David Litterick – Telegraph.co.uk August 2, 2008
Russia's super-rich might be getting bad publicity from the TNK-BP deal but what it really shows is that they can no longer be ignored, writes David Litterick
At this time of year, Cyprus is a holiday paradise. Millions flock to the Mediterranean nation's beautiful beaches. But last month it played host to a rather different set of guests. Some of the world's richest men gathered in an opulent room in the Four Seasons Hotel near Limassol, keen to wield their influence - and with it lay low one of the biggest names in corporate Britain.
Between them, Viktor Vekselberg, Mikhail Fridman and Leonid Blavatnik control a fortune worth more than $40bn, according to the most recent Forbes list of billionaires, and none of them is frightened of letting it show.
They are the three oligarchs behind AAR, a consortium that owns 50 per cent of TNK-BP, an oil joint venture with the British corporate giant which is hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
But if their extreme wealth is recognised, so too is their aggression when it comes to business.
The row between their consortium and BP is more than just a localised spat among joint venture partners. Its effects are playing out at government level and on the UK stock market, where political risk has prevented BP from enjoying the oil price boom.
Steven O'Sullivan spent nine years in Russia with United Financial Group and advised on the TNK-BP deal. He said the new breed of wealthy Russian businessmen have been increasingly influencing corporate Britain, without many people even realising.
"Russians have been in London for some time because it's close to Moscow and it's very international and you have seen them active in the property market," he said. "London is an attractive market to them."
Between 1998 and 2004 more than $100bn flowed out of Russia, according to Forbes magazine. A substantial chunk of that is now being spent in the boutiques and estate agents of London, thought to be home to more than 300,000 Russians.
"Companies from the CIS form an ever greater part of the London [stock market] index," O'Sullivan said. "And Russian oligarchs are increasingly invested in it themselves through investment funds. Many of them practically operate as large institutions in their own right, playing the stock market, so they do have an enormous amount of influence - more so than previously - and I'm not sure everyone appreciates that.
"I think most Russian companies understand that good corporate governance enhances value but because of the size of the Russian resources industry there are many companies that are heavily influenced by the state. The shares of Mechel [a miner] fell by almost a half when [former president] Putin said he didn't like the management, so you have to deal with that kind of unpredictability.
As for TNK-BP, he said: "There are different agendas at play. BP shareholders have benefited tremendously from the deal but it looks like they will get less of the benefits of the joint venture in the future and more of the money will stay in Russia."
Although Vladimir Putin had been elected four years previously, it was the arrival of Roman Abramovich on the London social scene four years ago and his acquisition of Chelsea football club, that forced people to look eastward.
Regarded as a disaster area during President Boris Yeltsin's years of chaotic transformation, the Chelsea deal was the first sign that Russia had regained its status as a world power.
The story of how the oligarchs made their money is hard to credit.
As former communists, many were permitted during Perestroika to set up co-operatives, which later became lucrative trading businesses.
In 1992 the government established a mass privatisation in which workers were given shares in their businesses and vouchers that enabled them to be bought and sold.
Unaccustomed to the ways of capitalism and enduring a difficult economic period, many were easily encouraged by the oligarchs to sell their vouchers for what now appear ludicrously small sums.
According to one estimate, the 140m vouchers issued by 1994 valued the entire Russian industrial sector at just $12bn. The folly was compounded in 1995 when Yeltsin's government turned to the newly enriched and emboldened oligarchs for loans.
When the government defaulted, they cleaned up again, seizing mineral and oil assets.
It left them in a strong position to benefit from the recent oil and commodity boom.
In Britain's industrial revolution, it took generations for families to lift themselves into wealth. The oligarchs managed it in less than 10 years.
Although the number of companies from the former Soviet Union listed in London has now topped 100 (three are in the FTSE100 index), few have sought a full listing.
That could be about to change. Rusal, the aluminium giant controlled by Oleg Deripaska, has made no secret of its desire to seek a full listing in London, with the ultimate ambition of joining the blue chip index.
Oil and gas are not the only sources of Russia's emerging wealth, however. Charlie Ellingworth of HSBC Private Bank said the new wealth was also pouring in from the retail, banking and food sectors, with little chance that the flow will decline.
"Russia is the last real source of new money," he said. "It's interesting that when you look at the collapse in the property market, the top end has remained strong. That's because there is still money flowing into it from Russia.
