Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Guardian/Shaun Walker: The Trumps of Russia? How billionaire Agalarov family ended up in the spotlight

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The Trumps of Russia? How billionaire Agalarov family ended up in the spotlight

Aras Agalarov and his pop singer son Emin have known the Trumps for years. Now the Donald Jr email scandal has put them in an unwanted spotlight


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Shaun Walker in Moscow

Saturday 15 July 2017 07.00 BST
Last modified on Saturday 15 July 2017 13.16 BST

He’s a billionaire construction magnate who likes shiny and expensive things and built a luxury tower block adorned with his own name: it’s not surprising that people have referred to Aras Agalarov as the Russian Trump.

Agalarov and his pop singer son Emin have known the Trump family for years, and emails released this week by Donald Trump Jr suggest the Agalarovs may have been a conduit for Russian efforts to help the Trump camp.
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The emails, from Emin Agalarov’s publicist Rob Goldstone to Trump Jr, suggest Aras Agalarov had been given “high level and sensitive information” from Russia’s top prosecutor, that he wanted to pass on to the Trump campaign as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump”.

The explosive email chain, tweeted earlier this week by Trump Jr, puts Agalarov and his son firmly at the centre of the Russia scandal around the Trump presidency.

Where Agalarov differs from Trump, however, is that he is publicity shy and rarely seeks the limelight, a feature of the delicate political climate for Russia’s super-rich, in which excess spending is acceptable only if done away from the media glare.

“Aras is a very careful, shrewd operator, and he will be absolutely horrified that his name has been dragged into this,” said one source in Moscow who knows the Agalarovs.

Aras Agalarov was born in Azerbaijan (then part of the Soviet Union), but moved to Moscow and began his business in the way that many who would go on to become billionaires did – with barter deals and small trades. Later, he moved into computers and eventually launched a chain of luxury clothing and shoe shops, which would in time become the Crocus empire.

    Aras is a very careful, shrewd operator, and he will be absolutely horrified that his name has been dragged into this

In the mid-1990s, he built Agalarov House in central Moscow, an elite residential tower. With just 34 apartments, it wasn’t quite Trump Tower, but it was one of the first luxury blocks in central Moscow.

In the 2000s he set up the Crocus complex just outside Moscow, which included luxury shops, a major concert venue, and an exhibition space, which among other events hosted an annual “Millionaire’s fair” selling luxury goods such as diamond-encrusted mobile phones to the super-rich.

Emin and his sister were educated in the US, but Emin returned to help his father with the business. The Agalarovs had all the trappings of the Russian oligarch class: Aras travels in a Gulfstream private jet that he told the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda he paid $44m for.

The Agalarovs bought the Moscow franchise for Robert de Niro’s Nobu restaurant chain, opening a branch in the centre of the capital in 2009. The upmarket Japanese restaurant, done out in sleek wood, became a hub for the Agalarovs. If Aras had business to do, he would conduct his talks in a private room. When Emin came in with models or socialites, he would sit at a table in the centre of the restaurant.
Emin Agalarov performs in Russia.
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Emin Agalarov performs in Russia. Photograph: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

In the few interviews Agalarov has given over the years, he has studiously avoided political statements, but has not tried to hide his Trumpian sense of self-worth. “If people tell me that someone is amazing and has achieved loads, I tend to think that if I was in his place, I would have achieved even more,” he told one interviewer.

Emin Agalarov is vice-president of his father’s company and takes a day-to-day role in the business, but also has a music career on the side. Although he has good looks and a reasonable voice, there is a suspicion that his career may not have taken off had he not had a billionaire father behind him. Many of his concerts are either in Azerbaijan – where he was married to president’s daughter until they divorced a few years ago – or in Crocus Hall, owned by his father.
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One theory is that the reason Aras Agalarov paid to host the Miss Universe pageant in November 2013 was so that he could have Emin perform at the ceremony, giving him one of the biggest stages of his career.

Miss Universe was also the highest profile interaction between Trump and the Agalarovs. Emin and Aras met Trump in Las Vegas to seal the contract, and Trump flew to Moscow for the contest.

It was during this trip that a controversial dossier compiled by former MI6 spy Christopher Steele alleges the future president was filmed by Russian intelligence with prostitutes in the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Trump has denied the claims and they have not been verified. Trump did find time during the trip to take part in filming at the hotel for an Emin music video.

When the scandalous Steele dossier broke, Emin wrote on Instagram: “While the world tries to figure out what Donald Trump was doing in a hotel in Moscow during Miss Universe – I actually know because he was filming my music video ‘In Another Life’! At 7.00 am!”
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The video features Emin dreaming about being surrounded by bikini-clad Miss Universe contestants, before he wakes up to be lectured by Trump and be told: “You’re fired”.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the short 2013 Moscow visit was that the Agalarovs were cemented as friends and confidants of Trump.

After returning to the US, Trump wrote on Twitter:

    Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

    @AgalarovAras I had a great weekend with you and your family. You have done a FANTASTIC job. TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next. EMIN was WOW!
    November 11, 2013

Aras Agalarov is not a member of Putin’s inner circle, but like all Russian billionaires who want to keep on the good side of the Kremlin, he contributes to government project when asked. Analyst Mark Galeotti has called the Russian system an “adhocracy”, where proximity to power and personal contacts matter more than formal titles.

Given that the Russian elite knew of the excellent relations between the Agalarovs and the Trumps, it is highly plausible that they were seen as the best conduit for passing along information. More curious is why Aras and Emin would have picked Goldstone as their intermediary for such a sensitive task.

Goldstone, a former British tabloid journalist and music producer, was well known in Moscow circles as a wheeler dealer and socialite. “He’s a funny guy, good sense of humour and quite self-mocking. He’s a small-time guy, though, he’s clearly way out of his depth in major politics,” said a Moscow source who knows Goldstone.
Aras Agalarov with his son, singer Emin, and publicist Rob Goldstone in Las Vegas.
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Aras Agalarov with his son, singer Emin, and publicist Rob Goldstone in Las Vegas. Photograph: Steve Marcus/Reuters

Certainly, laying out the alleged Russian conspiracy in an open email to Trump Jr, and then checking in at Trump Tower on Facebook ahead of the meeting itself, suggests Goldstone may require some training in the finer points of international conspiracy.
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Earlier this week, Aras Agalarov said in a radio interview that he did not know Goldstone, though he conceded he was aware that the British publicist had done work for Emin.

But Moscow insiders said Goldstone was a frequent fixture around the Agalarovs and it was likely Aras knew who he was.

“I have seen them both at many of the same parties and Goldstone was always hanging around Emin – of course Aras knows him,” said one Moscow source. Another source who is acquainted with Agalarov said it was “highly unlikely” the pair did not know each other, given they were frequently in the same company.

When he hired Goldstone, Emin is said to have given him the task of breaking him out on the international market. Goldstone had limited success in making Emin known for his pop ballads, but with his careless emails, he has given the Agalarovs a kind of international exposure that they certainly did not want.
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