A Swedish billionaire who is developing a controversial luxury hotel in Aspen is suing one of the city’s newspapers for defamation, claiming The Aspen Times wrongly portrayed him as a corrupt Russian oligarch amid that country’s war on Ukraine.
Vladislav Doronin, who was born in the Soviet Union and built his fortune in Moscow’s real estate scene in the 1990s, says the newspaper’s coverage of him in both news stories and opinion pieces casts a pall on his $76.25 million Aspen land purchase and planned development, according to a complaint filed last month in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.
It’s the latest escalation in a simmering fight between the newspaper and Doronin. The Aspen Times has been critical of Doronin’s purchase, while the billionaire’s public relations team has staunchly fought the “oligarch” label, denied allegations of corruption and emphasized Doronin’s disapproval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Soviet-born Doronin left that country and renounced his citizenship in the mid-1980s, before the Soviet Union collapsed. He now lives in Switzerland and is a citizen of Sweden. He divested from his Russia-focused business in 2014, the lawsuit claims, and “has not conducted any business in Russia since,” his lawyers wrote.
The 59-year-old serves as CEO of OKO Group, a Miami real-estate development firm, and Aman Group, a luxury resort brand based in Switzerland.
In March, OKO Group purchased a nearly one-acre parcel in Aspen at the base of the Aspen Mountain ski resort’s Lift 1A from developers with local ties who’d won voter approval to develop the lot by just 26 votes, in part by emphasizing their commitment to the Aspen community.
The Aspen Times’ editorial board criticized the unexpected sale to an out-of-town developer, which happened just months after the original developers bought the property — and rights to build a hotel there — for $10 million.
The Aspen Times published a news story about the sale in March, initially referring to Doronin as an oligarch before later tweaking the story to remove that reference. In a subsequent opinion piece, columnist John Colson compared Doronin to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — who he said also owns property in Aspen — and insinuated that the pair might have worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I have no idea whether Abramovich or Doronin currently have Putin’s ear or were privy to the advance planning for the invasion, but again, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both are ultimately wise to that whole ugly mess,” Colson opined, adding that Doronin and Abramovich were “at the least.. almost certainly… deeply embedded in the kleptocratic culture that emerged after the USSR fell apart.”
Abramovich, who has been subject to international sanctions in the wake of Putin’s war on Ukraine, is also the largest shareholder of the company that owns the steel mill in Pueblo.
That column, too, was edited after Doronin’s public relations team threatened a lawsuit over the use of the term “oligarch,” according to an editor’s note added to the column. Later, the newspaper published a reader-submitted letter to the editor that said Doronin’s money was tainted and Aspen “should not become a ‘laundromat’ for corrupt funds to be bleached, hung out and dried.”
Doronin’s attorneys called the allegations of corruption “scurrilous falsehoods” in their complaint against Swift Communications, the Aspen Times’ owner, and said the newspaper was capitalizing on “anti-Russian sentiment” amid the invasion of Ukraine.
Doronin’s legal team did not respond to a request from The Denver Post for comment last week; Aspen Times publisher Allison Pattillo declined to comment. An email listed for OKO Group was not working Thursday.
In the lawsuit, Doronin’s attorneys argue the term “oligarch” is synonymous with corruption, and so should not be applied to Doronin.
“Oligarchs are not merely wealthy individuals of Russian origin; they are individuals who have amassed their wealth through the exploitation of Russian natural resources, corrupt direction of Russian state-owned enterprises, and close political affiliation with Vladimir Putin,” the complaint reads.
But Jeffrey A. Winters, author of the book “Oligarchy” and a professor at Northwestern University, said that definition is wrong, and part of an effort by today’s ultra-wealthy to deflect criticism over their wealth and power and distance themselves from the term.
“That is a definition that is self-serving on the part of oligarchs and it’s part of deflecting attention and criticism,” he said. “But that has nothing to with the way the term has been used for thousands of years.”
The term “oligarch” emerged in ancient Greece and has traditionally been used to describe people who are wealthy and achieve power through their wealth, he said.
“A person is an oligarch if they are empowered in a certain way, empowered by wealth,” he said, adding later, “The source of the money is irrelevant, it is the power associated with the money that defines someone as an oligarch.”
Oligarchs don’t like to be called oligarchs, he said, and it’s a common tactic for them to use “intimidating lawsuits against the press,” particularly in countries without First Amendment protections, to shut down criticism that threatens their wealth.
U.S. law gives extra protections against defamation allegations to media outlets writing about matters of public concern, said Denver attorney Dan Ernst, who is not involved in the lawsuit.
Proving a defamation claim against a media outlet requires the person making the claim to prove not only that the published information was false, but also that the publisher knew it was false and published it anyway, or that it was reckless or malicious.
“It’s not an easy argument to make,” Ernst said.
There’s also a distinction in law between information presented as opinion and that presented as fact, he said. In a 1994 Colorado Supreme Court case, the justices found statements of opinion are generally protected from claims of defamation. Statements that can be proven true or false, and that a reasonable person might conclude are statements of fact, generally are not considered to be opinion.
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