ROTTACH-EGERN, Germany — Nestled between snow-capped mountains an hour’s drive south of Munich, the villages around the Alpine Lake of Tegernsee have been a playground for the super-rich for centuries – be it Bavarian kings, Russian tsars, Nazi elites or being pop stars.
They are attracted not only by the pristine views, but also by the cozy atmosphere of discretion that has also made the area a favorite destination for Russian oligarchs in recent years.
“This valley has been a shelter not only for the rich, but also for the very opaque people. It’s a long tradition,” says Martin Calsow, a German crime novelist who lives in Tegernsee and tells many of his stories there. “We live off them, they are the source of our wealth, and as long as we don’t mention it, everyone can thrive. It’s like a silent contract.”
But Russia’s war in Ukraine — and sanctions against Russia’s elites in response — have sent the calm waters of Lake Tegern see churning, upsetting the calm veneer with nagging questions about whether it’s right to go the other way. look from the sources of wealth of those in the area it has hosted.
At least, that’s the intention of Thomas Tomaschek, a green politician who sits on the council of Rottach-Egern, a village on Lake Tegern where some prominent Russian oligarchs have their lakeside hideouts.
Tomaschek has done something unusual in these latitudes: challenging local complacency by getting the federal government to seize or freeze assets — no easy task given the financial shields that are just as much a part of the super-rich lifestyle as the neon-colored Lamborghinis that speed over the mountain roads.
“We have a moral problem here with these oligarchs,” said Mr. Tomaschek. “Many say to me, ‘Don’t make noise, it’s none of our business.’ Well, I think it’s our business.”
In particular, he has targeted Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born tycoon and ally of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Usmanov made his fortune from metal and mining activities and owns three villas on the lake.
Nearby is a sprawling hilltop estate linked to Ivan Shabalov, a Russian pipeline magnate. No sanctions have been imposed on him, but some are wondering how he made his billions because his company partners with Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom.
The doubts in the Tegernsee reflect a similar search for souls on a national level. The decision to freeze the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia symbolized how politicians and businessmen were forced to recognize that their motto of “change through trade” has not moderated Moscow’s approach, but rather endangered their own reputation. brought.
But the arguments in Tegernsee show that, despite the government’s change of stance, some who took advantage of ties to Moscow’s elite still seem intent on holding off on the current fury and quietly returning to the normal course of business. Affairs.
Mr Usmanov, who according to locals came to visit at least three times a year, was staying in Tegernsee when he was added to the European Union’s sanctions list in February.
Still, his private jet was able to leave Munich a few hours later. Airport officials told local news media that the plane was registered with a company in the Isle of Man and not with Mr Usmanov himself, and none of the passengers had used Russian passports.
“That shows that the authorities were asleep,” said Mr. tomaschek.
Mr. Usmanov’s press team said in response to questions from DailyExpertNews that the properties in question had been transferred to a trust years ago in a “completely transparent and legal” manner. Mr Usmanov had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine and was not close to Mr Putin, the team added.
“Demanding the expropriation of someone else’s legally acquired property is legal nihilism in its purest form,” the press team said, noting that Rottach-Egern “had a special place in his heart”.
Mr Tomaschek disagrees, comparing Germany’s response unfavorably with that of Italy, where authorities have introduced anti-mafia laws to identify and seize oligarch hunts and villas relatively quickly.
In recent weeks, Germany has been trying to strengthen its legal framework, spearheaded by a new task force. But it can still take months, potentially giving you time to move or hide assets.
At the end of March, Mr. Tomaschek organized a protest outside Usmanov’s villas. Some 300 people showed up, shocking many in the usually sleepy Bavarian quarter.
“You don’t protest in Tegernsee. That costs a lot, a lot,” says Josef Bogner, the owner of the Voitlhof, a luxury Bavarian restaurant in Rottach-Egern.
“It has something to do with these mountains,” he added. “Your view of the world is narrow.”
The mayor of Rottach-Egern tried to dissuade Mr Tomaschek from organizing the protest, calling it a “witch hunt,” a phrase he repeated on television. The plan was also unpopular with others on the council — one of whom worked as an architect for Mr. Usmanov.
Since then, Mr. Tomaschek that he had received frequent hate mail and angry phone calls and was accused of being a troublemaker or a “Nazi pig.”
So is Christina Häussinger, the editor of the Tegernseerstimme, a local newspaper. As she strolled the streets one recent afternoon interviewing locals, many refused. “You bring shame and trouble here,” one man grumbled.
Mrs. Häussinger’s newspaper regularly examines the properties of oligarchs and other super-rich residents.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
“We live in an idyll, which most people here just want to confirm, not question,” she said.
One reader who dislikes her articles is Andreas Kitzerow, a local craftsman who renovates Usmanov’s villas.
“I just think it’s outrageous. He has always been reserved and, to my knowledge, has nothing to do with the war in any way,” said Mr. Kitzerow about Mr. Usmanov. “But they think that just because he knows Putin or because he’s Russian, they can do this. You can’t pass judgment.”
mr. Kitzerow said he and other workers owed about $1 million for work that the oligarch can’t afford now because of sanctions.
Tegernsee’s roots as a glamorous retreat started with the Bavarian King Maximilian I Josef. He invited Tsar Nicholas I of Russia for a visit in 1837.
It was also a favorite of the SS officer Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff and a contact for Hitler, who often received guests there. The property used to entertain the Nazi elites is the villa that today is Mr. Usmanov would be.
The international super-rich arrived in the 2000s with the opening of Hotel Überfahrt, a “five-star hotel” on the lake with a golden fountain.
Mr Usmanov, a former competitive fencer, is said to have asked waiters to open champagne bottles with sabers at parties he hosted there, according to locals.
Some residents say critics like Ms Häussinger represent a silent majority ignored by politicians and businessmen who take advantage, even as locals are driven out by ever-increasing prices.
A few weeks after Mr. Usmanov left Tegernsee, two of his neighbors noticed a pair of luxury cars in the parking garage of a building where Mr. Usmanov’s bodyguards lived.
The residents asked not to be identified because they feared reprisals. But they said they had repeatedly asked officials to check the vehicles in case they could be seized under sanctions.
After a journalist caught wind and published photos of the cars, they disappeared. Mr Usmanov’s neighbors said they had witnessed one of the bodyguards with the vehicles go into hiding.
Even if investigators had tried to impound the cars, they might have struggled. Assets allegedly owned by Mr. Usmanov and Mr. Shabalov – as is common with the super-rich – are difficult to trace through shell companies and family members who own them on paper.
Germany’s current laws aren’t helping: Not all authorities responsible for asset tracking have access to the country’s transparency register. In many cases it is also not clear which government body is responsible for what.
“Germany was really lagging behind on these laws internationally,” said Konrad Duffy, an official with the independent watchdog Finanzwende. “And the only explanation for that is the feeling here that as long as it does us good, it’s good for Germany.”
As the war in Ukraine continues, the Tegernsee villas remain closed and untouched. Some worry about the momentum to take action because that’s how local leaders like it.
Mr Tomaschek is no longer planning protests. “We’ve sent a message,” he said. “We did what we could. Now the state must act.”