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Big trouble in Little Russia

As the feud between Sihanoukville’s two richest and most powerful Russians intensifies, things are getting are getting even crazier down on the coast

It’s like Russia in the 1990s. That era has come here,” says long-time Sihanoukville businessman Nikolai Doroshenko.

“Very dangerous people are coming.”

Doroshenko is speaking from a dimly lit room above his home base of Snake House, a restaurant and guesthouse with a mini-zoo filled with hundreds of snakes and crocodiles, located on a lush patch of land in Sihanoukville’s aptly named Soviet Street.

These dire times will continue, he promises, as long as his arch-rival, the fugitive Russian property tycoon Sergei Polonsky, remains in the Kingdom.

Disappointed kaZantip festival-goers dance at a consolation party on a Sihanoukville beach
Disappointed kaZantip festival-goers dance at a consolation party on a Sihanoukville beach. MAX Elvinger

Over the past few months, the feud between the two men has spiralled into an increasingly complicated vortex of allegations and reprisals, including an alleged murder attempt.

But the dispute has expanded beyond the Doroshenkos and Polonsky in part thanks to ill-fated Russian music festival kaZantip, the imminent arrival of which sparked incidents that seemed to prove out Doroshenko’s prophecy of violence.

To understand the tangled web of accusations, egos and money in the coastal community, it’s probably best to start with the Doroshenkos themselves.

“My story here is very long,” says the patriarch of the family.

Nikolai moved to Cambodia in May of 1993. Since then, he has acquired Cambodian citizenship and built his family a small business empire with interests ranging from concrete to condo development.

He is well-connected to the city’s power structure, with his 32-year-old son Ostap Doroshenko a captain in the local police force.

Ostap, a pale, gregarious ethnic Russian with a penchant for luxury vehicles, looks proud in his Cambodian police officer uniform as he shows off a large medal he says is Cambodia’s “second highest” honour.

The Doroshenkos love Cambodia, they say. But their lives were forever changed by the arrival of a man who was once one of Russia’s richest – Sergei Polonsky.

Polonsky first started buying islands in Cambodia in the 2000s, working with Doroshenko to develop them.

Polonsky was a good partner – fabulously wealthy and willing to pay vast sums to build his James Bond-style lair on Koh de Koul and luxury resorts on virgin Cambodian islands.

But the relationship between the two Russian businessmen soured in 2012, when Polonsky was jailed for allegedly forcing Cambodian sailors to jump off a boat at knifepoint.

Although he was eventually freed on bail – he has still never been tried – he hasn’t forgiven the men he says arranged his imprisonment.

“Everybody understands that the first time I ended up in prison was because of Doroshenko, you understand?” Polonsky says, claiming Nikolai’s lawyer helped write the sailors’ statement to the police.

Sergei Polonsky’s Bond villain-style island lair, Koh de Koul
Sergei Polonsky's Bond villain-style island lair on Koh dek Koul, also claimed by Nikolai.* Griff Tapper

“When I was sitting in prison, he sold my islands.”

The Doroshenkos deny this, saying Polonsky misinterpreted the situation and rejected their help.

“Already [when] he see our faces, he say, f--k you to my father, and f--k you to me also,” says Ostap.

Nikolai claims Polonsky sent hit men to murder Ostap who only narrowly escaped. Polonsky sued him for defamation and his legal team suggested the attack was a tactic over their ongoing legal disputes, which now features some 16 cases at the provincial court.

‘Business trainings’
But on his idyllic island of Koh Damlong, about 60 kilometres off the Cambodian coast, Polonsky isn’t letting the dispute worry him.

It was there in December that he ran a workshop for budding entrepreneurs. About a dozen Russians paid $2,500 each to come “pimp [their] personality” and “pimp [their] business” during the 10-day training session with Polonsky.

