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Interview: Russian Billionaire's Arrest A 'Gangster Story'

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Sistema boss Vladimir Yevtushenkov. "It was just his turn," a self-exiled Russian businessman says.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) meets with Sistema boss Vladimir Yevtushenkov. "It was just his turn," a self-exiled Russian businessman says.

Self-exiled Russian businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin says the arrest of Vladimir Yevtushenkov, one of Russia's richest people, has more to do with asset grabbing than politics. Yevtushenkov's AFK Sistema group owns oil firm Bashneft and Russia's largest mobile-phone operator, MTS.

Chichvarkin spoke with Lyubov Chizhova of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

RFE/RL: Russian billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov is currently under house arrest on allegations of money-laundering. This is Russia's first legal onslaught on an oligarch since the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky more than 10 years ago. Unlike Khodorkovsky, Yevtushenkov has never ventured into politics and is seen as loyal to President Vladimir Putin. In your opinion, what are the real motives behind his detention?

Yevgeny Chichvarkin: They want to pry Bashneft away from him and either merge it with Rosneft or turn it into a state firm.

RFE/RL: Who do you think stands behind Yevtushenkov's arrest?

Chichvarkin: Just like in the Yukos case, I believe it was Igor Sechin [editor's note: the head of state oil giant Rosneft]. And of course, the seizure of this juicy morsel was approved by Putin. Russia is short of cash because of Putin's military ventures and because of the sanctions resulting from these military ventures. Hence the desire to see money go to the state and those feeding off it rather than to a single individual.

RFE/RL: Is Bashneft such a juicy morsel?

Chichvarkin: Any company dealing with natural resources is a juicy morsel.

RFE/RL: What's going to happen to Yevtushenkov now? What are his options?

Yevgeny Chichvarkin (file photo)
Yevgeny Chichvarkin (file photo)

Chichvarkin: He will give up Bashneft, he will spend two or three years being questioned, and give tons of money to the chekists [officials close to Russia's state-security organs] to obtain the closure of his criminal case. That's the best-case scenario. In the worst-case scenario, they will also seize his telecom assets and create a Russian united telecommunication corporation or something in that vein.

RFE/RL: Why is Yevtushenkov, in particular, being targeted? There are other oligarchs in Russia.

Chichvarkin: He doesn't have any connection to the KGB, he's always been tied to the Moscow leadership, and he owns a tasty morsel. It's just his turn now. This has nothing to do with politics, it's a mere gangster story. Crimea was up for grabs; they took it. Bashneft is up for grabs; they will take it, too.

RFE/RL: Yevtushenkov's arrest is widely compared to the Khodorkovsky case. Would you say this is a correct analogy?

Chichvarkin: Yes, it's absolutely correct. Khodorkovsky, however, wanted to influence the authorities in Russia through the State Duma, using legal means. Yevtushenkov didn't want to influence anything. He's a man who makes money, a lot of money. I can't say if he's done this using legal means or not. What is clear is that he's not interested in anything else, I haven't heard of his having any political ambitions. He simply successfully gathered many assets. There's not that much money in the country, and the greed of Putin's friends is boundless. So his turn just came.

RFE/RL: A number of businesspeople have fled Russia over the past decade after getting in trouble with the authorities. Is this hurting the country's economy?

Chichvarkin: Even if AFK Sistema is ripped to pieces, it will have a much smaller impact on Russia's economy than Putin's military ventures. Nothing compares to the blow that the war for "Novorossia" will unquestionably deal to the economy, both directly and indirectly, in the short, the medium, and the long run.

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