When news arrived from Italy about eight Kazakhstan nationals having to be rescued from a burning mega-yacht, people back home began wondering who these unfortunate, wealthy souls might be.
Reporting among local media has been scant, leaving it to a handful of titles and anonymously run Telegram channels to do all the speculation.
Italy’s ANSA news agency offered few clues. Seventeen people in total had to be rescued from the 50-meter Lady MM yacht, which was sailing under a Cayman Islands flag around 50 nautical miles from Sardinia’s northeastern coast when the blaze broke out early on August 25. The boat had previously been moored on the island of Capri. The area where the fire occurred is well-known as a magnet for the global super-rich, especially those hailing from the former Soviet Union.
Footage filmed by the Italian coast guard shows the burning yacht sinking below the waves toward the evening of August 25. There is no word yet on what recovery or investigation efforts will be undertaken.
Online yacht databases describe the Lady MM as having been built in 2003 by an Italian-based company called ISA Yachts. The shipbuilder’s website, which notes that the yacht was previously called April’s Fool, states that the boat could accommodate up to 10 guests in five suites, as well as nine members of crew to “ensure a relaxed luxury yacht experience.”
The Cayman Islands listing makes establishing the trail of ownership complicated. Some outlets have tried nonetheless, although to questionable levels of reliability.
KazTAG news agency, for example, claims to cite the Kazakhstan edition of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper as reporting that the yacht was being used by the family of metals and banking tycoon Kanat Assaubayev. KazTAG fails to provide a link for that article, however, and the alleged report is nowhere to be found on the Novaya Gazeta-Kazakhstan website.
Open sources indicate that the yacht originally belonged to Sanford Weill, a former chief executive of Citigroup. The boat used to be called April’s Fool, because, Weill once explained, he met his wife on April 1, 1955. The boat was put up for sale for 17.5 million euros ($20.8 million) in 2006, which offers some vague guidance as to its value.
The boat has gone through some name changes, and this too is read as a clue by internet sleuths. The name Lady MM is believed, by some, to be a dedication to Kanat Assaubayev’s late wife Marusya Maralovna Assaubayeva, who died in Zurich in August 2015.
That the Lady MM was listed on at least one charter website indicates that it was being leased out at intervals.
Several members of the Assaubayev family are known to have ties to the Cayman Islands, in the form of a company called Global GP Co Limited. As of at least 2014, Kanat Assaubayev, his late wife and three sons were listed as company directors, according to details revealed in the Paradise Papers leak.
The Assaubayev family riches are ostensibly concentrated at present on a London-listed mining company Altyn plc. The company’s assets include the Sekisovskoye gold deposit near the city of Oskemen, and the nearby Teren-Sai deposit.
The Assaubayevs have at times played a dominant if contentious role in Kazakhstan’s gold sector. Their company KazakhGold was once the country’s largest producer of the metal. The company was taken over by Russian company Polyus Gold in 2009. That deal ended in acrimony the following year, however, when the owners of Polyus Gold filed suit against the Assaubayevs for allegedly making false claims about the value of their company.
The Assaubayevs strongly denied those accusations, but the row came to an end after they agreed to buy back KazakhGold subsidiaries in Kazakhstan, Romania and Kyrgyzstan for around half a billion dollars.
The Assaubayev business has had trouble closer to home in recent times. In August 2018, the Kazakhstan edition of Forbes magazine reported that they were among the delinquent debtors being pursued by the Single Accumulated Savings Fund, or ENPF in its Russian initials, a roughly $25 billion National Bank-managed investment pot being used in part to finance the country’s pensions.
Since the Lady MM disappeared into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea, some wild if unsourced figures have been cast about as to the extent of those liabilities.
The chatter is not likely to cease soon.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.