As the event kicked off, all stood awkwardly gathered around their relaxed idol at his tropical island’s tiki-themed bar. Seemingly in awe, no one was willing to say anything. Polonsky, wearing only in a pair of grey sweatpants, finally ended the tension.

“Relax!” he boomed, putting the participants at ease. And thus the “business trainings” began.

Nikolai Doroshenko milks the venom from one of his many snakes
Nikolai Doroshenko milks the venom from one of his many snakes. Daniel Quinlan

Polonsky, something of a Donald Trump-like celebrity in Russia, enjoys almost worshipful admiration from his fans.

“He uses this immense energy, which I think was given to him by the cosmos or a higher being,” said real estate agent Natalya Ganina in front of a series of bungalows.

Polonsky’s business courses are, like the man himself, a little eccentric.

For a business seminar, many of the “games” attendees participated in were surprisingly physical. Losers were made to run around a large tree in the middle of the island as a punishment.

In one session, attendees sat around a campfire lit in the middle of the jungle and asked Polonsky about philosophical themes: Socrates, the meaning of life, succeeding in business. At one point, Polonsky stood and howled at the top of his lungs into the pitch darkness.

Back on the mainland, the legal cases involving the tycoon were piling up: Polonsky was ordered off Koh de Koul, his lavish headquarters, which is also claimed by Doroshenko.

But before long, the tide seemed to turn to his favour: the court dismissed the order to move off Koh de Koul, and another judge charged Nikolai with breach of trust over four islands he claims to co-own with Polonsky.*

Adding insult to injury, authorities showed up at the Snake Houe and seized a red Humvee, which Polonsky claimed was his.

But the legal tit-for-tat would soon be pushed out of the spotlight by a new event.

On Koh Puos, a tropical island connected to Sihanoukville by a massive concrete bridge, strange bamboo structures were popping up on its white-sand beach. Tall, spindly ladders reached into the sky. Cylindrical bamboo cones topped off with a mysterious, oval-shaped egg towered over the landscape.

Ostap Doroshenko is a captain in the local police force
Ostap Doroshenko is a captain in the local police force. Daniel Quinlan

Electronic music festival kaZantip was coming to Cambodia, and it would bring an entirely new kind of drama.

Sihanoukville’s most wanted
“You can classify this as an attempted killing, an attempted beating … because the people purposefully beat his head on the concrete. And they did it professionally,” says Oleg Tikhanov, a heavy-set Sihanoukville businessman whose business interests range from a biker bar to a kindergarten.

On February 13, at Sihanoukville’s Queenco casino where tickets to kaZantip – Russia’s answer to Burning Man - were being sold, a vicious brawl erupted between two groups of men with connections to the festival, leaving three men wounded, according to police.

The two groups, one representing kaZantip tour operator Lotus Tours, the other there on behalf of Tikhanov’s company Oceania, blame each other for starting the fight.

Vladimir Palancica, the director of Lotus Tours, made a frantic 11:30pm phone call to The Phnom Penh Post, passing the phone to Polonsky, who has used the tour company for his projects before.

Sounding agitated, Polonsky said the attack was conducted by a “big crazy criminal group” in the presence of women and children.

Vladimir grabbed the phone back and claimed the leader of the attack said that he was the head of security at Snake House, the Doroshenkos’ base.

If true, it would seem to connect the attack to the Doroshenkos, who adamantly deny *the attacker had any connection to Snake House*. But Palancica himself said the real mastermind was Oceania’s boss, Tikhanov.

It’s an assertion Tikhanov rejects with a matter-of-fact air.

“I don’t think so. It’s absolutely true [that] they started the fight,” he countered from Garage Bar, where a large helicopter-sized rotor blade ventilates the bar.

Sergei Polonsky, who is wanted for major fraud in Russia, is sanguine.
Sergei Polonsky, who is wanted for major fraud in Russia, is sanguine. Griff Tapper

Tikhanov said the attack was started by Vladimir, for reasons he does not know.

