MOSCOW – Lev Leviev hailed it as proof that his Africa Israel Group has recovered from the beating it took from the global financial crisis: the opening of an 180,000-square-meter mall in the middle of Moscow’s central business district.
On Sunday, the billionaire Israeli businessman, who is controlling shareholder and chairman of the global holding and investment company, officially opened AFIMall City at a glamorous ceremony attended by a delegation of businesspeople and journalists from Israel, although in practice the mall, Eastern Europe’s largest, began welcoming shoppers in March.
Wearing a black kippa, Leviev, who is affiliated with the Chabad Hassidim, affixed mezuzot to two doors at the mall’s main entrance before leading his delegation through the complex and up to a special VIP section on the top floor.
There, a curious mix of guests including black-clad haredi men and leggy
Russian blondes wearing the latest in European fashion drank from the
finest vodka and ate from a smorgasbord of kosher delicacies, surrounded
by an exhibit of about a dozen giant babushka dolls.
Situated right in the heart of Moscow City, the booming business
district located four kilometers from Red Square on the banks of the
Moscow River, AFIMall has six levels filled with 550 upmarket stores,
including H&M, Zara and Marks & Spencer. In addition to theaters
and restaurants, there are plans to introduce a concert hall and
convention hall in the future. The mall was designed by Canadian firm
B&B Architects and was constructed by AFI subsidiaries Danya Cebus
and Negev Israel. It is expected to generate $150 million in revenue
Following Sunday’s ceremony, Leviev and AFI CEO Izzy Cohen met with
Israeli journalists at the company’s Aquamarine Hotel, where they
discussed the mall’s opening, the impact of Moscow’s recent real-estate
crisis and even delved briefly into politics.
“It’s true that we kept very quiet during the construction phase,”
Leviev said of the mall’s completion under the firm’s Russian
real-estate arm, AFI Development. “We knew that what would help the
company would not be words, but rather actions, and in effect this
outcome is evidence more than words could be.”
“Today I can say that we did it, with a lot of energy and a lot of
effort,” he said. “It’s not easy to start a project of this size in the
center of Moscow. At the time of the global crisis, Russia went through a
crisis in real estate and in general, and just as Russia was the first
to enter the crisis, it is also the first to exit the crisis. It is
clear to everyone that the situation in Russia today is very stable and
is moving forward.”
Leviev, 54, also expanded on AFI’s partnership with Israeli companies
such as electro-mechanical and construction firm Electra, with which it
has worked on various projects around Moscow.
“There is enough space here for everybody,” he said, “and now we have
also managed to help a number of Israeli companies to enter the market
[in Russia] and to learn about the work methods and their application
here, which are not exactly the same as in Israel.”
Sitting alongside Leviev, Cohen remarked that the company had survived
the financial crisis through its willingness to be proactive and to take
“I am very happy about the fact that we came to a decision [to go ahead
with the AFIMall project] and took risks,” he said, adding: “We could
not have completed a project like this today without Danya Cebus,
unequivocally. We could not have managed such a project and completed
such a project with a moderate budget in a time of recession without
being able to use the construction companies and the materials suppliers
and without the whole project being managed and supervised in-house.”
The Africa Israel Group recorded a net profit of about NIS 1.7 billion
in 2010, it reported in March, marking a dramatic turnaround from the
previous year when it lost NIS 674m. – its second consecutive year in
the red. In addition, the company reported that all its subsidiaries had
returned large profits and experienced continued growth last year.
One of the hubs of Africa Israel’s operations is Moscow, with several
different projects scattered around the metropolis of almost 12 million
people, a city through which, according to Leviev, “about 50 percent of
Russia’s gross national product passes.”
Among Africa Israel’s projects are: the Aquamarine compound, which
centers around the four-star business hotel of the same name and which
also includes several office buildings close to completion; the 4 Winds
residential and office complex in Moscow City; a residential and
commercial complex in Moscow’s old business district near Brestskaya
Plaza; and the Paveletzkaya complex south of the city center, which
includes two office buildings and a planned residential and commercial
Cohen and Leviev said AFI was not looking to expand to new parts of the
world, but could grow sufficiently in its four current markets of
Russia, Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States.
Leviev, who made his fortune as owner of the world’s largest cutter and
polisher of diamonds, said, “A mall like AFIMall is like a mine where
the more you dig, the more diamonds you find in it.”
The billionaire businessman also agreed to speak briefly about the
apparent rift between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu over the terms of a future peace agreement between
Israel and the Palestinians. Leviev reiterated his position that Israel
cannot be expected to give concessions to the Palestinians without
receiving something in return. But he emphasized that it was up to
Netanyahu to deal with such matters and that he would not want to
Asked whether being Jewish had caused any difficulties for him when
doing business in Russia, Leviev responded that he has experienced far
worse anti-Semitism in London, where he resides.
Everyone in Russia “knows that this is an Israeli company,” he said. “We
don’t face different treatment or any difficulties. I wear a kippa
everywhere, and as you saw, I put up a mezuza opposite the Russian
version of the White House.
“I think that in everything connected to Jews and to Israel here, there
is admiration and support, and they see Israel as a model of a small
country whose initiative should be used as an example,” Leviev said.