|Putin May Use Credit Squeeze to `Destroy' Oligarchs (Update1)|
By Torrey Clark and Henry Meyer
Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 vowing to destroy Russia's oligarchs ``as a class.'' Within two years, he'd driven two into exile and imprisoned another.
Now, he may use the global markets meltdown to finish the job.
The $50 billion that the prime minister and President Dmitry Medvedev have pledged to lend cash-strapped companies will extend state control over business leaders. Billionaires seeking bailouts -- including Oleg Deripaska, Russia's richest man, and Mikhail Fridman -- will have to give authorities veto power over their companies' financing decisions.
``This will give the state more leverage over the country's biggest companies and main industries,'' said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at UralSib Financial Corp in Moscow. ``In 2008, there is only one real oligarch: the state.''
All this marks a reversal from a decade ago, when oligarchs bankrolled Boris Yeltsin's almost-insolvent government. As recently as April, Russia's 100 wealthiest citizens had a combined fortune equivalent to about a third of the economy, Forbes magazine estimated.
The nation's 25 wealthiest businessmen have seen their worth shrink by $230 billion, or 62 percent, according to Bloomberg calculations. And Putin controls the strings on the biggest remaining purse -- $531 billion in government reserves, which he is doling out through state-run Vnesheconombank, or VEB, where he presides as chairman of the supervisory board.
The oligarchs made their fortunes in the 1990s, as the government moved corporate ownership into individuals' hands and state authority was weak. They subsequently loaned the government money to prop up Yeltsin in return for shares in choice assets, including OAO Norilsk Nickel, Russia's biggest mining company.
Their support didn't prevent the government from defaulting in 1998 on $40 billion of domestic debt and devaluing the ruble. Putin came to power as president less than two years later with the help of Boris Berezovsky, a businessman and politician in Yeltsin's inner circle who popularized the term ``oligarch.'' Berezovsky's influence was chronicled in ``Godfather of the Kremlin,'' by Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes Russia editor slain in 2004.
A few months after taking office in July 2000, Putin told Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at the time Russia's richest man, and about two dozen other business leaders that their wealth was safe as long as they stayed out of politics and refrained from influencing national policy.
Berezovsky, now 62, became an early victim of Putin's anti- oligarch crusade. Berezovsky fled to London in 2001 in the face of Russian fraud charges he calls politically motivated. By the end of 2003, Putin had brought the nation's business leaders to heel.
The most celebrated case involved Khodorkovsky. He was arrested and convicted of tax evasion and fraud. OAO Rosneft, the state-run oil company, took control of most of his OAO Yukos Oil Co., once Russia's biggest crude exporter. The government now controls about 44 percent of oil production and all natural-gas exports. Khodorkovsky called the case against him retribution for political opposition to Putin, who denied that accusation.
In the years that followed, the number of dollar billionaires swelled from a handful to more than 100, as prices for oil and other commodities surged to records and companies opened up ownership to passive foreign investors.
Now, the tables have turned.
Lobbying for Loans
``The oligarchs are lobbying the government for access to state funds,'' said Alexander Lebedev, 49, a billionaire who owns 30 percent of state-run airline OAO Aeroflot. ``It's not freely available to anyone who comes along.''
The attached strings are short.
Central Bank First Deputy Chairman Alexei Ulyukayev said Oct. 1 that Vnesheconombank would gain the right to bar borrowers from seeking other loans ``to avoid increasing the level of liabilities.''
The effect, according to Weafer: The state will ``dictate'' how companies invest and develop.
Vnesheconombank has received applications for more than $50 billion in loans, chairman Vladimir Dmitriev said on Oct. 13. The government has also pledged more than $13 billion to buy stocks and bonds through Vnesheconombank this year and next and $36 billion in emergency subordinated loans to other banks.
State-owned companies and producers of oil, gas, metals and fertilizers will get most of the government money, said UniCredit SpA analysts Julia Bushueva and Elena Myazina in Moscow. Rosneft, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, may receive 47 percent of $9 billion in loans allocated to oil companies, the Kommersant newspaper reported Oct. 14.
With competition for government loans stiff, frozen credit markets also may force Russian companies to pay off creditors by selling assets to cash-rich investors, including the government, Bushueva and Myazina said. More than $363 billion of corporate and bank debt is due to be repaid by July 2009, a third to foreign banks, they said.
Gazenergoprombank, a lender controlled by state-run Gazprom Group, said on Oct. 15 it will acquire all of Moscow-based Sobinbank. Vnesheconombank is in talks to buy Globex, a Russian bank that's having difficulties because of investments in real estate, Kommersant reported today.
Businesses caught in that potential credit squeeze include Deripaska's Basic Element, Fridman's Alfa Group, and Vladimir Yevtushenkov's AFK Sistema, Bushueva and Myazina said. Already this month, the value of Deripaska's stakes in Canadian auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. and German builder Hochtief AG sank so much that he ceded the shares to foreign banks that had accepted them as loan collateral.
The state's growing sway over oligarchs extends beyond how they run their businesses. Putin and other top officials met individually with about 50 of the country's wealthiest businessmen and ordered them ``dump money into Russia's financial system'' to prop up the sinking stock market, says a report by Stratfor, a U.S.-based risk advisory group.
The initial injection of private funds, together with government measures sent the benchmark Micex Index almost 30 percent higher on Sept. 19 in a short-lived rally. Since then, the index has dropped 43 percent.
``Going after their personal finances, especially money they hold abroad, is a whole new level of control,'' said Lauren Goodrich, a Stratfor analyst.
Spokesmen for Medvedev and Putin declined to comment on the matter.
While the U.S. and European governments also are increasing oversight of their economies by buying stakes in financial institutions, growing state dominance in Russia threatens to increase corruption and reduce corporate disclosure, said James Beadle, chief investment strategist at Pilgrim Asset Management in Moscow.
That view was echoed by Berezovsky, the businessman who fled to London. ``This time, the corrupt bureaucrats will win,'' Berezovsky said.