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Alisher Usmanov: what's in the arsenals...

14.09.2007 10:37 msk

Argumenty i Fakty


Media outlets report that Alisher Usmanov, the head of Gazprominvestholding and business tycoon (he controls Metalinvest), has bought and returned to Russia the golden collection of Soviet cartoons. To be more exact, Usmanov bought the air lease rights from Films by Jove and turned them over to the VGTRK (All-Russian State TV and Radio Broadcasting Corporation).

Uninitiated reader will perhaps wonder who this good Samaritan is who can afford to spend $5-10 million on old flicks. Or wonder about his motives. Indeed, what are they - genuine patriotism or calculation?

Cheburashka [flick character] for some, eggs by Faberge for others

Usmanov's Press Secretary Yulia Mazanova claims that her patron was motivated by the desire to make the collection available to Russian children. As a matter of fact, Russian TV channels have been happily running and rerunning these cartoons without Mr. Usmanov's noble gestures. All rights to Gena The Crocodile And Cheburashka, Hedgehog In Fog, The Tale Of Tsar Saltan (and over 500 cartoons more) abroad belonged to Films by Jove, a company owned by a former Soviet actor Oleg Vidov and his wife. Immigrants to the West, the Vidovs bought these rights from Soyuzmultfilm in the tumultuous 1992. Soyuzmultfilm has never abandoned the efforts to void the deal - with nothing to show for it. The VGTRK owes the windfall to Mr. Usmanov now. It says it intends to use the "Usmanov's cartoon library" in the work of its foreign channels.

But what about the Russians? The Russians are welcome to wonder that there still exist the business tycoons who like Gena and Cheburashka as well, and not just yachts, palaces, and diamonds. Russian animators in the meantime are bewildered. Hedgehog In Fog maker Norshtein admits that he cannot understand "why they are making all this fuss" or "what heroic deed this man accomplished." Business and political circles in their turn have no doubts whatsoever and appraise it all as "pure PR".

"Mr. Usmanov's activeness in the market has a simple explanation. Consider how edgy the state claims to Mikhail Gutseriyev's Russneft made practically all business tycoon, and you'll see it. When Mikhail Khodorkovsky found himself in trouble with the regime, Victor Vekselberg bought Faberge's Easter Eggs "for Russia". Usmanov's cartoons have the same explanation," political scientist Aleksei Mukhin said.

Cartoons in the meantime are not the only asset Usmanov bought of late. He bought 14.58% of Arsenal stock for approximately $150.6 million a week ago. Even before that, he had become one of the owners of Megafon cell communications operator and owner of Muz-TV channel. Sources say that Usmanov paid $300 million for Kommersant Publishing House and that he also intends to buy the stock of the Russian versions of The Newsweek and The Forbes, 3rd Channel, and Ogonyok. In short, Usmanov is on a buying spree, just like Oleg Deripaska. On the other hand, Usmanov is not like other oligarchs whose names are constantly mentioned in the media. He has kept to the background - and quite effectively - until now.

Star of the East

Unlike many other business tycoons who made seed money in early cooperatives and through the banal buy-to-sell-at-a-profit practice, Usmanov made himself in a different manner. The son of the Tashkent prosecutor, he became a student of the posh Moscow State Institute of International Relations (owing it to the so called "ethnic quota"). It was there that Usmanov met Sergei Yastrzhembsky, would-be press secretary of the president of Russia. These days, Yastrzhembsky is Vladimir Putin's aide in charge of relations with the European Union. Yastrzhembsky and Usmanov stay in touch and, as the rumors imply, cherish their friendship even now. It is even rumored that Usmanov once lived in Yastrzhembsky's apartment in Moscow when the latter was ambassador in Slovakia. Yastrzhembsky is the head of the national Federation of Modern Rhythmic Gymnastics. Usmanov's wife Irina Viner is vice president of the Federation and senior coach of the Russian national team. Viner coached world champion Alina Kabayeva and many other athletes.

Usmanov and Viner first met in a gym in Tashkent when he himself was in fencing and she in gymnastics. Usmanov is President of the Russian Federation of Fencing. It is known that he helps his wife's proteges - buying apartments for some and autos for others. Experts estimate the metallurgical assets he owns at $10-13 billion. On the other hand, Usmanov is not on The Forbes' Golden 100. He was the 142nd on the global list of the wealthiest people in 2006.

According to what information is available at this point, some powerful people in the Kremlin once assisted Usmanov to become friends with Yevgeny Ananiyev, the then head of Rosvooruzhenie. Moreover, with their help he became the senior assistant CEO of MAPO-Bank, a financial establishment with heavy investments in gold-mining in Central Asia and the Urals. In fact, a job with Gazprominvestholding in 1997 marked the peak of Usmanov's career. There are even the rumors that Usmanov is friends with Gazprom senior executives nowadays. "Sources say off the record that Usmanov carried out some delicate missions for the Kremlin once. He bought the stock of major companies to sell it to whoever the Kremlin was telling him to afterwards," Mukhin said. For instance, Usmanov is believed to have bought the Gazprom stock than first ended up in the hands of Rem Vyakhirev and Victor Chernomyrdin (former heads of Gazprom) and returned it to the corporation itself. This is allegedly how he won the new management's gratitude and trust.

The people who know Usmanov say that he is somewhat special. He is cordial and amiable with everyone, he is ambitious, and he relies on hunches and his own intuition more than he does on analysis. "His brains are like a computer capable of calculating hundreds of business combinations in advance," a source said. By the way, one of the yachts of the businessman who is 54 bears the name of his mother, Dilbar (an Eastern touch, if there ever was one). Usmanov is never seen at the wild parties the Russian elite throws on Cote d'Azur. Chronicle columnists usually mention his name in connection with opera or ballet first-night shows.

Some analysts ascribe Usmanov's active procurement of media assets precisely to his ambitious nature. Investments in Western football clubs (Arsenal) are profitable by default. As for cartoons... "When a man has reached the pinnacle and has the money to spend on a whim, he may actually decide to make some noble gesture indeed," Georgy Yeltsov of Maxwell-Capital Investments said. Why not indeed, when this noble gesture perfectly fits the businesses' social accountability concept? Without which, by the way, a great deal of current business tycoons may sink into oblivion - the way Hedgehog faded in the fog...

Usmanov's assets

Soyuzmultfilm collection

Arsenal stock


Gazprom stock

Kommersant Publishing House

Muz-TV channel

Tatiana Netreba

Argumenty i Fakty, No 37, September 12, 2007