Russia's Super Rich Feel at Home on Sardinia
By Francesca Mereu
Sergei Velichkin / Itar-Tass
Berlusconi showing Putin around his 50-hectare property in August 2003. Putin's daughters had been his guests the year before.
PORTO CERVO, Italy -- They buy villas on the seaside for tens of millions of euros and throw extravagant parties. They sail their yachts up and down the coast and rent helicopters for 2,000 euros per hour.
Russian billionaires have been the talk of the summer here on the Emerald Coast in northeast Sardinia, and that is saying something. The Emerald Coast, or Costa Smeralda, is one of Europe's swankest sea resorts, where movie stars come to play and, as one local resident put it, "modesty is out of fashion."
President Vladimir Putin and his family have been here more than once as guests of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose summer residence is in Porto Rotondo. In the summer of 2002, Putin's two teenage daughters spent a month at Berlusconi's villa, which is surrounded by a 50-hectare park. The following summer, the entire family visited.
The number of wealthy Russians spending summers on the Costa Smeralda has increased dramatically in recent years, and the friendship between Putin and Berlusconi has likely done nothing to dampen the growth.
There are now so many Russians around Porto Cervo that a Roman Catholic country church has opened its doors to a Russian Orthodox priest, who holds daily services for his compatriots. The church, Nostra Signora di Bonaria, in nearby Liscia di Vacca, is a popular setting for high-society Italian weddings.
Russia's richest man, Roman Abramovich, has produced the biggest buzz in Porto Cervo this summer. His Pelorus yacht, which he bought for $120 million, was anchored off the port and was spotted sailing to the remote beaches of Cala Luna, Cala Mariolu and Cala Sisine, which can be reached only by boat or by trekking.
Russians have been shelling out large amounts of money to buy or rent villas on the coast, which has driven up the real estate market substantially, local real estate agents said.
Alisher Usmanov topped the summer buying charts by purchasing the villa of Antonio Merloni -- the owner of the household appliance company of the same name -- for 35 million euros. The villa has a large park overlooking the clear waters of the Romazzino gulf.
Usmanov's purchase was reported by the local paper La Nuova Sardegna under the headline "Russian Billionaires Are the New Kings of the Costa," and confirmed by three real estate agents who work in Porto Cervo and specialize in expensive properties.
The agents said they could not speak on the record because of privacy rules imposed by their companies.
Usmanov is president of Gazprominvestholding, Gazprom's investment arm, and has extensive interests in iron ore and steel. Forbes Russia magazine listed him in its May issue as the 20th-richest businessman in Russia with an estimated net worth of $2 billion.
'Porto Cervo Style'
To celebrate his new investment on the island, Usmanov threw a grand party with a Venetian carnival theme. The hundreds of guests, who wore period dress and arrived at Romazzino in gondolas, feasted on black caviar and fresh fish served with expensive wine and champagne, according to a wealthy building contractor who was among the guests. A live band played Russian and Italian songs until morning, and fireworks lit up the night.
"Everything was in perfect Porto Cervo style, where modesty is out of fashion," the contractor said. "People who have money come here to show it off. This is the rule and Usmanov was not an exception."
Tariko purchased his seaside villa from Berlusconi's wife.
The Villa Merloni purchase pleased those in the real estate business, since it beat the record set last summer by Rustam Tariko, the owner of Russky Standart Vodka and Russky Standart Bank. Tariko bought Villa Minerva from Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, for 15 million euros.
This was 30 times more than Lario paid for the seafront villa in 1989, according to a real estate agent who works at one of the biggest agencies in Porto Cervo. Lario paid 1 billion lire, or roughly 500,000 euros, for the 600-square-meter villa with its park of about three hectares, the agent said.
"Prices for expensive villas are going up in the Costa thanks to the Russians, who are investing more and more," the agent said. "Money seems not to be a big problem for them. They are ready to rent or buy villas for crazy prices, something that has never happened before. This is a good trend for us."
Tariko is Russia's 35th-richest man with a fortune of $830 million, according to Forbes Russia.
The Italian yellow press speculated that he paid such a huge amount for the villa because he was in love with Berlusconi's wife. The supposed proof was that he bought the villa with all its furnishings and decorations, including linen sheets, carpets and decorative pottery, which had been chosen by Lario.
