Swamped with debt, Oleg Deripaska seemed the most likely of Russia’s tycoons to fall victim to the financial crisis a year ago. Today he is on his way to preserving most of his sprawling empire, thanks to bailouts from the Kremlin and breaks from foreign lenders.
A month ago, Mr. Deripaska closed a deal to delay repayment of $7.4 billion in foreign loans. This week, he kicks off marketing for an initial public offering of UC Rusal, the aluminum giant that is the core of his holdings.
One key party has already committed to buying shares: a state bank whose chairman is Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Deripaska’s experience underscores the strangely symbiotic relationship between Russia’s oligarchs and a leader, Prime Minister Putin, who once threatened to eliminate them ‘as a class.’ It also helps explain how the oil-fired Putin regime has survived a financial and economic crisis that once appeared to threaten its foundation.
When the crisis struck in 2008, Russia’s business elite was gripped by fears the Kremlin would take advantage of the debt-burdened tycoons’ straits to grab prime assets. The crisis was likely to result in ‘massive redistribution of assets,’ one tycoon said at the time. Instead, whereas Western nations’ bailouts have sometimes wiped out shareholders, the Russian authorities have so far taken care to protect the interests of the billionaires who control much of industry.
The waves of bankruptcies and nationalizations many here expected were judged too destabilizing to risk, according to government advisers. Keeping loyal oligarchs afloat has checked the political impact of the financial crisis by limiting layoffs. The tycoons, in turn, have obliged by sometimes playing the role of whipping boy on state television. Mr. Putin ‘needs there to be a multiplicity of oligarchs for him to keep power,’ said one person close to Rusal.
For all of his efforts to build up state companies and his tough talk about tycoons, Mr. Putin thus has relied on them to run many industrial complexes Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. Before the crisis, the most dynamic players, like Mr. Deripaska, became ambassadors for Russia’s economic expansion, gobbling up assets overseas. Since then, the tycoons have provided the capitalist engine driving Mr. Putin’s Kremlin-dominated system.
Exactly what Mr. Deripaska’s relationship to the Kremlin is remains unclear. Both sides say it is purely business. But he is well-connected, with direct access to Mr. Putin and other top officials, according to people close to him.
Mr. Deripaska is often a member of the business delegation when Mr. Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travel abroad. The 42-year-old billionaire has been a big investor in Kremlin-backed projects such as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. He wins points for his efforts to save Soviet-era behemoths like the OAO GAZ auto factory and an aircraft maker.
Like the other remaining oligarchs, he studiously avoids independent political activity. For years, Russian officials from Mr. Putin on down have lobbied the U.S. to lift a ban on granting Mr. Deripaska a visa. Except for special permits arranged through the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year, the efforts have failed, amid what U.S. officials say are concerns about whether Mr. Deripaska has ties to organized crime. Canada also denied him visas twice under a law that covers ‘alleged criminality,’ Rusal disclosed in IPO documents last week. Mr. Deripaska denies any criminal ties and has never been charged with a crime.
In testimony in a suit pending in London, he has said former associates forced him to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘protection’ for his aluminum business in the 1990s. Other witnesses have testified that Mr. Deripaska continued to have friendly relationships with people he said had forced him to pay. The suit was brought by one of Mr. Deripaska’s ex-associates, Mikhail Cherney, whose version of events is that Mr. Deripaska was his partner and owes him a 13% stake in Rusal; Mr. Deripaska disputes that.
The aluminum industry was one of the most lucrative in the chaos following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1990s, Mr. Deripaska controlled a large chunk of the industry. Around the time Mr. Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000, Mr. Deripaska began to diversify into autos, aviation, construction and finance. In 2001, he married Polina Yumasheva, whose father was a top Kremlin official under Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Deripaska has said he doesn’t derive political or business benefit from his marriage.
Mr. Deripaska bought out his partners in Rusal, which had ample cash flow thanks to rising metals prices and low taxes. Borrowing from foreign banks, he built up debts across his empire of nearly $30 billion.
But the financial crisis slashed the worth of assets against which he and other tycoons had borrowed. They faced huge demands from lenders for more collateral — margin calls they couldn’t meet.
Creditors seized a 20% stake Mr. Deripaska had acquired in Canadian auto-parts maker Magna International Inc. Rusal also faced the risk of losing a 25% interest it had bought near the top of the market in OAO Norilsk Nickel. Foreign banks that once rushed to lend to him now took a tough line. Some, as recipients of bailouts at home, dared not be seen as going easy on foreign clients, bankers say.
