‘You Don’t Kill a Story by Killing a Journalist’
Three years ago today, Corinne Vella received a call that would forever change her family, her life, and even her homeland, the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
Seven kilometers west of Moscow along the Rublyevo-Uspenskoye Highway, a three-meter-high green metal fence cuts through the cool pine forest. Behind the fence lies Mayendorf Gardens, a subdivision in the exclusive and secretive Rublevka community that is home to Forbes millionaires, State Duma deputies, and high-ranking public officials.
One of the homeowners is Leyla Aliyeva, the elder daughter of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, who is listed in various records as either 30 or 31 years old. Experts told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) her property is probably worth tens of millions of given that the median value of current houses for sale in the settlement is US$ 37 million.
OCCRP has been tracking the first family’s wealth and the Dacha is just one of the many luxury mansions the Aliyevs own around the world despite Ilham Aliyev having only served as a public servant during most of his life.
Rublyevo-Uspenskoye Highway is the impeccably maintained road that President Vladimir Putin takes every day as he is whisked from his residence to his Kremlin office.
When Putin is on the road, other drivers must cool their heels, while his car zips past surrounded by black security cars with flashers.
Those who aren’t the president can expect to endure heavy traffic, generally featuring a black Mercedes or white Lexus roaring up from behind and honking to get by. When they do overtake, the impatient drivers may bestow some choice words on slower vehicles.
On a trip to Mayendorf Gardens, a reporter for OCCRP was called a number of things by the speeding drivers, the most printable being “silly fool!” and “filth!”
Mayendorf Gardens was built on the grounds of the former Soviet health resort Barvikha that was in the state’s hands until 2001. According to real estate agents, the landscape of the gated community features lakes and hills that evoke Alpine views.
It is just a few minutes’ walk from the Chateau Mayendorf – a restored family estate which Putin likes to use for formal occasions. It’s handy for him – his official residence, Novo-Ogaryovo, is just a few minutes’ drive from Mayendorf Chateau, a turn-of-the-century castle from which the area gets its name.
According to documents obtained by OCCRP, Leyla Aliyeva obtained a property in the posh gated community in May 2006 – right after she married Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop singer and entrepreneur of Azerbaijani origin who is also the son of a major Moscow developer. The couple announced they are divorcing in May of this year.
While the Barvikha area was popular among the Soviet elite as far back as the Stalin years, the early years of this century saw an explosion of a new kind of exclusive enclave along Rublyevo-Uspenskoye Highway, an area referred to as Rublevka.
The are plenty of them: Zhukovka, Barvikha, Gorky… One of the Barvikha houses, in fact, this year made a list of the 15 most expensive rental properties in the world. Rublevka became for Russian citizens a symbol of wealth and elitism, but elitism of a special kind. People believe such extremely expensive properties are out of reach for people earning an honest living. And the building of three-meter fences seems to support that perception.
At first, average people tried to peer under the fences, and books and movies about life in Rublevka were popular. But over time the public has become inured to such luxury, and few now seem surprised that such homes cost tens of millions of dollars.
Rublevka may even have lost a bit of its luster, as wealthy people now have properties on the Cote d’Azur or in Miami. “A lot of houses stay empty for years: some owners got divorced, some moved abroad. Rublevka hasn’t been selling well lately. But the prices have not come down so far,” says real estate consultant Natalya Orekhova.
The land Aliyeva bought covers 7,660 square meters (about 2 acres) and is surrounded by pine trees, with a small lake nearby. Without an invitation, it’s nearly impossible to take a look at Aliyeva’s house, since privacy is so highly valued by the community’s residents.
The privacy perimeter begins far from the elaborate houses. From the checkpoint at the security gatehouse, it is only possible to glimpse a neat asphalt road leading deep into the forest. Trespassers can’t get more than a couple of steps beyond the barrier before being intercepted by security guards.
According to one of the guards, even taking photos is prohibited. “Even if you are an invited guest, neighbors will rat you out by informing the security that you have taken pictures. Then we will take a look at your telephone to make sure no photos of the community remain,” says the security guard.
Some details can be gleaned from the documents. Aliyeva’s property includes two buildings – a large residential house of 577 square meters and a slightly larger outbuilding of 581 square meters. It is difficult to accurately estimate the value of the property, as most of the sites were purchased in the early years of this century.
However, one of Aliyeva’s neighbors, Ruslan Baysarov (ranked 103 in the list of wealthy Russians compiled by the Russian edition of Forbes Magazine) about two years ago mortgaged his property in the gated community for almost US$ 40 million. Real estate ads found on realtors’ websites list similar purchase prices for the area ranging from US$19 million to upwards of US$73 million.
Besides Baysarov (a close friend of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov), Aliyeva’s neighbors include Alexey Bogdanchikov, the son of the former president of Rosneft, the biggest Russian oil company; Vladimir Lisin, a metals tycoon who is ranked 8th in the Forbes list; banker Olga Belyavtseva, (ranked 2nd in the Forbes’ Women’s List), and several State Duma Deputies.
In 2014 a number of media outlets reported that ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych bought a property in Mayendorf Gardens. OCCRP has obtained documents on all the land plots in the gated community, but neither Yanukovych’s name, nor the names of any of his known associates, are listed as owners.
However, it should be noted that some owners try hard to obscure their names. Several pieces of property here are registered by offshore companies from several jurisdictions which lead to British Virgin Islands or Panama.