Oligarch Villas challenges ‘contract of silence’ in German hideout

ROTTACH-EGERN, GERMANY — Nestled among the snow-capped mountains an hour’s drive south of Munich, the village of Tegernsee around the alpine lake has, for centuries, been a super-rich town: the king of Bavaria, the Russian emperor, the Nazi elite or pop star. It was their playground.

They are drawn not only by their pristine views, but also by their cozy discretion, which in recent years has made the region a favorite destination for Russian oligarchs.

“This valley was a haven for the rich as well as the very opaque. It’s a long tradition,” said German crime writer Martin Calsow. “We feed on them, they are the source of our wealth, and unless we mention it, everyone can prosper. It’s like signing a contract silently,” he said.

But Russia’s war in Ukraine and its response to sanctions against the Russian elite have shaken the calm waters of Tegernze, and a serene veil is raised with a serene question as to whether it is no longer the right thing to look the other way at the source of the region’s wealth. turned upside down. Hosted.

At least that’s the intention of Thomas Tomaschek, a Green Party politician belonging to the council of Rottach-Egern, a town in Tegernsee where several prominent Russian oligarchs maintain a lakeside hideaway.

Mr. Tomachek has done an unusual job in this area. It challenges local complacency by forcing the federal government to seize or freeze assets. It’s not an easy task given the financial protections that are as part of a super-rich lifestyle as a neon-colored Lamborghini. The speed of running on a mountain road.

“These oligarchs have a moral problem,” said Tomashek. “A lot of people say to me, ‘Don’t make a fuss. It’s not our job,’ he says. Well, I think that’s our job.”

He specifically targeted Alisher Usmanov, a Uzbek-born tycoon and ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Usmanov amassed his fortune through metal and mining and owns three villas on the lake.

Nearby is a huge hillside site connected to Russian pipeline tycoon Ivan Shabalov. He didn’t sanction him, but some question how he earned his billions of dollars because his company works with the Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom.

Tegernsee’s suspicions reflect a search for similar souls at the national level. The decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia led politicians and businesspeople to acknowledge that the motto “change through trade” did not soften Moscow’s approach, but rather damaged its reputation. It symbolizes the inevitable.

But Tegernsee’s argument shows that, despite the government’s change of position, some who have benefited from ties with the Moscow elite are still waiting for their current wrath and seemingly intent on quietly reopening business as usual.

According to locals, Mr. Usmanov, who visited more than three times a year, was staying in Tegernsee when he was added to the EU sanctions list in February.

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

“It shows that the authorities are sleeping,” said Tomashek.

Usmanov’s media team, in response to a New York Times question, said the property in question had been transferred to the trust many years ago in a “completely transparent and legal” way. Usmanov had nothing to do with the situation in Ukraine and was not close to Putin, the team added.

The media team noted that Rottach-Egern had “a special place in his heart” and said that “a request to confiscate property that was legally acquired by another person is the purest form of legal nihilism.”

Mr. Tomachek disagrees and compares Germany’s response against Italy’s. In Italy, authorities have deployed anti-mafia laws to relatively quickly identify and seize oligarch yachts and villas.

In recent weeks, Germany has been working to strengthen its legal framework, led by a new task force. However, it can still take months to give you time to move or hide assets.

At the end of March, Mr. Tomaschek organized a protest outside the villa of Usmanov. About 300 people showed up, shocking many of the normally sleepy people in the Bavaria region.

“You do not protest at Tegernze. It takes a lot of time.” Said Josef Bogner, owner of the upscale Bavarian restaurant Voitlhof in Rottach-Egern.

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

Mayor Rottach-Egern tried to persuade Tomaschek by calling the protests a “witch hunt.” He repeated this phrase on television. The plan was also unpopular with the rest of the committee. One of them worked as an architect for Mr. Usmanov.

Since then, Thomas Shack said he received regular hate mail and angry phone calls, and was accused of being a troublemaker or a “Nazi pig.”

The same goes for Christina Häussinger, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Tegernseerstimme. Many refused when she recently walked down the street one afternoon to interview her locals. A man grumbled.

Häussinger’s newspaper regularly examines the wealth of oligarchs and other super-rich residents.

“We live in an idyll that most people who live here want to check without questioning,” she said.

A reader who doesn’t like her article is Andreas Kitzrow, a local artisan renovating a Usmanov villa.

“I just think it’s absurd. He has always been reserved and has nothing to do with war in any way as far as I can tell,” Kizerow said of Usmanov. “But they think he can do this because he knows Putin or because he is Russian. You must not judge.”

Kitzrow said he and other workers owe about $1 million for work that oligarchs are currently unable to pay because of sanctions.

Tegernsee’s roots as a charming resort began with King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria. He invited the Russian emperor Nicholas I in 1837.

It was also a favorite of the SS officer Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff and Hitler’s liaison, where he often entertained guests. Used to host the Nazi elite, the building is today Mr. It is said to be Usmanov’s favorite cottage.

The world-class super-rich arrived in the 2000s, when the Hotel Überfahrt, a “five-star plus” hotel on the lakefront with its gold fountain, opened.

A former fencer, Mr. At a party he hosted there, locals say Usmanov asked a waiter to open a bottle of champagne with a saber on it.

Some residents say critics like Häussinger represent a silent majority ignored by politicians and business people.

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

Residents have requested that their identities not be disclosed for fear of reprisal. But they said they had repeatedly asked officials to identify vehicles that could be confiscated under the sanctions.

After a reporter hit the wind and posted pictures of the car, they disappeared. Neighbors of Mr. Usmanov said they witnessed one of the bodyguards fleeing with the vehicle.

It would have been difficult even if the investigators tried to confiscate the car. The assets known to be owned by Usmanov and Shabalov are difficult to trace through the shell companies and relatives who own the assets on paper, as is the case with the superrich.

Current German law does not help. Not all authorities responsible for tracking assets have access to Germany’s Transparency Register. Also, in many cases it is not clear which government agency is responsible for what.

“Germany really lags behind these laws on an international level,” said Konrad Duffy, manager of Finanzwende, an independent watchdog. “And the only explanation for that is the feeling that as long as it’s good for us, it’s good for Germany too.”

As the war in Ukraine continues, the Tegernsee villa is closed and left untouched. Some concerns are flagging because the momentum to act is the way local leaders like it.

Mr. Tomashek is no longer planning protests. “We sent a message,” he said. “We did what we could. Now the state has to step in.”

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