A Change of Guard

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

In playboy’s absence, an island empire falls into ruin

In playboy’s absence, an island empire falls into ruin
Charles Rollet  November 28, 2015

Ostap and Nikolay Doroshenko with the manager of Classic Condo. Beth Ann Lopez

In Koh Dek Koul, a tiny island off the Cambodian coast, Russian real estate tycoon and playboy Sergei Polonsky’s extravagant lair is slowly but steadily falling apart.

Since Polonsky’s deportation in May to face fraud charges over a real estate scheme in his native Russia, the island, despite its seizure and occupation by Cambodian police, has been left more or less abandoned.

Weeds grow in the cracks of the narrow passageways that crisscross the island, while some of the buildings are already falling apart. A giant metal frame inside the generator room has crashed through a wall, leaving a gaping hole in the building. Metal staircases lie irreparably twisted by the sun and salty spray.

Some valuables remain. In a co-working area with opulent leather couches, Apple computers sit unused along with a drumkit in the corner. However, it appears that at least some of Polonsky’s belongings have disappeared. The man’s office, a grandiose cupola topped off by a Bayon head, lies completely empty. One room’s opulent collection of statues and other curiosities has been cleaned out, save for a figurine of a Buddha riding three elephants.
Polonsky was arrested in May 2015 over an expired visa. AFP

For a place once busy with the hubbub from Polonsky’s dozens of staffers from all over the world, Koh Dek Koul is now eerily quiet. If the place has any appeal in its current state, it is as a Russian oligarch’s Ta Prohm, a crumbling edifice slowly being swallowed up by the jungle.
Back on the mainland, Nikolay Doroshenko, a sharp-eyed Soviet-born businessman and Polonsky’s arch-rival in Cambodia, is flustered. Doroshenko, who once partnered with Polonsky to develop Koh Dek Koul, believes he has a claim on the island, but all he can do is watch from afar as decay takes its toll.

The two men became sworn enemies in 2013, with Polonsky accusing his former business partner of wanting to “sell my islands” out from under him.

Doroshenko spent two months in jail earlier this year over one of the numerous legal disputes the two were embroiled in, complaining that Polonsky personally ensured his bed and fan were removed, just to exacerbate his discomfort. But the ordeal ended after he was released on bail, a few weeks after Polonsky was deported to Russia.

There seemed to be no better time to take back control of Koh Dek Koul, the crown jewel of the island empire Polonsky was trying to build.

And yet.

“I don’t go to the islands. I’m scared to go there because [the court] will say I stole things,” Doroshenko said this week, clearly exasperated.
Polonsky was arrested in May 2015 over an expired visa.
Polonsky was arrested in May 2015 over an expired visa. AFP

Even though Polonsky was unceremoniously arrested while wearing nothing but swimming trunks and flip flops, Doroshenko’s struggle is far from finished. The court case Doroshenko was jailed over, where he was charged with attempting to steal Koh Dek Koul by faking signatures, is still active, along with several others from the 14 other cases Polonsky filed against Doroshenko and his son, Ostap.

That means the family is routinely called to court even though the plaintiff is imprisoned in Russia.

“We cannot understand,” Doroshenko said.

Moreover, many of the expensive goods on Koh Dek Koul and other islands had been “removed” by police and other Cambodians, he said.

Ostap, a helper in the family business, was also agitated.

“Next month, they’re calling us to court because I stole some telephone or something like this from Polonsky. What the f--k? All you can do is laugh, but for the [court] it is serious.”

Ostap is also no longer a captain in Sihanoukville’s provincial immigration police. His job was mysteriously transferred to Phnom Penh during his father’s jailing, but he has chosen to remain on the coast.

His father wouldn’t give specifics about why the cases have remained active or other murky goings-on, but he hinted that for once, Polonsky – the man the Doroshenkos accused of orchestrating several assassination attempts – was not the one pulling the strings.

“We are very scared to tell the truth today,” Nikolay Doroshenko said.

He offered, however, that the issue was not necessarily the islands themselves, but the wealth the Doroshenkos had acquired over the years.

