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Is mystery yacht in Tuscany Putin’s?

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The multi-million-dollar mega yacht Scheherazade docked at the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara, Tuscany, on March 22, 2022. AFP

Is mystery yacht in Tuscany Putin’s?

In a dry dock in the Tuscan seaside town of Massa stands the “Scheherazade”, the most infamous yacht in Italy today due to speculation it could belong to Vladimir Putin.

With its bow facing the Mediterranean, the 140m craft worth an estimated $700 million is the subject of a probe into its ownership by Italy’s financial police.

Several yachts belonging to Russian oligarchs have already been seized in Europe since Moscow invaded Ukraine last month. The seizure of the “Scheherazade”, however, would be the most spectacular were its provenance indeed traced to the Russian president.

For several months, it has been parked for maintenance work at The Italian Sea Group’s shipyard at the Marina di Carrara, within the western seaside town of Massa not far from Tuscany’s famous marble quarries of Carrara.

On Wednesday, an AFPTV journalist witnessed no obvious signs of activity on board, although some men were working nearby.

A source close to the ongoing probe by Italy’s financial police said that the investigation could be wrapped up within days.

“We are in a phase of delving deeper and it’s generally more complicated,” said the source. “It’s not always easy to attribute ownership.”

Crew changes

Built by Germany’s Lurssen in 2020, the yacht features two helipads, a swimming pool and a movie theatre, according to the SuperYachtFan website, which researches yachts and their owners.

News reports say the “Scheherazade”, which flies the Cayman Islands flag, is owned by a company registered in the Marshall Islands.

Its captain is British, but the rest of the crew is Russian, according to researchers at the anti-corruption foundation of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, which on Monday posted a video on YouTube attributing the yacht to Putin.

Researchers cited a crew list in their possession that included several members of Russia’s federal protective service, which is charged with Putin’s security.

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A marble vase reading ‘free ukraine’ is in the foreground as the multi-million-dollar mega yacht Scheherazade (rear centre) is docked at the Tuscan port of Marina di Carrara, Tuscany on Tuesday. AFP

But on Wednesday Paolo Gozzani, the head of the local CGIL union, which includes shipyard workers, said the crew of the “Scheherazade” had suddenly changed in recent days.

“The crew was exclusively made up of Russian personnel,” Gozzani said.

“And then suddenly all the staff was changed with a British crew, and the reasons are still not clear.”

The New York Times has reported that US authorities have collected evidence linking Putin to the luxury ship, which made two trips, in 2020 and 2021, to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The Italian Sea Group said in a statement the yacht was “not attributable to the property of Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

Its assessment was based on “the documentation in its possession and following the findings of the checks carried out by the relevant authorities”, said the shipyard’s owner.

‘Seize them all’

Interviewed by The New York Times earlier this month, the British captain of the “Scheherazade” said Putin was not the owner of the ship and that the Russian president had never set foot on board. Refusing to give the owner’s name, the captain said it was no one facing current sanctions.

In an address to the Italian parliament on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Italy, a popular Russian resort destination, to seize all financial and real estate assets of the oligarchs, including yachts, “from the Scheherazade to the smallest”.

Since Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing EU sanctions, Italian authorities have seized over €800 million ($877 million) of assets belonging to Russian oligarchs, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Tuesday.

That includes the “Sailing Yacht A”, the €530 sailing-assisted motor yacht linked to Russian billionaire Andrei Melnichenko, a coal and fertiliser tycoon on the EU’s blacklist.

Italy also seized the €65 million “Lady M Yacht” belonging to Alexei Mordashov, a Russian steel billionaire reputedly close to Vladimir Putin.

The sanctions, said Draghi, “have severely affected the economy and financial markets of Russia, as well as the personal assets of the people closest to President Putin”.

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