Baturina Hits Austria With Charm Offensive

Mayor Yury Luzhkov's billionaire wife Yelena Baturina is running a charm offensive, including pop stars Stevie Wonder and Elton John, in her campaign to buy a million-dollar mansion at a posh Austrian ski resort.

The chalet in Aurach, a hamlet just outside Kitzbhel, was bought earlier this year by a tourism consulting firm partly owned by Baturina, an Austrian official said Wednesday.

This summer, Baturina and Inteko, her property development firm, embarked on a spending spree, which officials suggested was partly aimed at lobbying for property deals.

Stringent laws in the Austrian state of Tyrol stipulate that non-EU residents wishing to buy property for personal use have to prove that they plan to live there permanently and demonstrate that the purchase is in the public interest.

More than 50 percent of Tirus Tourismusberatung, the firm that purchased the chalet, is owned by Russian shareholders, Christian Visinteiner, head of the state commission responsible for approving property acquisitions by foreigners, said by telephone from Innsbruck. He said Baturina was one of the owners.

Hermann Riedler, the state's property commissioner, said there were doubts about whether Tirus was a qualified buyer.

"In this case, I had doubts whether this would be in the public interest," he said.

As a result, Riedler objected to the deal, which had been approved by authorities in Kitzbhel, and the case went to the state commission, which reached a decision after a hearing Wednesday.

Visinteiner, the commission's head, said the decision would not be made public until after it had been sent in writing to the parties involved in the deal.

"This could take until Monday," he said.

Visinteiner did confirm that Baturina's lawyer had made some unconventional offers at Wednesday's hearing in attempts to convince officials to approve the deal.

The lawyer, Emilio Stock, said Baturina would invite Elton John to sing at a festival in Kitzbhel next summer, that she would develop a chain of hotels and set up a Russian center at the University of Innsbruck, the regional capital, Austrian state broadcasting corporation ORF reported.

Reached on his cell phone Wednesday, Stock would not confirm the report and asked that all questions to be referred to Inteko.

The company did not return requests for comment by Wednesday evening. A woman who answered the phone at Inteko said the firm's main executives, including Baturina, were in Munich for the Expo Real property fair.

Baturina, Russia's richest woman with a personal fortune of $4.2 billion according to Forbes, and her husband, arguably the country's most powerful regional leader, are regular vacationers in Kitzbhel, which like other Alpine resorts has seen a massive influx of Russian tourists in recent years.

But Baturina has also launched some major investment projects there, including a golf resort with a five-star hotel.

The Grand Tyrolia golf resort, currently under development, was at the center of controversy this summer when it suddenly declared that it was pulling out as a sponsor of Kitzbhel's annual tennis tournament.

Baturina is an avid golfer, while Luzhkov has a well-known passion for tennis.

The resort was sold in March for a reputed $34 million by Saphros, a private equity company based in Vienna. Local media reported that the company, controlled by Baturina, is planning to invest another $40 million in the property.

Riedler, the property commissioner, said there had been questions at the time about whether Saphros should also be considered a foreign buyer but that local officials had decided to let the sale go through.

"The decision was to treat the deal as a national case," he said.

In June, Inteko officially launched Jazzanova, an annual music festival that for its premiere brought soul star Stevie Wonder to a select Kitzbhel crowd. The 4,000 tickets were distributed for free, many going to local officials.

"This is an attempt to prove that there is a public interest," Visinteiner said about Baturina's efforts.

Local officials, meanwhile, were making it clear that Baturina was more than welcome.

"The mood is very positive here. She is investing and making public commitments," Aurach's deputy mayor Franz Obermoser said about the Russian investor by telephone Wednesday.

Felix Obermoser, spokesman for the town of Kitzbhel (no relation to Franz) agreed.

"Mrs. Baturina and Mr. Luzhkov are genuinely welcome here anytime," he said.

Luzhkov had actually been nearby, meeting with officials in neighboring southern Germany. On Tuesday, he struck a deal with authorities in Bavaria to buy 1,500 cows, the Agriculture Ministry in Munich said in a press release.

Local media showed pictures of Luzhkov with his trademark cap meeting farmers in the Allgu, a remote region in southwestern Bavaria.

The animals were destined for a city dairy farm in the Tula region that produces meals for the capital's schoolchildren, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported Wednesday.

City hall spokesman Yura Aidinov said Wednesday that the mayor was back in Moscow and he could not comment on the report because he had not been with Luzhkov in Germany.