Ilya Zaslavskiy

Head of research of Free Russia Foundation, energy and political risks consultant

Monaco’s Minister of Justice implicated by Kremlin’s oligarch

The case of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev is a story of impunity both in Russia and in the West. This oligarch, who was connected with the Kremlin and Russian security services, got away with inflicting a major environmental catastrophe, and instead of facing any consequences, received billions of dollars from another well-connected oligarch as well as the opportunity to live on a supposedly clean slate in the West. He evidently took his corrosive business practices to his new places of residence, including Monaco, which, according to multiple reports, led to the undermining of local police and the resignation of a justice minister. The oligarch continues to enjoy connections with the Kremlin and, when necessary, safety in Moscow. Through these connections, he has effectively avoided facing any consequences for his actions vis-à-vis local law enforcement. This ongoing case is a testimony to the erosion of legal institutions in a key European location.

Dmitry Rybolovlev, former owner of the Russian potash empire Uralkali, was implicated in a major environmental catastrophe in the Perm region. Author Oliver Bullough visited the site of one of the catastrophes at Rybolovlev’s potash plants in Berezniki and noted in his latest book Money Land that the oligarch’s negligence of proper safety procedures at his salt mines led to large swaths of the city literally falling into huge sinkholes that formed above the mines (Oliver Bullough, Money Land: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How to Take It Back (Profile Books, 2018), pp. 219-220.)  Igor Sechin, then deputy head of presidential administration, reviewed the complicated case and, despite condemning evidence, absolved Rybolovlev of responsibility for any of the damages and allowed him to safely leave the country.

Rybolovlev’s companies did not fully provide even the modest compensation he initially agreed to in 2007-2009, but he did sell his stake in Uralkali to Suleyman Kerimov, another Kremlin-connected oligarch (see a separate case about him below), at a high price and depart safely for full time residence in Switzerland and Monaco (The main source in the West on all this has been this NYT article; key Russia source). With money taken out of Russia, Rybolovlev bought mind-bogglingly high-end properties in New York and around the world, expensive art, and football club in Monaco.

Since then, Rybolovlev has been trying to present himself as an independent businessman who cut his ties with Russia and the Kremlin, however, this effort has been a failure on multiple levels. First, the story of close connections between Rybolovlev and Sechin came up at a Congressional hearing last year. Secondly, Der Spiegel wrote in November 2018 that “rumors still circulate in Western intelligence circles today that Rybolovlev bought his way out from under the multibillion-dollar cloud hanging over him”. Thirdly, while Rybolovlev mostly lived in the West, a quick Google search shows that in 2016 he negotiated with Gennadiy Timchenko’s company Stroytransgaz regarding the lease for his property in central Moscow. This proves that Rybolovlev continues to have business relations with Kremlin insiders despite his claims that he permanently moved to the West for a new life.

For considerable time this claim has been taken at a face value by Rybolovlev’s interlocutors and counterparts in the West (especially those who engaged in various lucrative relations with him). In 2017, however, Prince Albert II of Monaco and a number of other high-ranking officials broke all contact with the billionaire. According to Journal du Dimanche, Rybolovlev, who invested 300 million euros in the development of his Monaco Football club, was declared persona non grata by the authorities. In September 2017, the Monaco Prosecutor’s Office initiated a lawsuit against Rybolovlev regarding the bribery of officials and high-ranking police officers. Rybolovlev and his immediate circle have allegedly put a lot of pressure on the investigative authorities and the police of Monaco. They attempted to send the detectives off course while they were investigating the case against the Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, who had sold about 40 paintings by famous artists to the billionaire at unreasonably inflated prices”.

At the heart of the complicated Monaco case lie claims and counterclaims about Rybolovlev’s art collection and whether or not his former art dealer, Yves Bouvier, swindled the Russian oligarch. The focus of the scandal then turned towards Rybolovlev himself, who Bouvier claimed used his political clout to coordinate attacks against the art dealer by law enforcement officials.

Monaco’s Justice Minister, Philippe Narmino, had to step down from his position because of this case, facing questions from prosecutors after it was alleged in the press that he might have received gifts from Rybolovlev while the Russian launched fraud claims against Bouvier. Bouvier and his associates presented evidence that they were illegally recorded as part of Rybolovlev’s campaign to prove that he had been defrauded by Bouvier. The dealer himself was arrested by police officers of the Monegasque security “just as he was setting foot in Monaco … This led to accusations against the Russian billionaire of having taken advantage of his relations with senior Monegasque officials, including the Minister of Justice Philippe Narmino, to arrest and charge Bouvier.”

The art dealer was arrested in February 2015 on his way to Rybolovlev’s villa. His lawyer contended that Rybolovlev and his lawyer took part in arranging the arrest. Media outlets published some of the hundreds of SMS messages leaked from the phone of Rybolovlev’s lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda, which were turned over to the investigative judge in charge of the case”. In these messages, Bersheda warns the Monegasque police of the arrival of Yves Bouvier to the Principality.

The Minister of State, head of Monaco’s government, was very reluctant and evasive with regard to the investigations into this matter and even suggested abridging them.  Nevertheless, the authorities of Monaco and other countries have attempted hold the culprits accountable and some disciplinary measures were taken against the police officers involved in helping Rybolovlev. This help was allegedly provided in exchange for high-end tickets to Monaco FC and other lavish perks emanating from Rybolovlev’s circle.

On January 8th, 2019, the Monaco revision court rejected Rybolovlev’s appeal against the use of his lawyer’s mobile phone by the Monegasque justice, who continues to suspect the oligarch and his lawyer of trading in influence and corruption. Following this decision, Rybolovlev’s lawyers suggested that they might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming breach of privacy and other misconduct on the part of the the investigators. This investigation is far from over and while it continues, the oligarch and his circle still enjoy a wide sphere of influence in the principality. On January 16th, Rybolovlev returned to Monaco with a plan to invest 55 million euros in sport infrastructure in the country, a feat that the Russian press took as “comeback” for the billionaire.

Whatever the outcome of this complicated investigation is, one thing is already clear. The Kremlin-backed conduct of the oligarch, who brought his business and legal practices from Russia to Monaco, led to the demise of a justice minister, but so far has had no real consequences either for him or his political and business interests in the West.

Photo by Pasquale Iovino

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