Russian superyachts find safe harbor in Turkish ports

The superyacht Scheherazade in Marina di Carrara, on Italy’s northwest coast, on May 4, 2022. After weeks of investigation, Italian authorities announced late Friday evening that they had impounded the nearly $700m superyachts, According to US officials, the prominent element is none other than Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. (Photo: NYT)
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted an international hunt for superyachts owned by Russian oligarchs. In a bid to punish those close to President Vladimir Putin, governments everywhere are seizing vessels and preventing them from leaving port.اضافة اعلان

Everywhere, that is, except in Türkiye.

Oligarchs with foresight have swiftly moved their luxury toys to the sanction-free Turkish Riviera. Roman Abramovich, a businessman with ties to Putin, was one of the first to do so. Abramovich’s 140m-long superyacht, My Solaris, entered the port city of Bodrum at the end of March. Eclipse, his 162.5m-yacht — the second largest superyacht in the world with two swimming pools, 18 guest cabins, and a helicopter deck — docked in Marmaris a few weeks later. Clio, the 73m-vessel owned by the founder of Russian aluminum giant Rusal, Oleg Deripaska, arrived off the coast of Gocek in mid-April. And the $400 million Flying Fox has been moored in Bodrum since May.

Hosting Russian billionaires is consistent with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regional strategy. His foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, recently commented that “Russian oligarchs could do business in Türkiye as long as it was not against international law.” It is Erdogan’s special relationship with Putin that allowed Türkiye to host peace talks between Russia and Ukraine back in March. Keeping ports open for Russian superyachts as the Mediterranean season kicks off is undisputedly a smart move for local economies.

But there is an even more pragmatic reason for Türkiye to let the yachts sail: Seize and freeze campaigns are time-consuming, legally complicated, and potentially costly.

The reality is that countries cannot simply take ownership of private property. Even when assets are frozen, oligarchs retain ownership until a court has proven that they were used to commit a crime or harbor illegal activity. As laws vary by country, it is likely that these proceedings will take years. How courts might tie oligarchs’ vessels to a crime is unclear. Superyachts are typically owned and managed by third parties; such is the case for Scheherazade, which carries a Cayman Island flag, is managed by Imperial Yachts out of Monaco, and its owner is undisclosed.
In 2021, Russia’s uber-rich owned 9 percent of the world’s superyachts, and squeezing the wealthy has been heralded as one way to force Putin’s hand in Ukraine.
Most seized yachts are a financial drain on the country doing the seizing, as it is rarely decided beforehand who will pay docking fees, insurance payments, and other expenditures. La Ciotat Shipyards, where Russian state oil company Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin’s Amore Vero is held captive, doesn’t even know where to send its invoices. French authorities have passed on the responsibility to the ship owner, yet nobody has reimbursed the shipyard.

It seems like the outburst of excitement for having captured these superyachts will surpass the reality of the situation of what to do with them. Why, then, make such a show of seizing the luxury toys in the first place?

Forcibly taking oligarchs’ property is an aggressive means of sanctions implementation. In 2021, Russia’s uber-rich owned 9 percent of the world’s superyachts, and squeezing the wealthy has been heralded as one way to force Putin’s hand in Ukraine. The only problem is it does not seem to be working. For months yachts and other luxury properties have been seized in Britain, France, Italy, Fiji, and beyond, and yet, Russia’s brutal campaign in Ukraine continues.

Personally, I have a problem with superyachts in general, and wouldn’t mind seeing all of them idled. For one, they are highly polluting, and owning one in an era where the world is on fire should be outlawed internationally. A superyacht’s carbon footprint averages 7,020 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Abramovich’s superyachts produced 22,440 tons of CO2 in 2018 and was responsible for two-thirds of the oil and gas mogul’s carbon footprint that year, according to an estimate by Forbes.

Yachts are also the epitome of economic inequality. While most of us labor in a figurative raft, the world’s ultra-rich snub their noses from the decks of actual floating cities. To think that the pandemic prompted an increase of 75 percent in superyacht sales is alarming. The newest captain is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who is set to receive the biggest private yacht ever built — as tall as a 13-story building it will require the city of Rotterdam to dismantle a historic bridge for it to pass into international waters.

In the end, Türkiye’s approach may prove prescient. The complications of seizing a yacht are manifold, the costs excessive. While owning a multi-million-dollar toy is environmentally and socially dubious, commandeering them to change Putin’s behavior is a policy that is clearly sinking.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.

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