Two months ago, the Russian authorities announced they had shelved their criminal investigation into the business activities of self-exiled Ingush oligarch Mikhail Gutseriyev.
The surprise decision prompted speculation about the reasons behind the reversal -- and what, if anything, Gutseriyev would do to capitalize on it.
Gutseriyev, who has lived in Britain for two years since fleeing the Russian charges, has since bought back his now debt-ridden oil company Russneft from fellow oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who purchased it for $3 billion in 2007.
But he has made no formal statement about his future plans, or whether and when he plans to return to Russia. Ingushetian officials are hopeful, however, that he will invest heavily in the republic's moribund economy.
One year ago, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who selected little-known military intelligence officer Yunus-Bek Yevkurov in October 2008 as Ingushetia's new leader, pledged an aid package worth 29 billion rubles ($970 million) to reverse economic decline and reduce unemployment, which is estimated at up to 50 percent.
While Gutseriyev could not match such a commitment, Medvedev and other Russian officials may be hoping his support, financial and otherwise, could help prop up the ailing republic. Banking, Oil, And Politics
Gutseriyev, now 51, was born in Soviet Kazakhstan, where his parents had been exiled in 1944. After graduating from a technical institute there, he continued his education at the Gubkin Oil and Gas Institute in Moscow, then studied law at Leningrad State University.
In 1982, Gutseriyev began work at a Grozny factory that produced consumer goods. He subsequently became the factory's director, and in 1988 launched the first-ever Soviet joint venture with a foreign company.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gutseriyev went into banking, oil, and Russian federal politics. He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 1995 as a candidate for Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and was subsequently named a deputy speaker; he was reelected to the Duma in 1999. But since the early 2000s, he has played no role in Russian politics.
In 2000, he became president of the state-owned Russian-Belarusian oil company Slavneft, but was removed in 2002 following a vote by the board of directors.
When Slavneft was later privatized, however, Gutseriyev managed to purchase some of its assets, creating the nucleus of his new oil and gas conglomerate, Russneft. By 2006, Russneft had become the ninth-largest oil company in Russia, with an output of 340,000 barrels per day.
In November 2006, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office launched an investigation into possible illegal business activities and tax evasion by three Russneft subsidiaries. Gutseriyev was summoned for questioning in January 2007, and four months later the Interior Ministry formally brought charges against him. An international warrant was subsequently issued for his arrest.
Making Enemies In High Places
Several Russian businessmen professed to be puzzled as to why Gutseriyev had fallen out of favor with the Kremlin. One noted that he had the reputation of a good employer who paid higher-than-average salaries and invested in the infrastructure of the regions where Russneft operated.
RFE/RL North Caucasus Service Director Aslan Doukaev believes Gutseriyev fell afoul of the powerful interest groups that control a big chunk of the Russian oil market.
"One possible reason for Gutseriyev's troubles may have been his decision to sell Russneft to Deripaska and not to Rosneft, the state-owned oil company patronized by the Kremlin faction known as the 'siloviki,'" Doukaev says.
Doukaev points out that although Gutseriyev was not active on the Russian political scene, and -- unlike some other oligarchs -- did not sponsor independent media outlets, his behind-the-scenes political maneuvering in the North Caucasus may have contributed to his fall from grace.
He is rumored, for example, to have provided millions of dollars in financial support in 2000-04 to then-Chechen Republic head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in the hope of acquiring Rosneft's 51 percent stake in the Chechen oil company Grozneftegaz. (There is still a street named after Gutseriyev in Grozny.)
The oil tycoon may also have angered members of the Kremlin elite for his role in the political power struggle in Ingushetia.
In the spring of 2002, after then-President Ruslan Aushev was pressured by the Kremlin to step down, Gutseriyev's brother Khamzat, a former republican interior minister, registered as a candidate for the election to choose Aushev's successor, but was disqualified
days before the ballot on a technicality.
In the runoff, Gutseriyev then backed fellow Duma Deputy Alikhan Amirkhanov, who lost to former Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov. Doukaev says Gutseriyev may have been hurt by his apparent opposition to Zyazikov, who had a powerful supporter in the Kremlin:
"Gutseriyev considered providing funding to the anti-Zyazikov opposition in Ingushetia," Doukaev says. "Those reports were bound to antagonize then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continued to back fellow FSB veteran Zyazikov despite mounting evidence of the latter's dishonesty and incompetence." Free To Invest?
Gutseriyev left Moscow for London at the start of the summer of 2007, but returned to Russia briefly that August to attend the funeral of his eldest son, Chingiz, who was killed in Moscow in circumstances that remain unclear.
(The resistance website "Kavkaz Center" implied that Chingiz Gutseriyev was killed because of his father's involvement in trying to secure the release of the Beslan school hostages in September 2004. Mikhail Gutseriyev, according to the website, deliberately misinformed the hostage takers, telling them that the school building would not be stormed.)
In mid-October 2009, Gutseriyev's lawyer Alla Yaminskaya announced that all charges against Gutseriyev had been dropped, and his name cleared. The reasons for that reversal in his fortunes can only be guessed at. But they may become clearer if Gutseriyev does publicly throw his weight behind Ingushetia's Yevkurov, who clearly enjoys President Medvedev's trust and support.
Asked whether he had been instrumental in Gutseriyev's exoneration, Yevkurov demurred. But he did say he believed Gutseriyev will return to Russia and invest in Ingushetia.
Yevkurov's spokesman Kakhoi Akhilgov similarly denied that the republic's leadership played any role in clearing Gutseriyev's name. Akhilgov noted that practically all the industrial enterprises currently functioning in Ingushetia were founded by Gutseriyev, whose immense economic and management know-how would, he said, be of tremendous benefit to the republic.