Security camera footage indeed shows Vladimir’s men ganging up on one of Oceania’s employees as soon as he enters the frame, pummelling him to the floor.

But Vladimir said his men were merely acting in self-defence, as Oceania’s armed men were lying in wait just out of frame. “They come with guns and knives outside,” he said.

In the ensuing days, other characters entered the fray, penning their own breathless, even fanciful, accounts of what happened that night.

Roman Dragomir, a local businessman who claims to have brokered the relationship between kaZantip and Oceania, alleged in a more than 1,000-word statement that Vladimir brought in 15 wrestlers from Thailand to intimidate Oceania.

Dragomir, who was fingered as the supposed Snake House employee who led the Queenco attack, also claimed that Polonsky helped frame him to get back at the Doroshenkos, which Polonsky denied through his lawyer.

But Fyodor Pankratov, an Oceania employee, claimed in his own public statement that Dragomir led a “vicious racketeering plot” and was the one who demanded money.

To a man, everyone tied to the incident said it was the other side that is part of Sihanoukville’s Russian “mafia.”

Drug use and ‘naked dancing’
For kaZantip, already hanging by a thread with authorities put off by tales of potential drug use and “naked dancing”, the incident would prove the final nail in the coffin.

Four days after the incident at Queenco, officials finally, unequivocally, banned the festival, deploying police to the bridge to Koh Puos.

Ostap after hitmen allegedly tried to kill him.
Ostap after hitmen allegedly tried to kill him. Photo Supplied

With Koh Puos off limits, the party spread to different areas in Sihanoukville.

Clubs were flying kaZantip flags and hiring Eastern European dancing girls in an effort to attract the would-be revellers, but the festivities didn’t last for long. The authorities announced they would crack down on copycat kaZantip parties, and bashes organised on other islands dissipated due to police attention and lack of interest.

As the investigation into the Queenco attack continued, it came to light on February 26 that Oleg Tikhanov was wanted by Interpol for activities in Russia: alleged gun running with links to organised crime.

Tikhanov, who hasn’t answered calls or emails from since the Interpol warrant was discovered, is now rumoured to have fled to Phnom Penh.

His former lawyer, Prom Vichet Akara, said he didn’t know where Tikhanov was.

Vichet Akara added that the two had stopped working together, although he declined to elaborate why.

On the same day it was discovered that Tikhanov was wanted by Russian authorities, another attack occurred in Sihanoukville.

Police say a group of Russians opened fire at 11pm on a Lexus driven by a Turkish national, injuring a Khmer bystander.

Oleg Tikhanov is wanted by Interpol
Oleg Tikhanov is wanted by Interpol. Photo Supplied

The Turk was himself was said to have a chequered past and was taken into custody the next day, although the Russian attackers themselves have not been found.

End of the party?
Tikhanov is not the only Russian in Sihanoukville wanted by Interpol, and far from the most high profile.

The fact that Polonsky has thus far evaded the clutches of the international police on a warrant for embezzlement in Russia bothers the Doroshenkos considerably.

“Interpol is looking for him. And no matter where they check, nothing happens,” said Ostap in January.

But that could be changing.
On March 4, at a joint press conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said there were plans to finally sign an extradition treaty with Cambodia that would clear the path for Polonsky’s deportation.

Whether this is the final step in Polonsky’s Cambodian adventure remains to be seen. But it seems unlikely it will spell the end of tensions in this developing Little Russia.

Valentin Hitorin, a Russian journalist and writer who joined Polonsky’s December business seminar, said he was optimistic the feuding would one day be over.

“This country doesn’t need a war,” he said.

Clarification: This article has been amended to reflect the following points 1) That the Doroshenkos deny any connection to Roman Dragomir who they say was not an employee of Snake House. 2) That the Doroshenkos contest the ownership of Koh Dek Koul island. 3) That the court dismissed the order for Sergei Polonsky to vacate Koh Dek Koul.
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