MOSCOW — In 2013, the Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov and his son, Emin, arranged an extravagant party entrance for their guest, Donald Trump: an armored Mercedes stretch limo driving off a freight elevator right into a ballroom with 3,000 bedazzled Russian guests.
They were worried Trump’s security detail might spoil the surprise. Then Trump waved his team off.
“Don’t bother with them,” he said, Emin Agalarov, a pop singer, told The Washington Post last year in an interview. “I’m going where I want to go because I trust you.”
That trust has helped to draw Trump into the most punishing scandal of his six-month-old presidency, as revelations of a meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 brokered through the Agalarovs have raised alarms about dealings by Trump aides and family members with Russian lobbyists, some with ties to government officials and intelligence services.
Aras Agalarov, the real estate magnate and amiable purveyor of high-end goods in all sizes and shapes, has emerged as a possible conduit from the Kremlin to Trump. He is a man who rose through the Moscow luxury, real estate and entertainment worlds by playing the role of consummate fixer and reliable executor, building political capital in the Moscow region, and increasingly in the Kremlin itself.
“Agalarov understands what service is. He understands that doing business is more than just sending the bill,” said Yves Gijrath, the founding director of the Amsterdam-based LXRY Media Group, who had dealings with him going back to 2005.
For years, Agalarov has built a reputation as an eager-to-please business tycoon who helped bring bling to Russia, from the luxury footwear boutique he opened in 1991 on Moscow’s prestigious Stoleshnikov Lane, to the suburban estates and pristine golf courses he has built to satisfy the Madison Avenue aspirations of Russia’s hyper-wealthy.
A series of important government infrastructure projects, including a $1.2 billion university campus in Russia's Far East and stadiums for the upcoming World Cup, have made him a trusted executor for the Kremlin, if not a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
Agalarov, 61, was born in Baku, the capital of the then-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, and studied computer engineering before moving to Moscow. He started his career by selling bootleg films and by 1990 had moved on to organizing trade fairs. But if he had a vision for Russia, it was in the luxury market, which he said was immune to the economic downdrafts of the 1990s. As he once joked in a 2002 interview with the business newspaper Vedomosti: “The worse the country is doing, the better the luxury retail profits.”
Primarily through real estate, his wealth has blossomed to nearly $2 billion, according to Forbes, and his son Emin was married to the daughter of the president of Azerbaijan in 2006. (They divorced in 2015).
Long before Trump brought the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013, Agalarov was adept at charming foreign clients.
Gijrath came to Moscow in 2005 to pitch a Millionaire Fair, which Agalarov hosted at his then brand-new Crocus City complex, a luxury shopping center playground for Moscow’s rich and famous.
Gijrath gave an example of Agalarov’s hospitality: the fair was ground zero for Russia’s flourishing culture of conspicuous consumption, with diamond-encrusted cellphones, yachts, Turkmen stallions and entire islands for sale.
But even for a blowout dedicated to luxury, Gijrath found he had booked too much space. Over vodka shots at a posh Italian restaurant, Agalarov forgave him a more than $1 million obligation from the contract and offered to kick in on electricity costs.
The fair went forward, at an expo center Agalarov had built at Crocus City. In 2009, he opened a concert hall and the country’s only privately owned metro station nearby.
The huge complex is located just outside Moscow’s city limits, close to the offices of the Moscow regional government, where Agalarov forged a close alliance with Boris Gromov, the powerful regional governor until 2012.
“The mere possibility of a huge construction project in the Moscow region; construction of a private metro station — no one else has a private metro station — this all shows the level of his connections,” said Ilya Shumanov, the deputy director of Transparency International’s Russian office.
Now the region, which encompasses the towns and cities surrounding Moscow proper, is the seat of power of Gov. Andrei Vorobyov, who previously served as an aide to Sergei Shoigu, his predecessor as governor and currently Russia’s defense minister. Along with Yuri Chaika, Russia’s prosecutor general since 2006, the officials are seen as an important interest group within Russian politics, Shumanov said.
They regularly cross paths with Agalarov. Vorobyov cut the ribbon at the opening of Agalarov’s Vegas concert hall in the city of Krasnogorsk last year, and Agalarov wrote a sharply worded defense of Chaika in the newspaper Kommersant after a 2015 corruption allegation by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“A lie told a thousand times becomes truth,” Agalarov wrote acidly, noting that he was quoting Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. “I don’t want to draw any parallels. But let’s think about that.”
