A French populist-conservative politician and investor has agreed to build a historic theme park in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea together with a patriotic Russian financier who has been linked to pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.
The deal between Philippe de Villiers, leader of the eurosceptic Mouvement pour la France party, and Konstantin Malofeev, a key figure in Russian orthodox conservative circles who support expansionist ideologies, is certain to reignite controversy in Europe over supporting a regime the EU is trying to punish with sanctions.
The Crimean government said Mr de Villiers, Mr Malofeev and Sergei Aksyonov, the Moscow-appointed head of the Crimean government, had signed a memorandum of understanding under which Mr de Villiers’ company Puy du Fou International and Mr Malofeev would invest at least Rbs4bn ($110m) in the park.
Legal experts in Moscow said Mr de Villiers’ planned Crimean venture constituted an open defiance of EU sanctions. Both Mr Malofeev and Mr Aksyonov are blacklisted under EU sanctions against individuals helping or supporting Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Under the regulation, EU citizens are barred from making any funds or economic resources available to a blacklisted individual. In addition, the EU has also banned technical and financial assistance for projects in Crimea and joint ventures in transport, energy and telecommunications on the peninsula.
“Even if the Crimea-specific provision does not apply to a theme park, which is not entirely clear, the one regarding the blacklist does – an EU person cannot do any business with these people, full stop,” said a foreign lawyer in Moscow. He said there was “no way” the planned theme park could go ahead under the EU sanctions, but added that the agreement was just a memorandum of understanding, there might be no legal consequences for Mr de Villiers yet. “This is just a gigantic PR stunt,” he said.
In a press release, Mr de Villiers did not mention EU restrictions but instead expressed his hope that the project would not be blocked by US sanctions.
“Sanctions are acts of war. Co-operation is an act of peace. We have come to deliver an act of peace,” he said in the release. He added: “The future of Europe is not written on the American continent. It is written on the European continent. Europe has no future without Russia.”
Mr de Villiers, a former communications minister in the government of Jacques Chirac, is a well-known conservative who opposes the EU and, more recently, has spoken out against Islam in France.
He ran for president in the 2007 election but was eliminated in the first round. His brother, Pierre, is chief of staff of France’s armed forces.
The new attraction will be dedicated to the history of Russia and the Black Sea, the Crimean authorities said. “Our project will promote the history of Crimea as part of the long history of Russia,” Mr de Villiers was quoted as saying in the announcement.
Such intentions are fully in line with Moscow’s propaganda on Crimea. Both the Russian government and the Russian public share the view that Crimea was Russian “since ancient times”. The peninsula, a crossroads of different cultures including Greek, Roman, Scythian, Goth and Turkish since antiquity, first became part of the Russian political sphere through occupation by the Kievan Rus, the first Russian state, in the middle of the 10th century. It changed hands again in the 13th century and was not ruled by Russia for the next 500 years. Its next conquest of the peninsula in 1783 gave Russia only a brief period of control over the territory, which ended in the Crimean War in 1856 – at the hands of a European alliance including France.
The press release suggests that Mr de Villiers sides with Russia’s version of history.
“Puy du Fou will use all our knowledge, experience and competence of its upscale team to implement this grand historical project, revealing the soul of the Crimea,” he said. “I am happy to have this opportunity to express my love for Russia.”
According to the Kremlin, Russian president Vladimir Putin received Mr de Villiers the night before in the Crimean resort town of Yalta at Livadia Palace, the summer residence of the Russian tsars. “Many in Europe, including politicians, my colleagues – I recently spoke with the president of France, I feel his attitude – all want to get out of the situation [in Ukraine], which is harmful to our co-operation, as quickly as possible,” Mr Putin said during the meeting.
Mr de Villiers’ relationship with Mr Malofeev predates the Crimean plans. Last month, before his Russian partner was blacklisted by the EU, the two said they would build a theme park near Moscow dedicated to Russia’s defeat of Napoleon’s army in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War of 1812.
Additional reporting by Adam Thomson in Paris
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