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Since the start of the so-called “special military operation” in February, which is how the Kremlin defines its military invasion of Ukraine, these rivalries have escalated.

And Vladimir Potanin, the second richest man in Russia with a fortune of more than 17 billion dollars according to Forbes, arouses a lot of jealousy.

A different status

The now infamous oligarchs emerged amidst the chaos of the 1990s, with the end of communism.

They bought up dying public companies at a very low price. They financed the State, then in ruins, ensuring the survival of President Boris Yeltsin, and took advantage of it to enrich themselves while the country sank into misery.

Under Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, and from 2000, they were quickly put back in order, subject to the new rules of power.

But Potanin had a different status.

“The only real oligarch in Russia is Vladimir Potanin. He built his fortune in the beginning thanks to his political ties which remain strong today, ”said the same source with a smile – a Russian billionaire who downplays ties with the Kremlin as well as the complicated relationship between the oligarchs and political power.

Rise as the USSR crumbles

The success of Potanin, a graduate of Mgimo, the institute of political science for diplomatic elites, dates back to the 1990s. It was then that the former member of the Communist Party and official at the Ministry of Foreign Trade took advantage of the fall of the USSR to start a business.

He was first a consultant for foreign investments and then for the privatization of hydrocarbons and other natural resources. Thirty years later, it is now benefiting from soaring commodity prices thanks to Nornickel (formerly Norilsk Nickel), the metals giant it bought during the major privatizations of the 1990s.

The only real oligarch in Russia is Vladimir Potanin.

Potanin was one of the architects of the “loans for equity” program. He received shares in the oil company Sidanco but also in Norilsk Nickel, which marked the beginning of his fortune.

Well-connected bankers and people around them loaned the declining Kremlin $1.8 billion in exchange for shares in the gems of Soviet industry as collateral. They all knew the loans would never be repaid. This is how Potanin acquired 38% of Norilsk Nickel for only 170 million dollars, while the group declared revenues of 3.3 billion dollars.

Kremlin loyalty

Boris Yeltsin then appointed him Deputy Prime Minister in 1996, but the businessman only stayed in government for seven months.

His political and business skills lasted longer: he sold 10% of Sidanco to BP for $571 million in 1997, when he had only paid the state $130 million for a 51% stake. the company a year earlier – another bargain. A true oligarch, Potanin has used his political connections and banking influence to acquire valuable assets at low prices since the 1990s.

Faithful to the Kremlin, the oligarch is careful not to get involved in politics and even refrains from talking about it. He hardly makes any allusion to geopolitical tensions.

“Western sanctions are bad not only for Russia but also for those who adopted them. As so often in our history, external pressures that feel unfair have only served to strengthen the country’s unity within. Hence the patriotism that is built around Vladimir Putin. I feel patriotic but open to criticism of our country,” Potanin said in a rare interview.

It was in 2017, the last interview he gave to the French daily The echoes. His words are still relevant in 2022. Five years ago, he did not hide his discomfort with the press, he even joked, “I usually drink mostly tea. But when I meet a journalist, I tend to drink coffee…”

Banking ambition

At Interros today, the atmosphere calls for champagne. Last trick of the business magnate: his holding company Interros bought Rosbank from the French bank Société Générale.

An “orderly and responsible” exit, according to Frédéric Oudéa, the boss of the French group, who, on the morning of February 24, when Russia was launching its “special operation”, decided to let go of its Russian subsidiary.

Oudéa and Potanin have known each other since the first French investment in the capital of Rosbank in 2006.

In recent weeks, they have exchanged messages in English even though the billionaire speaks French. A regular visitor to the French Riviera town of Antibes during the summer, Potanin was awarded the Legion of Honor in 2017 after donating 250 works of modern Russian art to the Center Pompidou in France.

The French group Societe Generale found itself with a heavy bill (more than 4 billion dollars swallowed up to take control of Rosbank, zero dividends and 3 billion dollars in losses), quite a gain for Potanin in the acquisition of the first foreign bank in Russia.

Observers are now wondering if he will become the new banking oligarch. A painful prospect for some, but promising for others. “It’s quite an art what Potanin did! Societe Generale lost millions of dollars by leaving, millions earned by Potanin,” smiles a Russian banker.

Full attention to high technology

Potanin is said to have broader banking ambitions, notably after taking over the shares of Oleg Tinkov – the iconoclastic FinTech leader opposed to the “crazy war” in Ukraine – in the Tinkoff bank, which should now drop the name of its founder.

But this boiling private sector calls for a recovery, with many contenders ranging from Alfa-Bank to Promsvyazbank via the high-tech group Yandex or the investment fund AFK Sistema. As a result, Potanin’s sudden rise to success as a banker looks like a carefully staged script.

“We had made a counter-proposal for the takeover of Rosbank. But we quickly realized that everything was already sealed with Potanin,” confides a businessman in Moscow.

In his only interview this year, granted to the Russian agency Interfax, Potanin certainly denied any greater banking ambitions: no new takeovers, no plans for a Rosbank-Tinkoff merger. “We do not anticipate any further acquisitions in the sector,” he said.

He says that all his attention is first and foremost focused on Russian high-tech companies. Taking advantage of the departure of Western players, Interros has just taken a stake in Reksosft, one of the main national software publishers. Further acquisitions are expected to follow as Interros has established a billion dollar fund dedicated to high-tech projects.

Pal to Putin

In Norilsk, a northern city 350 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, the snow doesn’t melt until July. Surrounded by ore mines, the inhabitants have long breathed a rotten atmosphere with sulfur dioxide from nickel and copper factories.

Around the mines, the tundra and sky have now returned to their natural colors. Potanin plans to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 45% by 2023 from 2015 levels. A $3.5 billion project using state-of-the-art technology.

But global warming finally caught up with Potanin. All of Norilsk is built on stilts to protect buildings and factories from permafrost and where the ground is perpetually frozen.

After the collapse of a reservoir at a thermal power station in June 2020, there was a leak of 20,000 tonnes of hydrocarbons, an accident caused by the melting ice.

This is one of the largest fuel spills in Arctic history according to Greenpeace.

Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency, then called the oligarch.

A loyal man, Potanin paid out a record 146 billion rubles (nearly $2 billion) in compensation for environmental damage. A page is now turned between the two Vladimirs. Potanin knows how to maneuver perfectly in Putin’s Russia.

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