Open season on post-Soviet billionaires

LEONID BERSHIDSKY
Last updated 11:24 14/03/2014
Dmitry Firtash
ARRESTED: The handcuffing of Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash in Vienna may be a harbinger of what awaits other bureaucrats and business people.

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Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, beware: One of your kind has just been arrested in Europe.

The handcuffing of Ukrainian billionaire Dmitry Firtash in Vienna, first reported by the Austrian newspaper Kurier, may be a harbinger of what awaits bureaucrats and business people close to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As the United States and Europe look for ways to impose a cost for Russia's de facto annexation of Ukrainian territory in the Crimea, the world might find out how much Western intelligence services know about the Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs.

The European Union has already announced a list of 18 Ukrainians close to Yanukovych whose assets will be frozen if found, and is preparing to do the same to an unspecified number of Russians.

All but one of these are former officials or their relatives, such as the sons of Yanukovych and former Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov.

The remaining one is a self-described "honest Ukrainian businessman", 28-year-old Serhiy Kurchenko, who has never held a government position. Kurchenko is said to be in Moscow, unable to go back to Ukraine where most of his business interests are and wary of travelling to Europe because of the asset freeze.

Firtash, 48, is not on the EU list. Austrian authorities claim he has been arrested at the request of the FBI, which has been interested in him since 2006.

The timing, however, can hardly be an accident. While Yanukovych was in power, Firtash, who is worth an estimated US$3.3 billion ($3.9 billion), felt at home in Europe. He had an office in Vienna, as well as a residence in London, where he once opened a trading day at the London Stock Exchange during a Ukrainian festival he sponsored and Yanukovych blessed.

Now, he is suddenly in jail awaiting extradition to the United States.

Kurchenko and Firtash share a source of wealth: Russian hydrocarbons. The current Ukrainian government has accused Kurchenko of importing oil products purportedly for processing and subsequent export and instead selling them inside Ukraine.

Firtash made much of his fortune as an intermediary between Gazprom, the Russian government-controlled gas monopoly, and Ukrainian state-owned energy company Naftogaz.

Schemes involving the resale of tax-exempt or subsidised energy resources of Russian origin have for years been a rare source of big profits in the sluggish Ukrainian economy. Government contracts have been a close second.

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According to Forbes Ukraine, Firtash's group of companies was the third-biggest beneficiary of government tenders last year, after those of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, and the "crown prince," presidential son Alexander Yanukovych.

Investigative reports have shown government orders to be a major sources of Kurchenko's fast-growing fortune as well.

The picture is similar in Russia. A year ago, the Russian edition of Forbes published a list of top Russian government tender winners. Arkady Rotenberg, Putin's erstwhile judo sparring partner, was in first place. Another Putin associate, Gennady Timchenko, was in third.

All these people can be seen as informal asset holders for their country's political leaders - and hence as likely targets for EU and U.S. visa bans and asset freezes. If the EU's Ukrainian list and Firtash's arrest are any indication, Western officials correctly see the lines between government and business in Russia and Ukraine as blurred.

Oligarchs who have come to consider London, Vienna, Geneva or New York as their second or, in some cases, first homes should not feel safe in them anymore. No matter how London's City might covet their money, it might not be a good idea for Akhmetov to spend much time in his US$225 million London penthouse at 1 Hyde Park, or for Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov to attend matches of Arsenal, the London football club he part-owns.

The West's new cold war with Russia and support for the new Ukrainian government mean that oligarchs from both countries are now highly suspect.

It's a comeuppance that many of them richly deserve.

- Washington Post/Bloomberg

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