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Central/East Europe: Entrepreneurs Join Ranks Of The World's Richest

  • Sonia Winter



Washington, 17 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A million dollars is not as impressive as it used to be -- not even in Moscow or Prague where such fortunes used to be rare. Now there are entrepreneurs in the east who have tens of millions or hundreds of millions -- and a few who are richer than the legendary Rothschild bankers, possessing billions of dollars.

For the first time this year, half a dozen Russians and a sprinkling of Central Europeans are included on a select and prestigious list of the world's wealthiest people -- not just the rich worth a few millions, but the super-rich commanding fortunes of at least $1 billion.

The Rothschild family of bankers and wine merchants are at the lower end, listed as having $1.5 billion. That is more than America's erstwhile symbol of capitalism -- the Rockefellers ($1.4 billion). But even the two combined have less than the richest man in Russia -- Boris Berezovsky.

Forbes Magazine, an American monthly business publication based in New York, that publishes the list annually, says Berezovsky is worth $3 billion.

A financier and adviser to president Boris Yeltsin as deputy chief of national security, Forbes calls Berezovsky "a mathematician by training, robber baron capitalist by choice."

It notes that Berezovsky is suing the magazine because of an article published in December about the controversial tactics he used to amass his great fortune.

Berezovsky's known holdings include the Aeroflot airline and Siberian oil company, as well as media, real estate and automotive businesses.

Forbes Magazine views him as such an important figure that it included Berezovsky on an even more select list of the ten most creative, successful and powerful men in the world. He takes his place for the first time in the "Power Elite" group along with a sheikh from Saudi Arabia and multi-multi-multi-millionaires from Mexico, Malaysia, Japan and the United States among others.

Forbes has issued annual surveys of the world's richest people for the past ten years. A Forbes spokesman says that ten years ago, less than 100 people qualified for the exclusive club of $1-billion owners. Now, he says the number of the superrich has jumped to 500 worldwide.

So to narrow the field, Forbes revised its selection process for the 1997 11th annual tally, adding a condition that the person has to have made the money or be managing it. It selected 200 names for a "Global 200" list.

Although on the dollar count, Sultan Hassanai Bolkiah of Brunei is the wealthiest man alive with more than $38 billion to his name, he does not count on this ranking. Forbes makes a separate list for royal families and heads of state because their wealth comes more from political inheritance than economic effort.

The man who tops this year's Global 200 list is American computer king of kings Bill Gates, the 41-year-old founder of the Microsoft Corporation. He has headed the Forbes list of entrepreneurs for the third year in a row and is not far behind the Sultan of Brunei. With shrewd investments and a favorable economy, Gates' net worth doubled from a year ago to more than $36 billion in 1997.

Nearly a third of the names on the Global 200 list are Americans, including the Ronald and Leonard Laudee brothers, heavy investors in Central Europe with a fortune of $4.9 billion. George Soros, another American of Hungarian descent, well-known for his philantropic ventures in the region, is listed as possessing $2.5 billion. Armenian American financier Kirk Kerkorian outranks him with $3.8 billion.

Forbes found 56 qualifying superrich people in Asia, reflecting, it says, the region's economic dynamism.

Conversely, it says Europe's relatively declining status accounts for only 44 of the richest of the rich on the Global 200 list. That includes six Russians, three Czechs, a Pole and a Hungarian - the latest to join the ranks of the nouveau riche.

Not all can actually meet the $1-billion minimum. But Forbes Magazine says that in a place like eastern Europe, anyone who makes tens of millions is a match in achievement and influence for westerners making ten times that much money.

By this definition, Martin Kratochvil, a Czech jazz pianist and founder of Bonton, a huge entertainment conglomerate, scrapes onto the 200 list in last place with $90 million to his name.

Another Czech -- 34-year-old Viktor Kozeny, suspected of some underhand privatization dealings, amassed a fortune listed at $200 million and, according to Forbes, now lives in the tropical Bahamas islands.

Along with eight others, they were selected by Forbes for its new list of the top ten "Heavy Hitters" from Central Europe and Russia.

Hungary's Gabor Varszegi, a former rock musician, made $120 million by introducing one-hour photo-processing to his country.

Jan Kulczyk built a huge empire of telecommunications, oil refining and brewing in Poland and made a personal fortune of $200 million.

But he is small league compared to the Russians on the list who made unimaginably vast piles of money, mostly from oil and gas privatization.

In addition to Berezovsky, there is former Komsomol Youth organizer Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now a banker and chief economic adviser to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. His worth is estimated at $2.4 billion. Khodorkovsky controls Yukos, Russia's second largest oil company, and is involved in fertilizers, metals, chemicals and shipping among other things.

Vagit Alekperov, formerly a senior official in the Soviet Ministry of Fuel and Energy, is the driving force behind Lukoil, Russia's biggest oil company and owns a part of it. He says he will make it into the world's biggest oil company before he is through. Alekperov's fortune according to Forbes is $1.4 billion.

Rem Viakhirev, once a mining engineer, profited from privatization of the gas industry. He took over Gazprom and in the process acquired $1.1 billion.

Vladimir Potanin, at 36, the youngest of Russia's superrich, took advantage of privatization auctions to amass $700 million in oil and metals.

The only Russian on the list who did not make his millions from oil and gas is Vladimir Gusinsky. He turned instead to banking and accounting for the City of Moscow. Now he is worth $400 million with holdings in real estate and the media.

Forbes' list of Kings, Queens and Dictators names 11 of the world's rulers, including Cuban leader Fidel Castro who might be richer than the queen of England. Castro is estimated to have $1.4 billion, compared to Queen Elizabeth the Second's $350 million - but that is not counting the British crown jewels.

She holds the jewels in trust for the nation, along with other precious objects in the Royal Collection valued at more than $15.6 billion.
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