Millionaire's Fair: Oligarchs on their uppers

Posted in Russia | 01-Dec-08 | Source: The Independent

The Millionaire's Fair in Moscow is an annual opportunity for the rich to flaunt their wealth. But there's a twist this year: nobody's got any money to spend. By Miriam Elder

There were cars and yachts, a naked model painted in gold and a who's who of the tacky Russian pop scene at the Millionaire's Fair in Moscow on the weekend. The only things missing were money and champagne.

The annual event had become an opulent symbol of Russia's conspicuous consumption, where the newly rich could spend their petrodollars as quickly as they made them, with diamond-encrusted hubcaps and £160,000 cars in high demand.

Not so this year, as Russia dives into its worst financial situation in a decade.

Both the state and its wealthiest men are suffering from the effects of a crisis that they hoped would somehow remain outside the country's borders.

"This year, people are just coming by to say hello, out of politeness," said Gaukhara Zhakish, who is the chief representative for Gulfstream jets in Russia.

Over the past few years, the company has sold an average of 20 jets, ranging from $150m to $250m, in Russia. This year, it hasn't filled a single order since summer.

"Last year, we had a big booth. This year, we decided it wouldn't be appropriate. It's not right to make people propositions in such a situation," Ms Zhakish said at the fair's opening night gala.

The numbers are bleak. Russian exchanges have nosedived 70 per cent from mid-May highs. Over $83bn (£54bn) is estimated to have fled the country since August. The World Bank has slashed growth forecasts for next year to just 3 per cent.

And Russia's oligarchs, the most high-profile symbol of the country's massive wealth, have lost more than $230bn since the credit crunch came knocking on Russia's door in September, according to Bloomberg.

But try telling that to the hosts of the Millionaire's Fair opening party, and many of the hopeful vendors who attended it.

"Everyone else has a crisis, but we have a millionaire's fair," proclaimed Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite and would-be actress – The Russian version of Paris Hilton.

But her co-presenter, the TV show host Andrei Malakhov, wasn't quite on message. "Life will go on," he told the crowd, their eyes searching the room for increasingly rare bottles of tepid Laurent-Perrier champagne.

Russia's leadership has worked hard to keep the country in the dark. As the credit crunch reached Russia, hard on the heels of bank collapses in the West, state-run television stations were banned from using the word "crisis".

That policy was reversed earlier this month, when the government began to push a package of "anti-crisis measures", including a boost in social services aimed at keeping the population calm. Now, state-run TV can use the word, as long as it is termed "global crisis".

The President, Dmitry Medvedev, and the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, lay the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of the United States. Yet there is evidence that the August war in Georgia, as well as concerns over the investment climate amid messy shareholder disputes, have contributed to Russia being the worst performing of emerging market countries as the crisis unfolds.

The ruling duo's popularity, however, depends heavily on the oil-driven wealth that has boosted living standards for many Russians over the past five years.

As the oil price dives below $50 a barrel, the state has been forced to slowly depreciate the rouble, spending billions of dollars in carefully culled foreign reserves each week to prevent a sharp devaluation that could result in political death.

The country's most respected business daily, Vedomosti, received a warning from the Prosecutor-General's office this month for its coverage of the crisis, after an article suggested a scenario in which public officials would be pushed from office because of popular discontent.

Now it is rumoured that TV stations, as well as some banks, have been encouraged to refrain from using the word "devaluation".

So far, the state's public relations strategy seems to be working – at least among certain Russians.

"There is no crisis. What crisis?" said Igor Kirin, 46, who has moved back to Moscow after spending several years living in New York, where he ran a gallery. Strolling around the Millionaire's Fair, Kirin refused to disclose what he did now. "I have certain projects, and am looking for financing. What they are I can't say, it's a secret," he said.

"If oil falls below $50 a barrel, then the crisis will last six months. If oil costs more, then there will be no crisis," he said confidently. "We have a stabilisation fund, and there's enough money in there to get us through this. It's not I who am saying this, but our President – Medvedev said so."

Yet on the streets of central Moscow, far from the Millionaire's Fair exhibition hall on the city's wealthy outskirts, some rumbles of discontent are growing louder.

As the rouble weakens, Russians have flooded exchange points to change their money into dollars. Some speak of the difficulty in finding the imported goods to which they have become accustomed.

The rouble has already slid about 15 per cent and many Russians expect it to dip further, to as low as 35 roubles to the dollar, from 25 roubles just a few months ago.

A protest, dubbed "The Pensioner's Fair", is due to be held today in central Moscow, organised by an MP belonging to the Kremlin-friendly A Just Russia Party.

"During a time of crisis and mass layoffs, the exhibition of luxury goods looks like a feast amidst a plague," MP Nikolai Levichev said, announcing the move.

Analysts estimate that Russia is about six to nine months behind the West in feeling the effects of the global financial crisis. Russia's richest have faced limited access to funds and margin calls that have depleted their wealth, and Russian banks have slashed jobs as credit dries up. The real economy is only beginning to feel the pinch, with many firms now starting to cut salaries and lay off workers, pushing the unemployment rate up to 6.1 per cent in October.

The construction and real estate sectors have been among the worst hit so far. Last week, developers halted construction of Russia Tower, a 600m (2000ft) skyscraper designed by Norman Foster that was to have been the tallest building in Europe. The tower, in a development called Moskva Citi, Moscow's answer to Canary Wharf, was the ultimate symbol of Russia's desire to be at the forefront of international finance.

This year's Millionaire's Fair showcased fewer development projects than in the past. One man attempting to make a sale was Dmitry Borisov, a representative of a newly built elite neighbourhood called Baden-Baden, in Moscow's forested outskirts.

"The people aren't affected," Mr Borisov said. "Maybe they're a bit more careful but they still spend."

Minutes later, he could be heard pleading with a prospective buyer looking to stroll away: "The time to make the decision is now!"

The homes in Baden-Baden cost between 44 million and 105 million roubles (£1m to £2.5m) but Mr Borisov's assistant later concedes that they're considering offering discounts of between 10 and 15 per cent.

The firm began selling homes in the summer, and have only managed to fill five of the 39 houses

"In crisis times, this is a good amount," the saleswoman, Anastasia Vasilieva, says. "In real estate, in general, it's small."

Nearby, Svetlana Chiryatnikova is begging two men to stick around and wait for some whisky cocktails she promises will soon arrive.

Ms Chiryatnikova represents Status, a magazine that costs $100 per issue and promises readers an exclusive luxurious lifestyle.

Though she hasn't managed to entertain an interested party all evening, Chiryatnikova is all energy and smiles. "Look around – what crisis? Everyone's expecting it to come, but no one knows what it will be."

Most Russians think in terms of the financial crisis of August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debt and sharply devalued the rouble, wiping out the savings of many average Russians.

This time around it is different, and while "the krizis" is the main topic of conversations in bars, offices and taxi cabs, no one knows exactly what is coming.

The summer techno hit "Moscow Never Sleeps" pumped through the exhibition hall about 1am, as the Millionaire's Fair opening began winding to a close.

Men in suits and women in fine ball gowns scoured the grounds, ashing cigarettes on the carpets as they hunted for champagne.

Ms Zhakish, the Gulfstream vendor, conceded that it felt like the party was over. "The best fair was in 2006, it was the pinnacle. People spent money for pleasure, just to spoil themselves."

"A plane or an expensive car became a kind of small toy."

At this year's Millionaire's Fair, the toys were just as shiny and opulent, but the mood was considerably less glamourous as Russia settles in for what promises to be a very long winter, filled with the uncertainty to which Russians have become alltoo accustomed.