From Moscow’s Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 5, the only billionaire heading a Russian political party says he sees a link between President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the 10-year sentence he faces.
Gleb Fetisov, who sold about $1.4 billion of assets to go into politics full time last year and merged his party with an opposition group, was arrested at Domodedovo Airport on Feb. 28 and charged with defrauding depositors and minority shareholders of a bank that he now no longer controls. Days earlier, the former Kremlin-backed president of neighboring Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from office after months of protests in Kiev’s Maidan square culminated in skirmishes with police that left more than 120 people dead.
“The Kremlin didn’t want to see a difference between the radical opposition at Maidan and the financially sustainable opposition in Moscow,” Fetisov said in written replies to questions delivered through a lawyer. “It preferred to take precautions so it didn’t get burned.”
Putin responded to Yanukovych’s ouster and the new government’s pursuit of European Union ties by annexing Crimea, which triggered a separatist uprising in Ukraine’s easternmost regions. Putin has cracked down on dissent at home, hindering access to independent websites and tightening control over online media, while courts have sentenced anti-Putin protesters to prison terms and placed opposition leader Alexey Navalny under prolonged house arrest on fraud charges -- which he has said have no merit -- relating to earlier business dealings.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said the charges against Fetisov aren’t politically motivated.
“It’s complete nonsense what he says,” Peskov said by phone from Moscow. “We’re talking about economic accusations against him based on suspicions about certain machinations.”
A Moscow court yesterday prolonged Fetisov’s detention until Nov. 22 as the prosecution prepares its case, his spokesman, Igor Pylayev, said by phone.
Russia’s Investigative Committee, the Kremlin’s arm for building criminal cases, accuses Fetisov, 48, of causing 555 million rubles of damages ($15 million) to customers and stakeholders in his lender, My Bank, by defrauding it of shares in telecommunications holding company OOO Altimo, according to a copy of the indictment e-mailed by Pylayev. Fetisov’s purchase of 0.2 percent of Altimo from the bank was legitimate, Pylayev said by phone from Moscow.
Fetisov joined Mikhail Fridman’s Alfa Group in 1995 and helped his fellow future billionaire create Altimo, the division that now controls about 48 percent of VimpelCom Ltd., the world’s seventh-largest wireless operator by users, and 13 percent of Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS, Turkey’s biggest mobile company. Those two companies have a combined market value of about $28 billion.
The Investigative Committee hasn’t named either Altimo or its current owners as suspects, nor has it publicly accused them of any wrongdoing.
Fetisov, who was a senator in Russia’s upper house of parliament from 2001 to 2009, denies the fraud charges. He said he sold My Bank last year to a group of investors that included former senior government officials, without disclosing the sum.
The central bank withdrew My Bank’s license on Jan. 31, saying the lender had suffered a loss of liquidity that prevented it from providing “timely fulfillment of obligations to creditors and depositors.”
Several prominent Putin supporters, including Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov, lost millions of dollars in My Bank’s collapse, the Vedomosti newspaper reported Jan. 24, citing unidentified people. Russia’s deposit insurance program covers a maximum of about $19,000 per account. Mikhalkov, who has been shooting on location, couldn’t be reached for comment, Yevgenia Dorofeeva, a spokeswoman, said earlier this month. She didn’t answer follow-up calls this week.
Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that a “huge number” of his friends “lost everything” in Fetisov’s former bank.
Fetisov, who made an unsuccessful bid for French newspaper Le Monde in 2010, points to the timeline of events as evidence the case is politically motivated.
In January, before My Bank lost its license and Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia, Fetisov agreed to merge his Green Alliance with the Social Democrats of Russia, an opposition group whose leader, Gennady Gudkov, helped organize a wave of street protests against Putin at the end of 2011 after disputed parliamentary elections.
Gudkov, like Putin a former KGB officer, was expelled from the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on Sept. 14 after fellow deputies accused him of running a commercial enterprise while in office. Gudkov said on his blog at the time that it was a “provocation” against him for belonging to the protest movement. In June 2012, he wrote that he’d sold his family’s business, a private security company.
Fetisov says he’s a victim of the increasingly authoritarian measures Putin’s government is taking to ensure that the events in Ukraine, where Yanukovych was deposed and replaced by a financial backer of the opposition, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, aren’t repeated in Russia.
“For the Russian authorities, as I now realize, there’s no difference between Poroshenko and me,” Fetisov says. “We both have a fortune, both are politically active and both give financial support to the opposition and to those who feel discontent with the government.”
Poroshenko, also 48, quit as Yanukovych’s economy minister in December 2012 and joined protesters on Maidan a year later, encouraging the demonstrations. Poroshenko, known as the “Chocolate King” for founding the Roshen Confectionery Co., won the presidency in May with 54.7 percent of the vote.
The events in Ukraine have “amplified” a policy of “strangling any manifestation of disloyalty” that Putin adopted when he came to power in 2000, according to Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst in Moscow. Fetisov probably got in trouble because he aligned himself with staunch Kremlin critics such as Gudkov, she said by phone.
“It’s a policy of preemption and intimidation so people don’t even think of being an independent politician,” Lipman said.
Gudkov said Fetisov may have angered the Kremlin by defying an unspoken agreement that the rich don’t support the opposition. Fetisov hadn’t previously shown himself to be a rampant detractor of the government, Gudkov said.
“They are trying to knock the financial resources out from under the opposition,” Gudkov said by phone.
From behind bars, Fetisov says any worries officials may have about his political goals or the influence his fortune can buy are misguided because he isn’t seeking Putin’s ouster. All he wants, he says, is fair and free elections and lead the first “green faction” in the Duma.
Any momentum he may have had toward achieving that goal, though, ended with his arrest.
“No one wants to take part, including financially, in the activities of a project that’s in disfavor,” Fetisov says. “I can’t do it from a pre-trial detention cell.”