In October of 1812, when Napoleon began his withdrawal from Moscow, the initial mood of the French troops was much more optimistic than we suppose today.
Of fighting men, the French army was down to 95,000; but opposing them was scarcely the same number in the surviving Russian army. Buoying the high spirits of the French columns, however, was the extraordinary volume of civilians and vehicles engaged to carry the Russian booty back to Paris – up to 50,000 porters and servants, and as many as 40,000 wagons and carts. As is now well known, the vast jam of men, horses, vehicles, and treasure ground up the roads; clogged the bridges; exposed the army to Russian attack, and as winter temperatures fell sharply, turned the evacuation into one of the most famous routs in history.
The problem is much the same for the half-dozen or so men who accumulated fabulous treasure during their occupation of the Kremlin under President Boris Yeltsin, These men, the Russian oligarchs, can feel the winter approaching, and no matter how optimistically the booty they have seized may encourage them to feel, they are far from sure that they can hang on to this treasure, and at the same time fight off the growing number of counter¬attacks from Kremlin officials, government ministries, the tax authorities, federal and regional prosecutors, and the humblest of policemen.
Napoleon too thought he could stage an orderly evacuation to safe haven across the Russian border. What direction to take for the Russian oligarchs is just as problematic.
In a recent prosecution involving the conviction on corruption charges of a former Ukrainian prime minister, the United States government demonstrated that Washington, viewed not long ago by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin as easy to lobby with money, and a safe haven to hang on to it, may be anything but that. US law enforcement agencies have made it impossible for some of their colleagues even to cross the border; while sensitivity to US money-laundering and racketeering laws has made the US banking system a risky place in which to move, let alone deposit large amounts of money. Since he acquired the Stillwater Mining Company of Montana a year ago, Potanin has discovered that his cashcow, Norilsk Nickel, Russia’s largest mining company, is now more methodically and transparently regulated by the US nSecurities and Exchange Commission than by any Russian government body. From the SEC reports, it is even possible to spot where and when Potanin and his companies are in violation of their borrowing covenants.
Oleg Deripaska, the controlling shareholder of Russian Aluminium (Rusal); Mikhail Fridman; head of the Alfa banking group; Victor Vekselberg of Tyumen Oil Company and Siberian Ural Aluminium (SUAL); and Vagit Alekperov, CEO of LUKoil, have all won recent US court judgements dismissing civil charges and billion-dollar damage claims against them. However, the US judges have ruled only that, on the evidence submitted, there was insufficient jurisdiction for the US courts to decide the merits of the case. Many of those judicial rulings are now on appeal, and could be overturned. But even if they are not, the warning to the Russian oligarchs is quite clear – don’t enter US jurisdiction, even if, as in Vekselberg’s case, he holds a US residency card.
The United Kingdom has so far proved to be more hospitable to oligarchs on the run. Boris Berezovsky has secured political asylum; Potanin has engaged Prince Michael of Kent; and Roman Abramovich, the Sibneft owner, has purchased the Chelsea football club and a PR agent from one of the London tabloids. Abramovich is not the first foreigner to be lured by the combination of bank directors, media proprietors, rent-a-titles, and political party treasurers who form what is known as the British establishment. What he is about to discover is that the hospitality with which they greet the initial billion-dollar cheques tends to wane, as the forensic bureaucrats catch up with the evidence of law-breaking, Even football teams turn out to be a form of pyramid gamble, in which larger and larger sums of cash are required to keep up the impression of winning, and paying dividends. Not so long ago, one of Greece’s most powerful entrepreneurs thought that acquiring a well-known Athens football club would help generate popular support for his ill-gotten wealth. But that didn’t save him from indictment on massive fraud, nor did his US friends protect him from handover to the Greek prosecutors, and a long stretch in jail.
Deripaska and his partner, Alisher Usmanov, have also discovered that their ability to turn the proceeds of their metal export operations from cash into London Stock Exchange-listed securities is limited, not by their cash supply, as by the resistance of the forensic bureaucrats. Usmanov, who occupies something lower than oligarch status in the shadow of his better endowed friends at Gazprom and LUKoil, convinced the Financial Times that he could, and should, take a board seat at the Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus. But he couldn’t convince the management of Corus, or several other London-based companies he has either courted or attacked.
France has a long tradition of welcoming Russian nmigrns, not all of them destitute. Fridman has availed himself of the opportunity to set up a residence in Paris for his wife and family. He has also applied to the French courts to silence his critics in the French financial press. But the French courts have also rejected the attempt by Deripaska and his allies to secure the extradition to Russia of Mikhail Zhivilo, the former Novokuznetsk aluminium smelter owner who has promoted most of the damaging litigation against Rusal in the courts of the US, Sweden, and elsewhere. France, it turns out, is generous with prime vacation real estate, while French banks like Societe Generale, BNP Paribas and Natexis have been liberal with loans. But the heirs of the Napoleonic Code are tough at taxing, and much quicker than they used to be at spotting and indicting official corruption. They aren’t what the Russian oligarchs need.
Even the banks of Switzerland are getting nervous these days at the windfall business which Khodorkovsky, Potanin and others have delivered to their private banking suites. Freeze injunctions, magistrate orders, document and personal arrest, and all the apparatus of international fiscal crime-busting have put a dent in the confidence the Russians had a decade ago in Swiss “neutrality”.
It has thus proved much easier for the oligarchs and their advisors to set up residences for their accountants from Gibraltar to Guernsey and Liechtenstein, from Panama to the British Virgin Islands and Nauru, than to find a safe place to live and keep their money for themselves. The more exotic the location, the more difficult it is for the oligarchs to be confident. Take, for example, the recent moves which Potanin and Vekselberg have made in the direction of South Africa. Because of their prominence in international mining, South African companies, which enjoy dual listings in London or New York, have become a target of opportunity for the oligarchs, and plans are afoot to swap cash and Russian shares into South African companies. Such schemes may require not only more cash than the oligarchs are anticipating, but also more approvals from the South African government than they have planned for.
Potanin has already cottoned on to the idea of lobbying the black political leadership and leading black entrepreneurs, using the link established decades ago between Moscow and Russian-speaking, Soviet-trained South Africans in the fight against apartheid. Vekselberg has been quietly promising money to small black-owned mineral exploration companies. It is one of the more exotic paradoxes of the withdrawal of the oligarchs and their wealth from Russia that men who grew rich on the destruction of the Communist Party and state are appealing to the solidarity of men, whose national liberation was backed and armed by that state.