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MOSCOW – Vladimir Potanin has a plan to cash out somewhere between $3 and $5 billion worth of his fortune in Norilsk Nickel by converting it into a controlling shareholding of the South African mining company, Gold Fields. If he succeeds, he will have achieved a bigger transfer of Russian wealth offshore – beyond the reach of the Russian prosecutor, courts, tax authority, or Kremlin – than Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, or any other Russian oligarch has been able to get away with, so far.

Part of the cost of Potanin’s plan has already been borrowed from the coffers of Norilsk Nickel itself; part from Citibank, the US bank which is so nervous about the plan it dare not explain the terms on which, last month, it loaned Potanin the money in the first place, and why it’s now desperate to recruit other banks to lend the money in its stead. That first transaction, the purchase by Norilsk Nickel of a 20 percent shareholding in Gold Fields for $1.16 billion, was the single largest corporate purchase offshore in the history of post-Soviet Russia.

The second part of the plan was signaled by Potanin’s dealmaker, Leonid Rozhetskin, in London a few days ago. He said Norilsk Nickel intended to buy more Gold Fields shares. What he meant was that Potanin intends to take another 30 percent shareholding, and thus control of Gold Fields. Constructing this deal is Rozhetskin’s job for the next several months. He doesn’t exactly want to pay cash – at least another $2 billion in real money-because he is not at all sure that the banks, which are wrestling uncomfortably with refinancing of Citibank’s $800 million loan, will be agreeable to an even larger credit. And so, the trick Rozhetskin must pull off is to give the Gold Fields shareholders something just as valuable. This is likely to be the collection of Russian goldmine assets which Norilsk Nickel has been buying up for the past two years. They include Polyus, Russia’s leading gold producer from Krasnoyarsk, and other deposits and mining companies whose productivity is much less, and capital requirements much more.

Indeed, this is such a mixed bag that what Rozhetskin really needs to make his Gold Fields takeover deal effective is that President Vladimir Putin will agree to award Norilsk Nickel the Sukhoi Log deposit, Russia’s largest unmined goldfield. This lies in remote territory northeast of Lake Baikal, in the Irkutsk region. A decade ago, it belonged to a partnership between Lenzoloto, a local mining association, Star an Australian miner, and JCI. But Lenzoloto cheated its partners, and has now been swallowed up by Potanin.

Sukhoi Log is listed as having 33 million ounces of gold; if every ounce could be mined, they would fetch more than $13 billion at the current gold price. Rozhetskin’s plan is that if Norilsk Nickel wins the government tender for the new mining licence for Sukhoi Log, he will be able to create a separate Norilsk Nickel company concentrating this and the other gold assets, and then merge the lot into Gold Fields. For an oligarch like Potanin, Gold Fields shares are as good a refuge, if not better than Chelsea is for Abramovich.

The Russian government acknowledges that it has begun investigating the deal. The South African government is slower to follow suit, but it will. The last takeover bid for Gold Fields, from the US miner Franco-Nevada, was disallowed.

In the meantime, it is possible to ask a range of Russian policymakers, including party leaders, parliamentary deputies, and advisors to the President what they think of this huge cashout attempt by Potanin. It is possible to ask, I say, but the answers reveal a surprising detail about the post-election landscape in Russia. This is a pervasive fear of having, let alone expressing an opinion, that may offend either an oligarch like Potanin, or the President.

In December, Victor Gerashchenko, the veteran Soviet state banker and former chairman of the Russian Central Bank, was elected by the voters to a seat in the Duma representing the new Rodina bloc, headed by Dmitri Rogozin. The party positioned itself during the election campaign as a sharp critic of the oligarchs, with a national-interest line of policy. Gerashchenko’s election four months ago, which did not exactly align him with his party’s public platform on any point, was something of an irony. During two terms at the Central Bank in the 1990s, he defied repeated efforts by the Duma to make his administration of Bank affairs legally accountable. Gerashchenko’s high opinion of himself has been not negotiable with any of the democratic laws or organs of the state, save the President. It is thus the President who is likely to have approved the recent nomination of Gerashchenko to the board of directors of Yukos. With sensitivity to the proprieties, Gerashchenko has announced that if elected, he will resign is seat in the Duma. Before long, Gerashchenko may be chairman of the Yukos board, supervising whatever new shareholding and management arrangements the Kremlin has in mind for replacing Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s group, as well as the American management led by Semyon Kukes. Until then, Gerashchenko is still a representative of the people.

