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French spoil party for Russia's super-rich ski set

By Gleb Bryanski
Reuters
Friday, January 12, 2007; 3:13 PM

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's rich and famous who invade the French ski resort of Courchevel each year for decadent parties may go elsewhere after local police investigating suspected prostitution held a Russian billionaire.

"It is one hundred percent certain there won't be such an influx of Russians after what happened," said a prominent Russian businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity, who has been a frequent visitor to Courchevel.

French police held Mikhail Prokhorov, co-owner of the world's biggest nickel producer with an estimated fortune of $7.6 billion, after he was detained with a group of young women in an upmarket Courchevel hotel on Tuesday.

He was released without charge on Friday but the case could spell the end of an annual phenomenon when Russia's super-rich and their entourages descend on the town in early January for two weeks of drinking, parties, extravagant spending and -- if there is any time left over -- a spot of skiing.

The Russian invasion has reached such proportions that some Western newspapers have renamed the resort Courchevelsky, while Russian's prefer the more authentically Russian-sounding Kurshevelevo.

For the Russian visitors, Courchevel's attractions are the privacy it offers and its fabulously expensive hotels, bars and fashion boutiques.

It is also one of the few Alpine resorts with a private airfield for executive jets and it is a short trip across the border to the Swiss banks where many rich Russians bank their millions.

VODKA AND VINTAGE WINE COCKTAILS

A female Western journalist who was accredited in Russia bumped into Prokhorov and his business partner Vladimir Potanin in 1997 on the ski slopes of Val d'Isere -- another upmarket French ski resort -- and was invited to a dinner at the plush La Savoyarde restaurant.

The 30 guests, including about 12 young and leggy Russian women, mixed vodka and cripplingly expensive Chateau Petrus 1972 -- sometimes in the same glass -- and dined on oysters, foie gras and lobster, said the journalist.

Prokhorov has been called Russia's most eligible bachelor and his acquaintances say he is often surrounded by attractive women.

"Misha (Mikhail) was simply very unlucky. He is a very pleasant person but he has got such a lifestyle, he does not hide it, plus he is not married," said the businessman, who has attended Prokhorov's parties in Courchevel.

"However, he is far from being the wildest party animal there," he added.

Russia's Izvestia newspaper quoted a Russian matchmaker to the wealthy who often flies young girls to Courchevel to join the tycoons' parties. He said they were models, not prostitutes.

"These girls, you see them all the time, they never ski, they walk around Courchevel on high heels," another frequent visitor to Courchevel told Reuters.

Courchevel's hoteliers and shopkeepers welcome the cash their Russian guests bring, but some of their brasher behavior has made more sensitive holidaymakers blanch.

Russian media reported one drunken brawl in a ski lift on the way up to the top of the piste, with skis and poles falling down though broken glass.

"I was often ashamed of my compatriots' behavior," said the Russian businessman, adding he was glad the wild crowd may now leave Courchevel and he could bring his children there again.

(Additional reporting by Astrid Wendlandt in Paris)




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