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Oligarch accuses Russia of seeking revenge

02 августа 2010

In the Russian oligarch world of dark-suited industrialists and former spooks, Yevgeny Chichvarkin has always been something of an outsider.

Unlike most of his peers, who made their fortune during the turbulent consolidation of Russia’s resource sectors in the 1990s, Mr Chichvarkin made his on the Russian retail market, co-founding Yevroset, now Russia’s biggest mobile phone chain, at the age of 22.

Better known for his marketing antics, such as offering free phones to customers who came to Yevroset naked, Mr Chichvarkin is now wanted by Russian prosecutors for complicity in an alleged kidnap and extortion case dating back to 2003.

On Monday, the High Court will begin considering an extradition request for the businessman who has spent the past year and a half in London.

Mr Chichvarkin and his supporters say the interior ministry’s economic crimes division, Department K, is behind the charges, seeking revenge after the businessman dared to take it on and expose corruption.

Department K and the interior ministry did not respond to written request for comment.

While Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, has since singled out the interior ministry in his anti-corruption campaign, firing 18 senior police officials earlier this year, critics say Mr Chichvarkin’s hearing reinforces old images of corruption and bureaucracy that continue to strangle Russian business.

In a recent interview, Mr Chichvarkin told the Financial Times that the hearing will allow him to expose the interior ministry in front of the British justice system.

“In Russia, corruption is a disease,” he says. “The law is being violated by 20m people working in law enforcement who are not fulfilling their function and living off assets that are stolen from the nation.”

Mr Chichvarkin says that when businesses in Russia become successful, they are at risk from these bureaucrats, as shown by the kidnap and extortion charges, which were also raised against nine other Yevroset managers who are currently on trial in Moscow.

Although the alleged kidnapping and extortion dates back to 2003, prosecutors began their investigation in September 2008, just as the oligarch and his business partner were in talks to sell Yevroset. Shortly thereafter, they sold the company for $1.3bn to Alexander Mamut, the Russian billionaire, who later sold it to Vimpelcom, Russia’s largest mobile operator. Three months later, charges of complicity in kidnap and extortion were made against Mr Chichvarkin, who was travelling outside Russia at the time.

“This was an investigation of specific people, people who had been in conflict with Department K,” says Yuri Gervis, Mr Chichvarkin’s lawyer in Moscow. “The allegations would not have taken the form they did if someone wasn’t out to get Yevgeny.”

According to Mr Chichvarkin’s peers in Russia’s mobile phone industry, it was the businessman’s insistence on not paying bribes that got him into trouble in the first place.

Up until 2006, some Russian retailers imported phones illegally without paying customs: paid officials turned a blind eye. Mr Chichvarkin was the first to turn away from this practice as he sought to ready Yevroset for a London flotation.

His decision pulled the plug on a bribe scheme that totalled up to $1bn a year, according to analysts. Just a few months later, Department K officials seized a $20m shipment of Motorola phones headed for Yevroset stores.

The company was able to retrieve most of the phones, but people with knowledge of the incident and Mr Chichvarkin’s current case points to a connection between the two, naming interior ministry officials who worked on both cases.

During Mr Chichvarkin’s decade-long tenure at Yevroset, the businessman became a symbol for the brand, and something of a cult figure among his employees, friends recall.

A snappy dresser who kept his kid-off-the-street appeal, Mr Chichvarkin was treated like a rock star by employees, who would start screaming that they loved him and asking for his autograph when he came on stage at company events, a former colleague recalls.

In London, Mr Chichvarkin is harnessing that popularity, most recently in a public video appeal to Mr Medvedev, where he named the 13 interior ministry officials he believes are behind his case.

The businessman knows such declarations will not improve his chances of being welcomed back to Russia, but says he cannot stomach the price he would have to pay for his return.

“People think you have to spend all your time showing that you’re good, apologising, paying bribes, promising to follow the orders of bureaucrats on your return, and to be a quiet guy in a suit and a member of United Russia [the pro-Kremlin party],” he says. “For me that’s not just unacceptable, it’s disgusting.”

While Mr Chichvarkin is supportive of Mr Medvedev’s anti-corruption efforts, he doubts the president will have better luck than he has had.

“Mr Medvedev personally is sincere. But corruption is stronger,” he says.

Источник: Financial Times

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