The real estate agent said that Tariko, who had rented the villa for the previous five years, was accustomed to the house the way it was and did not want to bother with decorating it.
"He paid such an amount of money because he has it and, like the other Russians, he doesn't worry about spending it on something he longs for," the agent said. "The Russians have become our best clients. They pay 40,000 euros per month to rent a villa without batting an eye. They spend and spend, and since they started coming six years ago, Russian has become the most important language on the Costa Smeralda."
Along with Usmanov, another wealthy Russian also bought a villa in Romazzino this summer, according to local news reports and the building contractor. The name of the new owner was not reported, but the building contractor said he paid "tens of millions of dollars" for the villa of Plinio Stoppani, the president of the Italian metallurgic company Luigi Stoppani, who had recently died.
Last summer, a Russian businessman said to be close to Putin bought a villa in Punta Lada, not far from Berlusconi's residence, from Italian entrepreneur Stefano Fabbri for 23 million euros, the local real estate agents said. They said the man's name was not known.
"Some rich people prefer to keep their name secret when they buy expensive properties. The reasons for that are many: First of all, they don't want to have problems with taxes, but sometimes they just don't like their name to appear in the press," said another real estate agent, who works for another Porto Cervo agency.
"The guy who bought the villa in Punta Lada is believed to have high-level political connections in Russia. This could be the reason why he is keeping the deal secret," he added.
La Nuova Sardegna has reported that Putin himself bought property in Porto Cervo two years ago. Putin reportedly paid about 10 million euros for a 1,200-square-meter villa, but did not put the property in his own name. The daily has not backed away from its report and continues to repeat it as fact, but those in the real estate business said it has never been confirmed.
Abramovich's $120 million yacht Pelorus, photographed in June in Nice, France, was anchored off Perto Cervo in Sardinia later in the summer and was spotted sailing up and down the Costa Smeralda.
Other than buying or renting a villa, another option for visitors with deep pockets is to stay in one of Porto Cervo's seafront hotels, which are set back from the beach behind lush bushes.
"The Russian presence is increasing every year. Russia is a very important market for us," said Maddalena Ciocciola, public relations manager of four luxury Starwood hotels in Porto Cervo: the Pitrizza, Cervo, Romazzino and Cala di Volpe.
"The Russians know how to treat themselves. Usually, they prefer our exclusive suites," she said.
They also know how to shop and are welcome customers at Versace, Missoni, Gucci and Prada, located under the arches of the famous passeggiata, or promenade.
Shopkeepers said they easily dropped 20,000 euros on clothes and without hesitation bought jewelry at Bulgari or De Grisogono, where a diamond necklace was on sale for 3 million euros. Jewelers at De Grisogono said some "expensive" sets were bought by Russians this summer, but they would not disclose the names of their customers or say how much they had spent.
The latest extravagance popular with Russian visitors is to rent a helicopter to fly from Porto Cervo to Cortina D'Ampezzo, a resort in the Alps, or just to move from one party to another. The cost of the service is 2,000 euros per hour, and passengers receive carnival masks of crocodile leather as gifts.
The Billionaire Club
For nightlife, the favorite place of the Russian super rich is The Billionaire Club. Abramovich, who Forbes Russia estimated is worth $14.7 billion, has often been among the guests at parties held by the club's owner, Flavio Briatore, who owns the Renault Formula One team.
"The Russians drink Krystal and Dom Perignon champagne and really love to enjoy themselves," said club manager Alessandra Cicogna, "But they are no more extravagant than the other billionaire guests we have."
A typical dinner at the A-list club, which specializes in Mediterranean and Japanese cuisine, costs 200 euros without drinks, she said.
Tariko held a party at the club on Aug. 19 to promote his vodka brand, Cicogna said. Izvestia reported on Aug. 22 that the guests included several prominent Russian businessmen, including the co-owner of the Don-Stroi construction giant, Dmitry Zelenov.
Other notable Russians spotted recently in Porto Cervo included Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's envoy to the European Union; IT and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman; and Boris Yeltsin's grandson and namesake, Izvestia said.
Russia's Super Rich Feel at Home on Sardinia
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