Despite having strong regional connections, Agalarov was still seen as a minor player in the Kremlin compared with the heavyweights who dominate Putin’s inner circle. “We’re talking about someone several steps lower than them,” Shumanov said.
A breakthrough came in 2009, when the Kremlin had a particularly thorny problem to solve: construction of a sprawling, 70-building university campus on the all-but-abandoned Russky Island on Russia’s Pacific Coast, where Putin was to hold a summit for 21 countries at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.
Igor Shuvalov, then first deputy to Putin as prime minister, summoned Agalarov to discuss the project.
“It wasn’t like I said no and then they forced me to do it, but it was a very difficult decision,” Agalarov said in a 2013 radio interview on Ekho Moskvy. “If I take this project on and don’t deliver, I would have let down first of all myself, but also the country, the president, the prime minister, and so forth.”
The Kremlin expects the country’s wealthiest business executives to take on, when asked, large-scale infrastructure projects, sometimes at a loss, to supplement the budget and promote Russia’s national interests. The fortunes of Russia’s rich can rise and fall precipitously based on the outcome of these prestige projects.
Agalarov’s work in the Far East earned him an Order of Honor at a Kremlin ceremony, bestowed by Putin himself in 2012. That year, Shuvalov and Vladimir Kozhin, a senior Kremlin official, attended a 10th anniversary party held at Crocus City.
Soon there were more requests. In 2014, Agalarov signed on to save two troubled football stadiums, in Kaliningrad and the southern Russian city of Rostov, for the 2018 World Cup, as well as a 30-mile stretch of a new Moscow beltway.
“At the very top level, these kinds of relationships can be give and take,” said a Moscow investment manager involved in the real estate market who asked not to be identified to protect his professional relationships. “But even with the added risk and possible losses, you can make up for it in influence and connections.”
One example of the give was a “strategic cooperation agreement” announced in 2013 with the state-run Sberbank to finance a $3 billion Crocus Group development, possibly including a Trump Tower.
Agalarov also sought to bring Trump and Putin together. In last year’s interview, Agalarov told The Post that he secured a preliminary agreement to organize a Kremlin meeting with Trump when he visited in 2013. When Putin canceled at the last minute, Agalarov took his case to the head of the Kremlin protocol department.
“You know what? I’m in a very complicated situation. Could you tell him that yourself?” Agalarov asked the bureaucrat, he recounted in his 2016 interview. His efforts produced a handwritten note from Putin and a traditional lacquered box, gifts that Trump happily accepted.
Those contacts put Agalarov in a privileged position after Trump’s unexpected, and apparently Russian-backed, rise to the presidency of the United States.
According to emails released by Donald Trump Jr., it was Chaika who proposed providing Agalarov’s friend, Trump, with damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
The contact with the younger Trump was made by Rob Goldstone, a British music promoter who had worked with Emin Agalarov. “This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin,” according to Goldstone’s email to Trump Jr. proposing the meeting.
Through spokesmen, the Agalarovs have denied Goldstone’s version of the story, saying they were asked only to broker a meeting.
Whether Chaika initiated that project himself has become a matter of debate. Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer sent to the meeting in New York, apparently focused primarily on lobbying Trump Jr., his brother-in-law Jared Kushner and the campaign chief Paul Manafort about U.S. sanctions against Russian officials under the Magnitsky Act.
“I read this as a freelancing project by Agalarov Sr. and maybe Chaika to do a favor to the Kremlin on two fronts: possibly harm or kill the Magnitsky Act and establish a special relationship with the Trump campaign,” said a former Russian government adviser, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly about the case. Agalarov would probably have been in contact with the Kremlin, he added, but “the Kremlin may simply have been observing where all this would go and maintaining plausible deniability.”
The use of Goldstone as a conduit to Trump Jr. suggests that this was not seen as an especially sensitive mission, said Mark Galleotti, a specialist on the Russian armed forces and intelligence establishment. It meant there “would be an email chain a mile long, and you know it’s not going to be kept quiet or secret,” he said.
While the meeting between Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya appeared to produce few concrete results, that does not mean that the Kremlin came away empty-handed.
“The net result of the whole thing was that Moscow learned that Trump’s inner circle was receptive to Russia’s efforts to put down Clinton and would likely cooperate,” the former government adviser said, “which is essentially a compromising situation for Trump.”
Gijrath, the Millionaire Fair organizer, had a different take: “I think the truth is much funnier than people think. This is how Trump does business. This is how Russia does business. I think this is also how Agalarov does business. You have to keep the lines open, not to agree on everything every day, but do business with each other, help each other, work together.”
Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.