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Friday, December 21, 2007

Shvartsman Speaks

The Financial Times reports:

Oleg Shvartsman, a fund manager, claims he is a hero of Russia's new times. Operating out of an office which shares the same Red Square address as the Kremlin's property department, he says he wants to lead a "velvet reprivatisation" drive of assets "illegally" won in Russia's 1990s privatisations: not just the strategic assets that have already become a target for the state but small and medium enterprises in the regions too.

"These enterprises were built by our fathers and our grandfathers, and all of a sudden in one moment these enterprises became owned by individuals by the decision of one official who was paid cash. This is not just. This is not supported by the people," Mr Shvartsman told the Financial Times.

Russian business daily Kommersant published an interview earlier this month with Mr Shvartsman in which he said he was leading a reprivatisation drive to "hoover up" assets via "voluntary-coercive methods" with the backing of Kremlin officials. Mr Shvartsman became a political bogeyman and a new player in a growing war between Kremlin clans overnight.

He also used the interview to say he was managing some $3.2bn (€2.2bn, £1.6bn) in assets for unnamed "political figures" connected to the Kremlin's hardline "power bloc". Soon after its publication, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Tamir Fishman, an Israeli investment bank, said they were pulling out of plans to create a Russian venture fund in which Mr Shvartsman was to be a minority partner.

In his first interview with the western press, Mr Shvartsman backed off from assertions that his fund was tied to the Kremlin and insisted that Kommersant had "distorted" his words. But he stood by his calls for a state-backed "reprivatisation" drive. When pressed over the potential Kremlin ties of the backers of his company, Finans-Group, which has accumulated stakes in strategic industries, he added: "We are not going to check whether [investors] are relatives of administration officials."

He added: "I have partners who enter either on the condition that they bring money or possibilities."

It is difficult to tell whether - as some Russian observers have claimed - Mr Shvartsman is just a pawn in a complex political chess game between Russia's warring elite. He says Kommersant portrayed him as a victim of the political infighting that broke out as Russia prepares for a transfer of power next year.

"This is an element of an internal clan battle," he said of the Kommersant interview, which came after the arrest of Sergei Storchak, deputy finance minister, in an alleged embezzlement case widely seen as an attack on more liberal factions by hardliners led by Igor Sechin, Kremlin deputy chief of staff . "The situation has been used to discredit the 'power' ministries among others and in a certain way they have achieved this . . . I have become a hostage of this situation."

But others, including several former senior government officials, say there is a large grain of truth in the Kommersant interview. The newspaper has published documents that show he signed off on every page of the interview, as well as audio files of extracts.

He is representative of a growing political class of mid-level managers working for the state, with ties to the security services, who believe it is time for Russia's nascent class of business owners to hand their property back to the state, former government officials said. "This was a manifesto for state raiding," said Alexander Temerko, a former vice-president of Yukos, the defunct oil group once run by jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. "There are a lot of companies like his, and now there are so many of them they are a force."

The state's attack on Yukos - led by Mr Sechin, who is also chairman of Rosneft, the state-owned energy group that has swallowed most of Yukos's assets - began the process of using tax charges and other alleged infractions to retake property for the state. Mr Shvartsman says he wants to continue that process on a regional level, only this time with compensation for business owners who sell their shares back to the state.

Businessmen are preparing for the worst. A recent opinion poll by the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Russia's big business lobby, found 58 per cent of businessmen questioned believed there should be a partial review of privatisation results. The Communist party this weekend reverted to past calls to overturn 1990s privatisations.

Against that backdrop, Mr Shvartsman intends to announce today the creation of his own political movement, called For a Transparent Russia.

Vladimir Putin, Russian president, even weighed in unexpectedly to the debate, calling last week for limits on the power of new state corporations to make sure they did not encroach on other enterprises.

But Mr Shvartsman said he was working on contracts with the government's federal property fund to consolidate control of mid-sized businesses that were ignoring the state's property rights and paying insufficient tax.

But he denied his company could use law enforcement structures to coerce owners into handing over their holdings. "Every entrepreneur uses the legal system to defend his interests. I am no exception. The only difference is that I act in the interests of the state." He said he was calling on the west not to fear the idea of a "velvet reprivatisation". Western companies would be offered stakes as a way of bringing in much needed technology and expertise once state consolidation was completed, he said.

Mr Shvartsman said a key idea of his business was to support law enforcement organisations and army veterans via donations through a fund known as SSSR, the Union for Social Justice in Russia. Valentin Varennikov, a former army general and member of parliament, is the head of its supervisory council.

But Yevgeny Shakhov, the head of the SSSR, says he has known Mr Shvartsman for years but says he still cannot understand his comments. "I don't know what got into his head," Mr Shakhov said. "He got into politics and then I don't understand what happened."

Clan wars

Oct 1 2007 - General Alexander Bulbov of Russia's Federal Anti-Drugs Service, who was investigating a corruption case alleged to involve members of the FSB, or KGB's successor, is arrested

Oct 9 - Viktor Cherkesov, head of the anti-drugs service, warns in an open letter to Kommersant newspaper of a "war" between different wings of the security services

Nov 23 - Sergei Storchak, deputy finance minister, is arrested and charged with attempted embezzlement of $43m (€30m, £21.5m) of state funds in what is seen as a possible attack by Kremlin hardliners. His boss, liberal finance minister Alexei Kudrin, defends him

Nov 30 - Fund manager Oleg Shvartsman tells Kommersant he is leading a "velvet reprivatisation" drive linked to Kremlin officials. He later disowns part of the interview and says it was used as part of clan battles

Dec 2 - The pro-Kremlin United Russia party wins 64 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections

Dec 6 - Prosecutors say they have dropped a second legal case against Mr Storchak, but a rival investigative agency presses for the case to be pursued and says $1m in cash was found in Mr Storchak's apartment

Dec 10 - Vladimir Putin, Russian president, anoints Dmitry Medvedev, a relative liberal, as his presidential successor, seen as a defeat for Kremlin hardliners

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