The oligarch Mikhail Fridman (a citizen of Russia and Israel born 57 years ago in the Ukrainian city of Lviv) is skeptical about the usefulness of the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russian businessmen, including himself, in response to the invasion of Ukraine . “Populism is very attractive, but from a practical point of view the sanctions are counterproductive because they push these businessmen to return to Russia, since they cannot go elsewhere,” he says in a conversation with this newspaper from London, where he lives. since 2015.
Fridman feels confined. The tycoon has left his positions in companies, including the board of directors of LetterOne, an investment group in which he and his partner Petr Aven control just under 50%. LetterOne owns 77% of the Dia supermarket chain. His credit cards have been blocked and he cannot travel to countries in the European Union. “The UK authorities are supposed to give me a certain sum so that I can go in a taxi and buy food, but it will be a very limited amount in relation to the cost of living in London. I still don’t know if it will be enough for me to live normally, without excesses. I can’t even invite in a restaurant. I have to eat at home and I am practically under house arrest,” he says.
The businessman says that he still does not know if he will be able to continue maintaining the house he bought and restored when he moved to the British capital with his family at a time when the climate of instability for investments in Russia had already begun. One of the purposes of his move to London was to diversify the assets he had obtained from the sale (to the state-owned company Rosneft) of his stake in the large private oil consortium TNK-BP. “It is not clear that he will be able to continue living in London or if I will be forced to leave, something that I cannot and do not want to do now for many reasons,” he notes.
“The West will do no better if it forces a lot of bright and interesting businessmen to go to Russia, instead of integrating them further and trying to get them to take some position, although it is clear that private business has zero influence over Russia. [Vladímir] Putin,” he says.
Fridman describes as “idiocy” the opinion according to which the oligarchs can force the Russian president to interrupt the war, a word he avoids, preferring to refer to this bloody reality with euphemisms and expressions such as “catastrophe” or “what happens (in Ukraine)”.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
“I am not willing to put the many people who report to me at risk,” he says, referring to the contingent of 400,000 to 500,000 employees he says work or are associated with his companies in Russia.
Fridman believes that, although private businessmen cannot influence Putin, they could, instead, “try to convey their point of view if they had more freedom of choice.” In the current conditions “those sanctioned will have to return to Russia, where they will have no choice but to be absolutely loyal, and where they will continue to work, because they are energetic, brilliant and talented people, and they will found businesses and create jobs,” he says. .
The conversation resembles a tightrope walk, in which any loss of balance – in this case verbal – can have serious consequences, regardless of the direction of the fall. In the West, sanctions; in Russia, the reaction of its irascible leaders. Moscow sources say that the staff of various Russian businessmen residing in the West have begun to be questioned by the security services, interested in knowing if their employers intend to return to the homeland.
“We never wanted to get close to power”
The oligarch insists on the need for the West to understand that “there are different Russians and that not everyone can be punished.” “The West must be smarter, because punishing Russians just for being Russians increases confrontation and also the number of supporters of anti-Western politics in Russia.”
“I’ve been in London for eight years, I’ve invested billions of dollars in Britain and other European countries and the response to this is that they confiscate everything and throw me out,” he complains. The oligarchs are not united by a guild sense. “There is no club of oligarchs. We are all different people. To have an initiative you have to talk to someone and the most horrible thing is that nobody here talks to us”, exclaims Fridman.
“We were exclusively dedicated to business and we never wanted to get close to power, we always tried to keep our distance and we did not participate in any discussion that did not refer directly to the conditions of running the business. We set out to maintain a constructive relationship with the authorities and not enter into any conflict with them. Putin did not admit any discussion about domestic politics”, he explains about his business activities in Russia.
In 2003, when Putin set limits on the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who ended up in jail), it became clear that “any participation in political life was unacceptable.” “From then on we did not support any politician, because we considered that it would have been a transgression of the framework that the Kremlin required of the business community,” he continues.
Although he claims not to have financed political parties, Fridman claims to have made an exception for Boris Nemtsov, from the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS, in its Russian abbreviation) when this formation was still represented in the State Duma (Lower House of Parliament ). He did it, he says, “because this force was oriented to private enterprise.” And for a second reason: “Nemtsov was a very good friend of mine, a true politician, absolutely honest, incorruptible and open.” The politician was assassinated next to the Kremlin in February 2015.
The oligarch admits that “some economic sanctions can be effective, because they put pressure on the Russian economy and consequently influence the opinion of the country’s leaders. “But the sanctions against private entrepreneurs do not make sense, because most of them have made their business thanks to their talent, effort and personal qualities,” he continues.
After Brussels included Fridman on its blacklist of businessmen sanctioned for their alleged links with Putin, the oligarch has abandoned all the positions he held, both in his companies and in cultural entities in which he participated. This includes the board of directors of the LetterOne conglomerate, (investor in the Día supermarket chain in Spain and Alfa Bank, the first private bank in Russia). The businessman, several of whose ancestors perished in the Holocaust, also withdrew from the supervisory board of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a project inaugurated in October 2021, in the presence of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. The memorial stands on the site near kyiv where Nazi occupiers exterminated nearly 100,000 Jews from 1941 to 1943.
In January, Fridman attended a screening of the film in Madrid Baby Yar. Context, by the Ukrainian Sergei Loznitsa, organized by the Hispano-Jewish Foundation. Among the projects that the oligarch was willing to co-finance shortly before being affected by the sanctions, is an exhibition of unpublished graphic material from the Spanish Civil War, planned by the Association of Aviators of the Spanish Republic (ADAR).
Follow all the international information in Facebook and Twitteror in our weekly newsletter.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits