candidate’s son Donald Trump Jr., and Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was said to have compromising material on Clinton. In reality, Veselnitksaya represented Russian defendants embroiled in a civil asset forfeiture case in New York’s Southern District involving money allegedly stolen from Russian taxpayers in 2007 in the so-called Magnitsky affair, an encompassing criminal scheme, which a host of national legislatures, including U.S. Congress, have concluded involved accomplices from the Russian judiciary, tax ministries and Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor of the Soviet KGB. (Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax specialist who uncovered the scheme was himself arrested for the crime he exposed and then fatally tortured while in pretrial detention in Moscow.)

Veselnitskaya’s main client was Denis Katsyv, the owner of Prevezon Holdings Limited, a real estate firm, which U.S. prosecutors accused of laundering millions from the Magnitsky affair via the Manhattan real estate market. (The Prevezon case was settled in 2017 for $6 million in damages, triple the amount U.S. investigators traced from the stolen funds to the company’s coffers.)

In arranging the Trump Tower meeting, Rob Goldstone, a British publicist and friend of Agalarov’s son, Emin, a well-known pop star in Russia, described Veselnitskaya in an email to Donald Trump, Jr. as a “Russian government attorney” who had evidence that “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“Russian government attorney” turned out to be more accurate than even Goldstone knew at the time.

Within a year of that email to Donald Trump Jr., Veselnitskaya would be indicted by the same Southern District prosecuting her client for obstruction of justice. Among other things, federal prosecutors stated, Veselnitskaya “represented the supposed investigative findings by the Russian Government related to the Prevezon Action as independently drafted.” Veselnitskaya herself had a role in drafting them “ in secret cooperation with a senior Russian prosecutor,” according to the indictment. She has denied working with the Russian government and called the charges “absurd,” though she refuses to travel from her native Moscow to New York to stand trial.

Veselnitskaya’s closeness to the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office was no doubt facilitated by her client Katsyv’s personal ties to its former head, Yuri Chaika, himself a subject in numerous corruption scandals including those unearthed by imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Among Navalny’s findings is that Chaika’s family built an enormous business empire, with luxury properties all over Europe, and maintained a relationship with the Tsapok gang, one of the most infamous organized crime families in modern Russia.

Aras Agalarov was also well acquainted with Trump personally, and this connection predates the presidential campaign by a considerable period. Back in 2013, they were negotiating a business partnership in the construction sector and jointly organized beauty pageants (hence their escapade in Vegas). During the 2016 election campaign, Agalarov even presented Trump with a slew of expensive gifts, including a painting worth tens of thousands of dollars. Agalarov denies that he was acting on behalf of Putin in cozying up to Trump, but it’s unlikely that Trump was unaware of Agalarov’s influential contacts in the Kremlin, especially after his son was told that Veselnitskaya was actually a Russian government lawyer with dirt on Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it,” Donald Trump, Jr. emailed back to Goldstone.

Trump and Agalarov
Trump and Agalarov

Agalarov, too, seems to have taken an interest in deflecting criticism of Chaika, the disgraced ex-Prosecutor General. In 2015, he published a paid article in Russian newspaper Kommersant, defending Chaika after the exposé by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

Agalarov today remains one of the largest contractors for United Russia, Putin’s ruling party, which held its congresses at Agalarov's owned exhibition center, Crocus Expo. A catering company owned by his son Emin caters to and services the banquets of United Russia members.

Agalarov prefers to state that he doesn't receive government contracts but rather “fulfills assignments” from the country's leadership. This includes personal assignments from Putin himself, as evidenced by the photo of Putin displayed in the oligarch's office. He secures multi-billion-dollar state contracts without undergoing competitive procedures.

For instance, Agalarov was awarded contracts for constructing stadiums for the FIFA World Cup, projects for the Far Eastern Federal University, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, an anti-COVID hospital, and the Central Ring Road around Moscow. In 2021, Forbes estimated his fortune at $1.2 billion.

Quite recently, in August 2023, Agalarov's company Crocus International won another contract worth $105,015 from the Federal Customs Service for designing the Torugart border crossing point in the Kyrgyz Republic. Once again, the contract was awarded without a bidding process.

As noticed by The Insider, Agalarov's son, Emin, ostensibly secures contracts through formal bidding processes—except Emin wins whatever happens. Only two companies competed for the privilege of organizing a banquet for Moscow region officials worth $393,804: Backstage Catering LLC and Crocus Event LLC. Both companies are owned by the younger Agalarov.

Meanwhile, Emin’s father has been engaged in business ventures with the country's main defense corporation, Rostec. They co-own Techcity Development LLC on a 50/50 basis. This company was established two years ago to execute the Rostec-City project, a business complex with the headquarters of Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov situated on the territory of the Tushino Aerodrome in northwest Moscow.

Somehow, Aras Agalarov leads a charmed life in the United States – or at least his wife and daughter continue to do. Despite working on behalf of the Kremlin and its military-industrial complex, and being implicated in Russia’s undermining of a U.S. presidential election, he has yet to be included in any sanctions designation by the Treasury Department.


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