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Russia: Leonid Nevzlin -- How The Mighty Have Fallen

Although he appeared before a U.S. congressional committee only last week, Leonid Borisovich Nevzlin's political and personal fortunes have been steadily declining ever since the October arrest of his closest business partner, former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. In 2003, Nevzlin appeared on "Forbes'" list of the world's richest people with an estimated net worth of $1.1 billion. This year, his name disappeared from the list.

After his 1996 election victory, then President Boris Yeltsin thanked Nevzlin for his role in helping him get reelected. In the 2004 presidential election, Nevzlin, from exile in Israel, underwrote opposition candidate Irina Khakamada, who finished with less than 4 percent of the vote.

For the next election, Nevzlin has already offered to bankroll a union of former chess champion Garri Kasparov and independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov. However, Kasparov rejected the overture, saying that he would not take any money from Nevzlin. Similarly, the Russian State Humanitarian University (RGGU) announced in April that it no longer wants any money from Yukos, which had pledged $10 million to the institution over a 10-year period. University officials also decided to revise the authority of its board of trustees, of which Nevzlin is a member.

Criminal Past?

More damaging to Nevzlin's reputation than spurned offers of largesse have been the criminal charges that have been accumulating since he left Russia for Israel. In January 2004, less than two weeks after Nevzlin announced plans to help organize Khakamada's presidential campaign, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office issued an international arrest warrant for Nevzlin. He was wanted on suspicion of evading 26.7 million rubles ($930,000 according to the current exchange rate) in taxes in 1999-2000 and also allegedly appropriated shares in two Eastern Oil Company (VNK) subsidiaries, oil producer Tomskneft and the Achinsk refinery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, and 28 January 2004).

In July 2004, the Prosecutor-General's Office issued a second international arrest warrant for Nevzlin on charges including murder and attempted murder. Russian prosecutors accuse Nevzlin of ordering former Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin to organize and commit numerous murders, including that of businessman Sergei Gorin and his wife. Nevzlin is also charged with organizing two attempts on the life of East Petroleum President Yevgenii Rybin. Nevzlin for his part accused Rybin of attempting to blackmail him and asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate the matter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2004).

In an interview with "The New York Times" on 21 March, Nevzlin said that the cases against him were fabricated by the Federal Security Service (FSB) "from beginning to end." On 20 July, the prosecutor's office resubmited a new request for extradition to Israeli authorities, according to "Ha'aretz."

Rags To Riches, Russian-Style

Nevzlin, 45, climbed to the peak of Russia's business elite from fairly humble origins. His father, an engineer from Leningrad Oblast, and his mother, a schoolteacher from Chita, raised Leonid Borisovich on their modest incomes in an apartment off of one of Moscow's main thoroughfares.

In 1981, Nevzlin graduated from the Moscow Institute for Oil and Gas Industry at the age of 21. In his first job, he worked as a computer programmer for the external trade association, Zarubezhgeologiya, of the Ministry of Geology.

Then one day at the end of 1987, he answered a newspaper ad seeking workers and ideas. At the Youth Center for Scientific-Technical Creations (MNTP), he met Khodorkovskii. Together, they turned MNTP into Menatep bank, the corporate ancestor of today's Yukos. Nevzlin started out as a computer programmer but quickly evolved into the bank's chief specialist for public relations and lobbying.

According to "Profil," No. 32 (2002), Nevzlin was a "superprofessional piarshchhik," who enjoyed access to all branches of power. He had particularly close informal relations with then Finance Minister Boris Fedorov, but his access to the Finance Ministry didn't end when Fedorov left in 1994. Prior to that, Nevzlin and Khodorkovskii were advisers to Russia's first post-Soviet Prime Minister Ivan Silaev.

Reinventing Himself?

Although he remained business partners with Khodorkovskii throughout the 1990s and today possesses Khodorkovskii's 59.5 percent stake in Menatep, Nevzlin has engaged in a peripatetic pursuit of a variety of different sideline interests in recent years. He spent a year as first deputy chairman of ITAR-TASS news agency, nine months as head of the Russian Jewish Congress, some 15 months as Mordovia's representative to the Federation Council, and concluded with less than five months as rector of the Russian State Humanitarian University. The last position raised eyebrows, since Nevzlin wasn't a scholar and has no Ph.D.

Has Nevzlin been trying to reinvent himself in much the same way as Khodorkovskii? Yaroslav Kuzminov, rector of the Higher School for Economics, told on 24 June 2003 that he didn't think Yukos's philanthropic efforts were purely public relations. "I am almost certain that for Khodorkovskii and Nevzlin this is a spiritual need. In this sense, they are going along the path of [financier George] Soros," he said.

Analyst Stanislav Belkovskii told on 14 July that Nevzlin is a clever person, but he has one major deficiency: He doesn't understand politics. Nevzlin believes that the country is run by KGB-FSB officers, in fact it is under the control of the people who came to power in the 1990s. "Nevzlin behaved the same way toward his competitors as the team of [presidential aide] Igor Sechin is behaving now toward Yukos shareholders," he concluded.

While Nevzlin may not be clever enough by Belkovskii's yardstick, he has managed to do what some of his fellow oligarchs have not: Avoid jail. He has also apparently managed to preserve at least some of his financial assets. Nevzlin told on 11 March 2004 that Russian prosecutors greatly exaggerated the assets he and other Yukos shareholders held in Swiss banks. He said the real sum is not more than $5 million, adding that "nobody keeps such huge amounts in cash in personal accounts."

Nevzlin also revealed that his Swiss bank warned him six months ago about the possibility of accounts being frozen, and so he left just $100,000 in his accounts for his family's current expenses. Of course, $100,000 may not go very far now, as Nevzlin and his second wife currently live in one of Tel Aviv's tonier suburbs. He must also keep up with mounting legal fees.