What view does he therefore take of the legality and benefit to the Russian commonwealth of Potanin’s moves offshore? As the guardian of the Central Bank’s capital transfer regulations, there is no doubt that Gerashchenko knows the rules which Potanin has been carefully skirting. Gerashchenko has had a great deal of documented experience doing the same himself. But Gerashchenko has no opinion he dares to express on Potanin, Through assistants, spokesmen and secretaries, none of whom will identify himself by name, Gerashchenko has replied that he is not refusing to express a view on Potanin’s transactions, but neither is he going to reply. He is simply “busy right now”, according to a spokesman.

Vladislav Reznik is chairman of the Duma committee that has legal and legislative jurisdiction over what Potanin is doing. This is the committee on credit organizations and financial markets. Reznik was elected to the Duma to represent the United Russia faction. Before becoming a parliamentarian, Reznik was well-known as the manager who tried to privatize the state insurance company Rosgosstrakh for his own benefit. His expertise in evaluating Potanin’s financial operations should be considerable. But asked to do so, Reznik replied: “I can’t comment on government questions. Better ask that question to the Central Bank itself.”

Mikhail Zadornov is another Duma deputy, former chairman of the Duma Budget Committee, and once the successor to Anatoly Chubais as Minister of Finance. A member of the unsuccessful Yabloko faction, Zadornov has fallen slowly, but far from the power he once enjoyed. Asked to say if Potanin’s Gold Fields transaction accords with his view of Russian public policy, Zadornov employed a lady of such rudeness, his reluctance to talk became an attack on the presumption of anyone for daring to ask. Her courage failed when asked to give her name. “Mikhail Mikhailovich,” she said, referring to the freshly reelected tribune of the people, is “very busy.” Zadornov was even busier to respond to the question of whether he had ever received election support from Norilsk Nickel, or from Potanin’s holding company Interros.

During the Duma election campaign, the Rodina faction led on the hustings as the most critical of the concentrations of wealth amassed by the oligarchs under former President Boris Yeltsin. But when Dmitri Rogozin, the Rodina leader, was asked to say what he thought of Potanin’s latest moves, his spokesman responded that his answers “are not ready yet.” This was repeated at regular intervals over several weeks.

Mikhail Delyagin, an economist who heads the Institute for Globalization Problems in Moscow, has recently been engaged by Rogozin and his colleagues to add economic policymaking muscle to the faction. Delyagin is a keen practitioner of the media sound-byte on almost anything his questioners put to him – except Potanin. “We are not refusing to answer,” said Delyagin’s spokesman, who gave her first name as Maria. “We are delaying just a little bit.’ Delyagin himself remains stonily silent.

If the Rodina faction is afraid to have a policy view of capital flight, cashout schemes by oligarchs, or the distribution of wealth in Russia’s mining sector, then surely the Communist Party could be counted on to restate the eternal Marxist-Leninist verities, and place its opposition to Potanin on the record. True, the party led by Gennady Zyuganov had a soft spot for Yukos, and took money from that direction to finance its election campaigns for the Duma and the presidency. That it failed dismally in both has now led to serious internal trouble over doctrine and leadership. Nikolai Sapozhnikov is the designated Communist spokesman in the Duma on economic policy issues. He has refused to take calls to answer questions about Potanin.

Zyuganov remains the party leader, and however embattled he may be, he knows better than to duck a question delivered face to face. And so, after listening to a recital of Potanin’s plan for Gold Fields, and after being asked whether he judges it in Russia’s national interest, Zyuganov began: “The past ten years we haven’t had business in Russia. It was robbery.” Zyuganov took another breath, and was about to deliver a second sentence, when ail of a sudden, an elderly assistant tugged at his sleeve, and whispered, not altogether successfully: “That’s enough”. With that, Zyuganov closed his mouth, and made for the door, Potanin’s future at the hands of the Communist Party left in the air, uncertain but not at risk.

Across the political spectrum of Russia, therefore, there is no one who dares to express a view on the single largest transfer of the country’s wealth abroad. No one yet, it should be qualified, because the reaction of Russian party and political leaders to the attempted sale of Yukos to an American oil company drew the same timidity when each was interviewed last autumn, before Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested. Then those running in opposition to the government found their voices, and dared to oppose the oligarchs.

But as Reznik the parliamentarian succinctly summed it up, matters of such high policy are for the government to decide, not the Duma. If he had been honest, he would not have said government either. He meant Putin alone. And that’s exactly where Potanin and the other oligarchs now stand. Reviled in public opinion, and the cause of a massive shift of votes towards the erstwhile opposition of Rodina, they are no longer capable of buying the silence or the complicity of the parliament. It is Putin, not the oligarchs, that Gerashchenko, Reznik, Zadornov, Delyagin, Sapozhnikov, and Zyuganov now fear, now wait for. By their action and inaction, they have created a one-man state. But if that is all that stands for Russia between Potanin and his ill-gotten gains, then is there anyone who will gainsay that, for the national interest at least, better Putin than no one at all?

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