WASHINGTON – A wealthy Russian lawmaker has fled with his family to the United States, where he says he fears assassination over accusations that some of Russia's richest and most influential people swindled him in a real estate deal. Back home, he's been charged with financial crimes.
Ashot Egiazaryan (pronounced Ah-shawt Yeh-gee-ah-zar-ee-AHN) says he is considering seeking asylum in the U.S. But after suing a Russian billionaire and several former business partners — including a close friend of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Moscow's former mayor — he said he doesn't feel safe even in this country.
"I do think it's possible than an assassination attempt can be mounted against me here," he said flanked by lawyers in a conference room a few blocks the White House. The interview with The Associated Press was his first with Western media and came a few weeks after one of his relatives was gunned down in the Russian city of Astrakhan on Dec. 7, an attack he claims is connected with his suit.
The struggle over the Moskva Hotel, a prime piece of Moscow real estate, is now being waged in a civil court in Cyprus, the London Court of International Arbitration, on the Web and on Capitol Hill. It provides a rare insider's view of the often ruthless world of money, power and politics in Russia, where wealth and connections can sometimes trump property rights and the rule of law.
The case could become a headache for the Obama administration. The U.S. is counting on Moscow's support in everything from the fight against extremists in Afghanistan to efforts to derail the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
If the 45-year-old Egiazaryan seeks to remain in the U.S., the administration could face a difficult choice: risk angering the Kremlin by sheltering a high-ranking Russian official charged with financial crimes, or force a fugitive to return and face a legal system that even Russian officials recognize is riddled with corruption and cronyism.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev came into office in 2008 pledging to battle what he called Russia's "legal nihilism." But so far, many inside and outside Russia see more rhetoric than reform. The respected watchdog group Transparency International's latest rankings place Russia 146th out of 180 countries in its corruption index, just ahead of Sierra Leone but behind Kenya.
For two years, Egiazaryan told the AP, he was subjected to groundless police raids, personal smears and anonymous death threats as he struggled to hang onto his $2 billion stake in a project to tear down the Moskva, an old Soviet hotel a few dozen steps from the Kremlin, and reconstruct it as a five-star luxury establishment.
He says he was forced to hand over his share in the hotel in June 2009 after a campaign of intimidation that included raids by armed police on some of his partners and businesses and threats of criminal prosecution. He said he was the target of anonymous threats, including threats to behead his children.
Last September, shortly after Egiazaryan arrived in the U.S., his lawyers filed a civil suit in a court in Cyprus charging the billionaire Russian investor Suleiman Kerimov with leading a hostile takeover of the Moskva hotel project.
The court ordered a freeze on about $6 billion in Kerimov's assets as well as the assets of several of Egiazaryan's former partners in the project. They include Moscow's canny and colorful former mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and Arkady Rotenberg, Putin's longtime judo partner.
A New York lawyer representing Kerimov in this country, Eliot Lauer, denied the allegations. "They are total fabrications," he said.
Lauer said Egiazaryan transferred his interest in the Moskva Hotel as part of a legitimate business deal. "He was overextended," Lauer said. "He was deep in debt and he was facing financial ruin." A year later, Lauer said, Egiazaryan "concocted this scheme" to regain control.
Within weeks of the suit, Egiazaryan was stripped of his legislative immunity by his fellow deputies in parliament, charged with fraud by Russian prosecutors and put on his country's wanted list. Several of his Russian properties have been seized.
In coming weeks, the judge in Cyprus is expected to rule on a defense challenge to the asset freeze.
The dispute spilled into cyberspace. An anonymous website appeared detailing a long list of allegations against Egiazaryan. He fought back with two websites of his own, including www.ashot-egiazaryan.com, where he has published documents that he said support his allegations that he is the victim of persecution.
Egiazaryan compared himself to other business and political figures who have run afoul of Russia's political elites — including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos Oil chairman who has twice been convicted of financial crimes. Many Russian human rights activists say Khodorkovsky's prosecution was politically inspired.
But two of Khodorkovsky's most prominent supporters, rights advocates Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Lev Ponomarev of Russia's For Human Rights, wrote to key U.S. lawmakers Jan. 29, urging them to raise questions with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security about Egiazaryan's continuing presence in the U.S.
Alexeyeva criticized Egiazaryan's role on a parliamentary committee he helped found on human rights in Chechnya. Alexeyeva wrote that the panel had provided cover for well-documented atrocities during Russia's second war with Chechen insurgents.
Drew Holiner, a lawyer representing Egiazaryan, denied the allegations. He contended the two Russian rights advocates were "misled" into writing the letters, which he called part of a "black PR" campaign against his client. "We're going to find out who misled them, and why," he said.
Alexeyeva told the AP on Sunday that she had met with people who spoke on Egiazaryan's behalf and that she was now uncertain of the facts in her letter. She said she planned to look more closely at the case of the fugitive lawmaker on Monday.
Moskva Hotel: http://www.hotel-moskva.ru/index.en.html