“It is clear… that we are rich people,” he said, explaining later that “very expensive” taxes must be paid to authorities for the island.

Hout Vichet, deputy provincial prosecutor, said there were so many legal cases between Polonsky and Doroshenko that he could not remember enough details to comment.

And as the case hangs over their heads with no end in sight, the Doroshenkos are forced to watch Koh Dek Koul fall apart.

“Everything is closed,” said Ostap. “I cannot come and check everything, make fixes, upgrades, and open it up for customers to go.”

Provincial police chief Chuon Narin said that two of the islands Polonsky had built facilities on - Koh Dek Koul and Koh Damlong - were being guarded by police and the military, respectively.

“No properties were stolen. The forces are guarding them to protect someone from breaking in,” he said.

Apparently powerless to end the case, the Doroshenkos are focusing on finishing construction on their latest project, a million-dollar condo tower overlooking the city.

The bright white building includes the Doroshenkos’ famed Antonov jet and a museum of about two dozen luxury cars, from a $280,000 Lamborghini Murcielago to a bright red Chevy Impala.

“Classic Condo” has become something of a tourist attraction. Cambodians come to take wedding photos and curious tourists pay $50 to be given a tour of the coastal city in one of the rides.

But Doroshenko knows that compared to the island, the condo project is not the real deal. Rumours circulate of the Doroshenkos’ departure from Cambodia, but after thriving for so long in the Kingdom – he and his family have Cambodian citizenship – Doroshenko said he had no plans to move anywhere else. “I love Cambodia and I’m ready to fight until the end.”

Yet the Doroshenkos’ worst nightmare could materialise if some of Polonsky’s leftover friends and allies in the Kingdom are to be believed.

They are holding out hope that Polonsky could return to Cambodia and restart his island dream.

Vladimir Palancica, a Moldovan tour operator and a friend of Polonsky’s, said the tycoon left “a piece of his heart” in the Kingdom.

“I know he wants [to come back], because he loves this country – he invested a lot of money, he’s willing to invest more.”

But it’s not just for sentimental reasons. Palancica said Polonsky was one of the few people who have the capital to truly develop Cambodia’s islands.

Before he was deported, Polonsky was in the process of building what he claimed was a $100 million tourism project across several islands. He wanted “Project Archipelago” to change the face of tourism in Cambodia – to become the next Angkor Wat, as he put it.

“We need to build hotels; we need to build service, infrastructure, piers, marinas,” said Palancica.

“[We need] to bring boats and rich people who spend a lot of money, not backpackers who spend $5.”

Palancica said the undeveloped Cambodian islands had huge potential – particularly with the Russian market increasingly unlikely to head to the usual favourite destinations of Turkey and Egypt.

Some in Polonsky’s legal team don’t deem the idea of the man’s return to be too far-fetched either – although the Russian press has routinely reported on Polonsky’s misadventures in jail, from being sent to psychiatric prison to requesting a saxophone so he could play behind bars.

Polonsky is being investigated for embezzling billions of rubles from investors for a real estate project in Moscow. Hopes are pinned high on Boris Titov, Russia’s presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs rights, who vouched for Polonsky’s innocence in October.

“In Russia, everyone understands already that Polonsky has nothing to do with what was incriminated and it is only a matter of time until he is released,” said Kaspars Cekotins, one of Polonsky’s lawyers.

Still, his release is far from certain, particularly given the lengths Russia took to bring Polonsky back home.

And whether Polonsky’s island project finally comes to fruition is also another game entirely.

Several former associates have complained that one of Polonsky’s fatal flaws was his massive circle of friends and business partners, descriptions of which often overlapped and do not appear to have involved much vetting.

“Sergei trusts people very much. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. If you’re a good Christian, you believe in Jesus Christ, so OK, you have to believe in people. But in business this is dangerous,” Palancica of Lotus Tours said.

Pierre Kann, a former contractor for Polonsky, put it in a different way as he described the collection of lawyers, authorities, friends and others that circled the eccentric tycoon.

“He had only one big problem. He had too much money and he was in Cambodia.”

Additional reporting by Phak Seangly.

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