Getty ImagesEveryone’s been talking about Russia’s super rich oligarchs lately — first because of the banking crisis in Cyprus, and now because of the mysterious death of one oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, in London this weekend.
Expect the talk to continue. Berezovksy’s death will lead to questions for the Kremlin, his former partner Roman Abramovich and a whole host of other super wealthy, powerful individuals that inhabit the world of Russia’s elite.
So before we all dive in, it’s important to know how those on top got to where they are.
The oligarchs are the product of the privatization of state companies after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian economy was in disarray and the government wanted to redistribute badly managed state-owned companies in just about every industry you can imagine in an effort to move towards capitalism.
In 1994, executives at Russia’s only Swiss Central Bank accredited bank, Oneksim Bank came up with a plan to help then-President Boris Yeltsin and his administration raise some cash while distributing the companies.
The plan was called “loans for shares.” Russian banks lent the government money in exchange for temporary stakes in state-owned companies. If the government defaulted on its loan, the banks got to keep their stakes.
Of course, the government did default, and those with the capital to take advantage of this fire sale, like Oneksim Bank’s then-president and Russia’s 4th richest man Vladimir Potanin, became wealthy beyond belief.
At the time, reported the New York Times, Russian voters called this policy “prikhvatizatsiya,” or “grabification.”
When the auctions began last fall, it became all too obvious that a fix was in. Foreign investors were barred from bidding for the most desirable assets, and the same banks that were assigned by the Government to organise the auctions ended up winning them, and usually at only a fraction over the minimum bid.
Oneksim Bank, for instance, organised the auction for 38 per cent of Norilsk Nickel, which produces platinum and a quarter of the world’s nickel, and won it for $171 million, only $100,000 above the minimum bid and half as much as the rival Rossiisky Credit bank was prepared to pay. Oneksim Bank spokesmen say they disqualified Rossiisky Credit because it filed its applications late and wanted to guarantee its bid with treasury bills as well as cash. Rossiisky Bank said it would sue.
Shares in some of Russia’s largest oil conglomerates, including Lukoil and Yukos, were sold off for what Western analysts considered to be a fraction of their real value. When the buying frenzy subsided, the Government collected $1 billion, half of what it had expected to collect.
When “loans for shares” started Boris Berezovsky was already a very wealthy man. He got into the auto business when the Soviet Union was crumbling and parleyed that into more successful businesses, including a super-elite club for Russia’s new money in Moscow.
Berezovsky also kept a pretty high profile. His chauffeur was decapitated when a bomb went off near his Mercedes in 1994.
That was also the year he met his far less flashy former partner, Roman Abramovic (Russia’s 7th richest man), on a friend’s sailboat in the Caribbean. The two men figured out how to use “loans for shares” to take control of the state oil company, Sibneft.
Berezovsky would use his influence to ensure that he and Abramovic’s bid won the company, and Abramovic would run it.
No papers were signed in this agreement and there are no documents to unseal. That ambiguity lead Berezovsky to file a $5 billion lawsuit against Abramovic last year, alleging that Abramovic intimidated him into selling his shares in Sibneft at a rock bottom price.
Some say that the fear of losing his fortune lead Berezovsky to commit suicide. He had a lot to lose, as estimates put it around $3 billion.
That means, compared to some of his fellow oligarchs, Berezovsky wound up just… OK. According to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index, Roman Abramovic is worth about $13.4 billion, another oligarch, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is worth $13.1 billion, and the richest oligarch of all, Alisher Usmanov, is worth $21.1 billion.
The lesson here — It’s good to be at the right place at the right time.
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