In the U.K., meanwhile, Mr. Deripaska found himself at the center of a controversy over whether Tory politicians had asked him for contributions when they visited him on his yacht off Corfu. All denied it.
Weighed down by their debts, oligarchs begged the Kremlin for help. Officials were sympathetic, fearing the loss of strategic assets to foreign banks. Days before banks’ payment deadlines,Vneshekonombank (VEB), the Russian state bank where Mr. Putin is chairman, lent Rusal $4.5 billion to repay the foreigners. VEB also made loans to other other oligarchs.
Business leaders worried the moves would turn into nationalization by stealth. The loans were for only a year. The fear was that if they couldn’t be repaid when they came due, the state bank would claim the collateral. Mr. Deripaska hastily made peace with another tycoon with whom he had skirmished over control of Norilsk. The purpose was to keep the government from using the conflict as a pretext to gain control of the nickel company, people close to the men say.
As metals prices continued to fall, Mr. Deripaska’s empire seemed the most vulnerable to seizure by creditors. One confidant recalls advising him to just ‘turn it all over to the state and do yoga for three years.’ Instead, Mr. Deripaska worked tirelessly to save his business. He took back the CEO role at Rusal, which he’d given up years earlier, and rushed to cut costs. He dismissed offers to sell assets at steep discounts.
In January, he and several other struggling oligarchs pitched the idea of merging their holdings into a metals giant that would be partly state-owned. The Kremlin wasn’t interested. It figured minority stakes in the businesses would be of little benefit, say officials, while a full-scale takeover would threaten the fragile political balance among the various business families with ties to the Kremlin.
‘Nobody’s taking anything from anyone,’ said Igor Sechin, a powerful deputy prime minister and proponent of greater state control, in an interview later. Mr. Deripaska, Mr. Sechin added with a smile, ‘is very able, smart and educated, well-known in the world. Let him work.’
The government instead put several of Mr. Deripaska’s companies, including GAZ, on the list of businesses in line for state aid. Though Russian officials said it wasn’t a bailout of oligarchs, analysts said that was what the aid amounted to. Mr. Deripaska has rejected the idea that he was bailed out.
For the government, preserving jobs was a key issue. Unemployment was surging, triggering fears of social unrest. By spring, state television was regularly covering the plight of laid-off or unpaid workers in one-company towns, highlighting the failure of the plants’ owners to take care of employees.
At Pikalyovo, a small town near St. Petersburg, workers blocked a highway to protest layoffs and the cutoff of factory-provided hot water. Mr. Deripaska was just one of three tycoons who owned Pikalyovo’s factories, but he got the bulk of the blame from state television.
Mr. Putin made a ‘surprise’ visit in early June. TV coverage showed Mr. Deripaska looking like a penitent schoolboy as the prime minister ordered him to sign a contract restarting the plant, and then demanded the oligarch return his pen.
Insisting the plants be reopened, Mr. Putin told him and the other tycoons, ‘If you can’t agree among yourselves, then we’ll do it without you.’ Press commentators started talking of the looming end of Mr. Deripaska’s career.
What TV didn’t show was that even as Mr. Deripaska played the scapegoat in Mr. Putin’s populist set piece, the tycoon was being well-rewarded. That same week, the Kremlin agreed in principle to extend its $4.5 billion loan for a year. And soon, authorities approved $600 million in subsidies to help GAZ restructure.
In addition, behind the scenes, Mr. Putin lobbied for a deal that would benefit the oligarch’s GAZ factory, a Russian-backed takeover of General Motors’ Opel AG unit. Mr. Deripaska later said the situation in Pikalyovo had been just a misunderstanding.
In his talks with foreign creditors, Mr. Deripaska’s confidence showed. He refused to give ground in loan-restructuring talks. At the end of July, the banks agreed in principle to a deal that would give Rusal four extra years to repay its giant loans.
‘The more loudly were being buried, the easier it was to make deals with creditors,’ Mr. Deripaska told a Russian newspaper in September.
VEB, the state bank where Mr. Putin is chairman, pitched in. In October, it officially extended its $4.5 billion loan until October 2010. Though that was enough to take the pressure off Rusal — which continues to hold its stake in Norilsk, pledged on the loan — Mr. Deripaska had asked for more. In a letter to Mr. Putin, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Deripaska had sought a four-year term and reduced interest rate.
A spokesman for Mr. Putin said ‘there are reasonable limits’ to the flexibility the government has shown to big business.
