The oligarch Mikhail Fridman, a citizen of Russia and Israel who was born in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, is skeptical about the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russian entrepreneurs like himself as a response to the invasion of Ukraine. “Populism is very attractive, but from a practical point of view, sanctions are counterproductive because they push these entrepreneurs to return to Russia, since they cannot go elsewhere,” says the 57-year-old founder of the multinational conglomerate Alfa Group in a conversation from London, where he has been residing since 2015.
Fridman feels like he is in confinement. He has stepped down from the board of LetterOne, the investment group where he and his business partner Petr Aven have a stake of a little under 50%; LetterOne’s investment portfolio includes Alfa-Bank, Russia’s top private bank, and DIA, a Spanish discount supermarket chain.
Additionally, his credit cards have been blocked and he cannot travel to European Union countries. “Authorities in Great Britain have to assign me a certain amount so I can take taxis and buy food, but it will be a very limited amount if you look at the cost of living in London. I still don’t know whether it will be enough to live a normal life without excesses. I can’t even take anyone out to a restaurant. I have to eat at home and I am practically under house arrest,” he says.
Fridman says he still does not know whether he will be able to keep the house he bought and restored when he and his family moved to the British capital at a time when instability was starting to affect investments in Russia. One of the reasons for moving to London was to diversify his assets from the sale (to the state-owned Rosneft) of his stake in the private oil consortium TNK-BP. “It’s unclear whether I’ll be able to keep living in London or whether I’ll be forced to go, which I cannot do right now and don’t want to for many reasons.”
“Things won’t go any better for the West if it forces many brilliant and interesting entrepreneurs to go to Russia, instead of integrating them more and trying to get them to take a stand, even if it is obvious that private business has zero influence over [Vladimir] Putin,” he asserts.
Fridman thinks it is “idiotic” to believe that oligarchs can force the Russian president to stop the war, a word which he carefully avoids, instead describing this bloody reality with euphemisms and expressions such as “disaster” and “what is happening (in Ukraine).”
I have been in London for eight years, I have invested billions of dollars in Great Britain and other European countries, and the response to this is that they seize everything from me and throw me out
“I don’t want to create a risk for the numerous people who depend on me,” he explains, alluding to the 400,000 to 500,000 employees who, according to Fridman, work for him or have direct ties with his companies in Russia.
Fridman believes that even though private entrepreneurs cannot influence Putin, they could “try to convey their point of view if they had more freedom to choose.” In the current situation, however, sanctioned individuals “will have to return to Russia, where they will have no option other than being absolutely loyal, and where they will continue to work because they are energetic, brilliant and talented individuals, and they will create businesses and jobs.”
The conversation is not unlike walking on a tightrope, where any loss of balance – in this case, verbal – could lead to grave consequences regardless of the direction of the fall. Sanctions in the West, fallout from irascible leaders in Russia. Sources in Moscow said that personnel working for various Russian entrepreneurs currently residing in the West have been questioned by security services to find out whether their bosses have any intention of returning to the homeland.
The oligarch insists that the West should understand there are different types of Russians and that it can’t punish them all. “The West should be smarter, because punishing Russians just out of the fact of being Russian increases the confrontation and the number of supporters of anti-West policies in Russia.”
“I have been in London for eight years, I have invested billions of dollars in Great Britain and other European countries, and the response to this is that they seize everything from me and throw me out,” he complains.
There is no bond that unites oligarchs. “There is no oligarchs’ club. We are all different people,” he says. “We were exclusively focused on business and never wanted to get close to power.” According to Fridman, the goal was to maintain a constructive relationship with the authorities and avoid any kind of conflict with them. “Putin did not accept any debate on domestic policy,” he says about his business activities in Russia.
In 2003, when Putin drew a line for the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who ended up behind bars), it became clear that “any participation in political life was unacceptable,” says Fridman. “After that, we did not back any politician, because we felt that it would have been a transgression of the framework that the Kremlin demanded from the business world.”
There is no oligarchs’ club. We are all different people
Although he says he has not financed political parties, Fridman admits to an exception with Boris Nemtsov, of the Union of Right Forces (SPS in its Russian acronym) when this group still had representation in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. He did so because of the party’s business orientation, and because “Nemtsov was a good friend of mine, a real politician, absolutely honest, incorruptible and open.” Nemtsov was assassinated near the Kremlin in February 2015.
Fridman concedes that some economic sanctions can be efficient because they put pressure on the Russian economy and as a result influence the opinion of national leaders. “But sanctions against private entrepreneurs make no sense, because the majority of them have built their business through talent, effort and personal qualifications,” he holds.
When Brussels included Fridman on its list of entrepreneurs targeted over their alleged ties to Putin, the oligarch stepped down from all of his positions, both in his own companies and in cultural organizations. This includes the board of the investment firm LetterOne, as well as the supervisory board of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a project that was launched in October 2021 with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in attendance. The memorial’s location is at a spot near Kyiv where occupying Nazi forces exterminated nearly 100,000 Jews between 1941 and 1943.