A Real-Life Game of Monopoly in Mariánské Lázně

The beauty of Mariánské Lázně, a Czech spa town located in West Bohemia, is so exceptional that it has actually become something of a disadvantage. Among other things, it attracts foreign investors searching for places to invest their money. Their priority is often only the ownership of a building and they care for its condition. The iconic houses of Mariánské Lázně are, therefore, often neglected and left to deteriorate.

The Kazakh spa

Once one of Marianské lážně’s most iconic buildings; now, a crumbling wreck: the Miramonte Building was a chateau that also served as a children’s sanatorium at one time. It used to loom over the foothills of the Zádubské výšiny, but, these days, due to the thick, unkempt vegetation surrounding it, it is nearly invisible, if one isn’t standing right at the front gate, which closed behind the sanatorium’s last patients in November of 2006—allegedly, due to their dwindling numbers.

Back in the day, the building was listed as a property of Léčebné lázně Mariánské lázně, a joint-stock company that owns several other properties around the town and in its suburbs. Two years later, in August of 2008, Miramonte was sold. The buyer, who purchased the building and the land it stands on along with some adjacent parcels, was the company Miramonte M. L., which has been controlled by Kazakh entrepreneurs since its establishment.  The members of this group, which has grown from six to eight in number, have two things in common: according to the business register, they all live in Pavlodar, in the northeast of Kazakhstan, and they are all somehow connected to the infamous Kazakh Trio.

A Vicious Cycle in Mariánské Lázně

The Kazakh Trio consists of three entrepreneurs – Patokh Chodiev, Alexandr Machkevich, and Alijan Ibragimov. One would be hard-pressed to find a man in Kazakhstan who hasn’t heard of these three men. The people and the media alike call them The Trio. They gained their wealth through the mining business (Kazakhstan is a country rich in mineral resources), oil extraction, and banking. Together, they are the major shareholders of the Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), an international global holding and one of the world’s most prominent producers of natural resources. Both the ERG an The Trio itself have been investigated multiple times for suspicion of corruption and money laundering. The latest investigation is still ongoing. It is also worth mentioning their relationship with the Kazakhstan’s authoritarian ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Trio allegedly financed his presidential campaign in exchange for the smooth privatization of certain state companies, which later became the centerpiece of their empire.

A historical postcard of the chateau Miramonte, credit: Zdeněk Buchtele
  • The History of the Miramonte

The Miramonte was built in 1905. At first, the building was known as “Schloß Miramonte“ and served as a cafe and hotel. At that time, the picturesque chateau and its grounds were also one of the most commonly depicted scenes in paintings and postcards from Mariánské Lázně. After World War I, the building got a new owner and was renovated multiple times. During the First Republic, the Miramonte hosted several notable guests: for example, it was once filled to capacity by a sheik and his harem. Other guests at the Miramonte over the years include Theodor Lessing, a philosopher and journalist who was wanted by the Nazis, and the famous violin virtuoso Adolf Dauber, an iconic figure in the town of Mariánské Lázně.

During the Second World War, the Miramonte served as a temporary military hospital and a storage warehouse for food and tools used to torture the prisoners of many concentration camps. After the war, it dropped the “chateau” from its name and began to be used as a health center accommodating miners from nearby uranium mines. It didn’t become a children’s sanatorium for spa treatments of kidney and urinary tract conditions until 1963. The sanatorium was officially closed on November 30, 2008. Since then, the building has only been used on rare occasions: for example, in September 2015, the spa club “Švihák held a Pecha Kucha night there , and the Czech pop band Mirai shot a music video there for their single “Divadlo” a year after that.

An Investment for the Whole Village

Currently, the majority share in Miramonte M.L. (20%) is owned by Almaz Ibragimov. According to reporters at the OCCRP, Ibragimov is well known in the country as an entrepreneur who works closely with the Trio. Between 1994 and 2015, he acted the chairman of the board of directors of Alyuminiy Kasakhstan, one of the world’s biggest companies in mining and selling minerals and products made from them. In addition to this business, between 2004 and 2015w he also ran the Kazakhstan Electrolysis Plant: the greatest producer of aluminum in Kazakhstan. The parent company of both of these businesses is of course none other than the Eurasian Resources Group, the majority share of which is owned by the Trio.