In the middle of last year, with global markets recovering, Rusal revived an IPO plan it had shelved in 2007.
Mr. Deripaska obtained special entry permits through the FBI that let him visit the U.S. in August and October. He discussed the IPO plan on Wall Street and went to Detroit to lobby for an Opel deal. (GM ultimately kept Opel.)
While some U.S. investment banks were leery about the Rusal IPO, it had no trouble finding underwriters. Mr. Deripaska went to China with Mr. Putin in October, lining up deals to sell Rusal’s metal and pitching its shares.
Back in Moscow, on a day in mid-November, he sat for hours on a couch outside Mr. Putin’s office in the prime minister’s suburban residence, sending text messages as he waited for a meeting with Mr. Putin.
The patience paid off, as Mr. Putin approved a plan to invest about $700 million in Rusal’s IPO through VEB, the state bank. Though the deal would give the government only a 3% stake, people close to it say it will be a huge boost to the public offering.
To make it possible, the government had to approve special rules allowing the investment, made with earnings from money the Kremlin earmarked for pensions. Russia’s finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, hailed the deal as a good one for the government and a step to ensure that control at Rusal stayed with Mr. Deripaska. After the sale of 10.6% of Rusal’s shares near the end of January, Mr. Deripaska’s stake will fall to about 48% from 53% but he will remain in control.
A last-minute hangup delayed things. Regulators in Hong Kong, where the IPO is taking place, demanded assurances Rusal wouldn’t be bankrupted by the $4.5 billion loan from VEB, the state bank, when it comes due in October 2010. Another Russian state-controlled bank came to the rescue. OAO Sberbank offered to refinance the loan for four more years, and is considering buying shares in the IPO as well.
Gregory L. White / Alexander Kolyandr
一家实力雄厚的国有银行已承诺会购买UC Rusal的股份，而这家银行的董事长就是俄罗斯总理普京(Vladimir Putin)。
当普京和俄罗斯总统梅德韦杰夫(Dmitry Medvedev)出国访问时，随行的商界代表团里常有德里帕斯卡的身影。这位42岁的亿万富翁一直是2014年索契冬奥会等俄罗斯政府所支持项目的重要投资者。他由于出手挽救OAO GAZ汽车制造厂和一家飞机生产商等苏联时代遗留下来的大企业，而在自己的功劳簿上记下了一笔。
德里帕斯卡在为一起正于伦敦审理的案件作证时说，上世纪90年代，几名前副手曾强迫他支付数亿美元，以“保护”他的铝业务。其他证人已作证说，德里帕斯卡一直与那几名据他说曾强迫其付款的人保持着友好关系。此案的原告是德里帕斯卡的前副手米哈伊尔•查尼(Mikhail Cherney)。据他说，德里帕斯卡是他的合伙人，并欠着他UC Rusal公司13%的股份；德里帕斯卡不认同这一说法。
1991年苏联解体后的乱世中，铝业是最赚钱的行业之一。到90年代末之前，德里帕斯卡已经控制了铝业的很大一块。就在2000年普京接替叶利钦(Boris Yeltsin)成为俄罗斯总统前后，德里帕斯卡的帝国开始扩展到汽车、航空、建筑和金融业。2001年，他娶了叶利钦手下政府高官的女儿尤马舍娃(Polina Yumasheva)为妻。德里帕斯卡说，他没从自己的婚姻中得到政治利益或商业利益。
债权人拿走了德里帕斯卡从加拿大汽车部件生产商Magna International Inc.收购的20%股权。Rusal还面临失去在市场高点时买进的OAO Norilsk Nickel的25%权益。曾经抢着向他提供贷款的外资银行如今都态度强硬。银行家说，其中有些在本国受到救助的外国银行不敢被人看成对外国客户随便放贷。
另外在幕后，普京还展开游说，希望达成以俄罗斯政府为支持的收购通用汽车(General Motors)旗下的欧宝(Opel AG)的交易。这项交易将惠及德里帕斯卡的GAZ工厂。德里帕斯卡后来说，皮卡廖沃发生的事情仅仅是一场误会。
Rusal公司的IPO在最后关头出现障碍，因而被推迟。IPO上市地香港的监管机构要求，Rusal要保证在VEB 45亿美元的贷款在2010年10月到期时，公司不会破产。俄罗斯另外一家国家控制的银行施予了援手。OAO Sberbank为这笔贷款提供为期四年的再融资，并且也在考虑在IPO中购买股票。
Gregory L. White / Alexander Kolyandr