"They often prefer to hold assets in London because the legal jurisdiction is well-established and considered fair.?.?. They feel more secure with a chunk of their assets outside Russia."
Many are no doubt thinking of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the original oligarchs who benefited from his association with Mikhail Gorbachev and later Yeltsin, but fell foul of Putin. Stripped of much of his fortune, he ended up with an eight-year prison sentence.
Despite President Dmitry Medvedev's insistence last week that the Russian government should not "terrorise" business, Alisher Usmanov - who, having built his business using a private equity model, is not officially an oligarch - has learnt the lesson and is investing more abroad.
He has already pumped some of his fortune into a 24 per cent stake in Arsenal football club, and has lavished tens of millions of pounds on British property.
He has also invested in the minerals sector in Australia.
More audaciously, Usmanov, whose fortune is estimated at more than $20bn, is planning to buy Kazakhmys, the London-listed miner, which could catapult his own Russian mining giant, Metalloinvest, into the FTSE100.
He has powerful friends. Said to be close to Medvedev, he also has close links with Deripaska, who currently tops the Forbes list of richest Russians with around $28bn and is married to a relative of Yeltsin. Deripaska has bought LDV, the Birmingham-based van manufacturer, ploughing around £50m into it.
Said to be interested in buying West Bromwich Albion football club, he is involved in the battle for control of Norilsk Nickel with Usmanov and his ally Vladimir Potanin.
Norilsk, which has a listing in London, is, along with BP, at the forefront of the debate over corporate governance standards in Russia, which could have implications for London institutions that hold Norilsk shares.
And of course Deripaska controls Rusal, in which Vekselberg holds a major stake, taking us back to AAR.
Previously, Russian oligarchs were a phenomenon to be admired (or despised, according to taste), but one that could be dismissed as an entertaining foreign curiosity.
With their intertwining links and increasing influence on the London stock market and corporate Britain, that is no longer the case.
Ranking and wealth as found on the Forbes World’s Billionaires list
Roman Abramovich Ranking: 15 Fortune: $23.5bn
Orphaned as a child, Abramovich dropped out of college, then made a fortune in oil export deals in early 1990s. His fortune took off in 1995 when he teamed up with Boris Berezovsky to take over oil giant Sibneft. In 2006 he bought a stake in the country’s largest steelmaker, Evraz Group, and early in 2008, a piece of Highland Gold, the UK mining company with operations in Russia.
Mikhail Fridman Ranking: 20 Fortune: $20
8bn Fridman spent his childhood in the Ukrainian city of Lvov and studied at the Moscow Institute of Steel & Alloys in 1980s. He founded Alfa Group in 1990s with college friend German Khan. Kremlin connections include a former subordinate who is a political adviser to Putin. Focused on the row with BP over joint oil venture TNK-BP.
Viktor Vekselberg Ranking: 67 Fortune: $11.2bn
Ukraine-born oil and aluminum baron who studied at the Moscow State University of Railroad Engineering in 1970s. His management company, Renova, orchestrated Russia’s first successful hostile takeover, of the Vladimir Tractor Factory, in 1994. Made bulk of fortune when his Sual Holding and fellow billionaire Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group took over the Tyumen Oil Company (TNK), which merged with British oil giant BP in 2003.
Alisher Usmanov Ranking: 91 Fortune: $9.3bn
The co-owner of several steel and ironore factories has been expanding into telecom and media, buying Kommersant newspaper from billionaire and former oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Apparently close to Kremlin officials, in 2007 he bought stake in Telecominvest, a diversified holding company hit by lawsuits alleging it was owned by a minister.
Oleg Deripaska Ranking: 9 Fortune: $28bn
Former metals trader who survived the bitter struggle for power in the post- Soviet aluminium industry. His holding company, Basic Element, now owns interests across the spectrum of industries. Married to a relative of Yeltsin, he has expanded Rusal’s activities. Planning a full London listing of Rusal next year.
German Khan Ranking: 54 Fortune: $13.9bn
A native of Kiev, graduated from the Moscow Institute of Steel & Alloys in 1988. The next year, with former classmate Mikhail Fridman, cofounded Alfa-Eco, a commodities trader and predecessor of Alfa Group. Heads Alfa Group’s oil business and a board member of TNK-BP, formed in 2003.
Last updated 07/08/2008