Investigace.cz succeeded in reaching two of the former executive directors and minority proprietors of Miramonte M. L., Oleg Kostenko and Pavel Frolov. According to them, they bought the building after making contact with the previous owner: the joint-stock company Léčebné lázně Mariánské Lázně . The sale was allegedly mediated by a local travel agency. Almaz Ibragimov provided most of the financial capital for the purchase. The original plan was to rebuild the Miramonte into a four-star spa resort and possibly then to continue their investment activities in the Czech Republic. However, they had to abandon that idea due to many issues associated with their attempts to obtain long-term visas in the Czech Republic. The initial group of investors disbanded three years ago and neither Kostenko nor Frolov have worked with any of the others since. They claim to have no idea what Rustam Ibragimov, whom they named as the head of the whole project, plans to do with the building.

The chateau Miramonte nowadays, credit: Eva Kubániová

The Italian Spa

The Garzotto family are part of a group of Italian entrepreneurs who started investing heavily in Czech real estate and businesses in the nineties. The founder of the family business, Aldo Garzotto, has worked closely with Italian businessman Claudio Leo Personnettaz, who has been investigated for financial crimes. In addition to the fact that they come from neighboring villages in the Italian province of Aosta, they are also connected by their co-ownership of dozens of companies.

According to Italian investigator Giovanni Polizzi, Personnettaz is suspected of using investments in Czech real estate to launder money. “These investments in Czech real estate were made using money gained via tax evasion by Italian citizens. The investments were intended to cover up the origin of the funds,” claims Polizzi.

The Garzottos are running the Hotel Continental on the street Hlavní třída in Mariánské Lázně along with the Residence Romanza Hotel on Mladějovského Street, and they also rent out apartments in Central Park Marienbad, which is in sight of the main colonnade. Via various shell companies, they own another six apartment buildings along the three aforementioned accommodation facilities. Of these buildings, three are in a near-condemned state, dilapidated and falling apart. The other two are abandoned and neglected. Only one is inhabited—however, it mirrors the other buildings’ appearance and condition. All these buildings are located no less than a dozen meters from the spa colonnade, the very  center of the town, and two of them stand directly on Hlavní třída.

Buildings like these not only increase the rent and ruin the curb appeal of the town, but also jeopardize Mariánské Lázně’s chances of being added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. In their application, the town councilors promised to secure the protection of Mariánské Lázně‘s cultural heritage. However, if one of those dilapidated buildings falls down, the town may face the same fate as that of the Dresden Elbe Valley, a former UNESCO World Heritage Site that had its status revoked in 2009.

Despite repeated attempts, neither Aldo nor Alessandro Garzotto responded to any requests for comment, nor did they provide Investigace.cz with any official statements.

A house in ruins located 5 minutes walking from Mariánske Lázně centre, credit: Lukáš Nechvátal

The Islamic Spa

The last case in this series is about a man who is “emotionally immature, naive and vulnerable due to his loneliness and isolation from family support.” These are words that David Souaan’s attorney used to described his client, a Serbian student living in London. It was the year 2015, and the advocate’s speech didn’t work on the London judges. For his extremist views and plans to join radical ISIS fighters in Syria, Souaan was sentenced to three and a half year in prison. While this “vulnerable” student was behind bars in June of 2017, his family founded the Sirius Invest Group, Limited, in the Czech Republic and, that very same year, shortly before Christmas, the company bought part of a villa in Mariánské Lázně, which they own to this day.  David Souaan has been a co-owner of the company since its founding and is, therefore, also one of the villa’s owners.

Souaan’s father, Suleiman Souaan, agreed to an interview, but changed his mind after discovering the topic of the article. But over several phone calls between Souaan and Investigace.cz, he ended up revealing a few things after all. He confirmed that his son, David Souaan, finished serving his sentence in Britain and had moved back in with his family in Serbia. He revealed that he had founded the company in Mariánské Lázně because he wanted to take every opportunity to ensure the financial security of his family—which, in the Czech Republic, meant investing in the real estate business. He owns other companies in Europe as well as Sirius Invest Group, Limited—for example, in Germany and Vienna. He is not currently using the section of the villa in Mariánské Lázně that he owns, but rents it out to friends and co-workers who come to town. The only property currently owned by Sirius Invest Group, Limited, in the Czech Republic is the aforementioned unit of the villa in Mariánské Lázně.

By Lukáš Nechvátal
With additional reporting by KRIK and OCCRP 
Featured photo credit: Lukáš Nechvátal

This article was financially supported by Nadační fond nezávislé žurnalistiky.