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Russia No. 4 on Forbes' Billionaires List

Russia's per capita GDP may be dragging behind Costa Rica's, but its head count of billionaires is the fourth highest in the world, according to Forbes magazine's annual rating of the super rich, released late last week.

The list of the country's billionaires burgeoned to 17 over the past year -- 10 more than in 2002 -- thanks to high oil prices, a growing stock market and greater corporate transparency.

For a second year in a row, Russia's richest men have managed to buck the trend of shrinking fortunes. Worldwide, the number of billionaires year on year fell from 497 to 476 and their combined wealth from $1.54 trillion to $1.4 trillion. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, steadily No. 1 on the Forbes list since 1998, ended up $12.1 billion poorer than the year before, his worth dropping to $40.7 billion.

All but five of Russia's billionaires are heavily involved in the oil sector.

The strongest showing was by Yukos, whose top executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky retained his title as Russia's richest man and shot up from his No. 101 spot last year to No. 26. Khodorkovsky's estimated worth more than doubled -- from $3.7 billion to $8 billion.

Of the 10 new tycoons on this year's list, five earned their riches at Yukos or affiliated banking and insurance conglomerate Menatep.

Khodorkovsky, who says he owns 6 percent to 7 percent of the company, attributed the jump in his fortune to Yukos' growing capitalization.

"These are the same shares of the same company," Interfax quoted him as saying.

"The fact that it is becoming worth more means that our work has been a success. The fact that a lot of oil executives made it onto the list means that our oil sector is the most public and open. I think my fellow businessmen from other sectors still have the journey toward financial transparency ahead of them."

Stephen O'Sullivan, head of research at United Financial Group, said one big reason for the rising number of Russian billionaires is greater disclosure.

"Most people have taken the view that Mr. Khodorkovsky owns Yukos and now we know that he does. But many other people have large stakes as well," O'Sullivan said Friday. "People we didn't know about last year, we now know about."

Another factor was Russia's growing stock market, which was up 35 percent to 40 percent last year, driving the value of the billionaires' industrial holdings.

"Clearly, a large part of their wealth is not sitting in the bank in cash," said O'Sullivan. "It's sitting in the form of shareholdings in the companies that they now own, control and manage."

Russia's top trio of billionaires remained unchanged.

The second richest after Khodorkovsky was Chukotka Governor Roman Abramovich, whose Millhouse Capital holding controls oil major Sibneft and half of metals giant Russian Aluminum. Abramovich's fortune swelled from $3 billion to $5.7 billion, boosting him from No. 127 to No. 49.

Russia's No. 3 for a second year in a row was Alfa Group chairman Mikhail Fridman, whose company's prize holding, the Tyumen Oil Co., or TNK, signed a landmark $6.75 billion deal last month with BP.

Fridman's worth nearly doubled over the past year, up from $2.2 billion to $4.3 billion, hoisting him from No. 191 to No. 68. The top newcomer to the list was major TNK shareholder Viktor Vekselberg, who entered as Russia's fourth richest man with $2.5 billion.

Russia's youngest billionaire was Oleg Deripaska, 34, whose Base Element holding co-owns Russian Aluminum together with Millhouse.

Deripaska's worth edged up from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion, propelling him from No. 413 to No. 278. He overtook LUKoil's Vagit Alekperov and Surgutneftegaz head Vladimir Bogdanov -- the only two Russian billionaires who saw their fortunes get smaller over the past year.

Conspicuously absent from the list was one-time Kremlin power broker Boris Berezovsky -- ostensibly because the self-exiled oligarch, who recently estimated his own fortune at $3 billion, has been loath to disclose his holdings in Russia and abroad. Berezovsky was declared the country's richest man in 1997, the first year Russians made it onto the Forbes list. The only billionaire the following year was Interros chairman Vladimir Potanin, who was ranked Russia's fifth richest man in the latest rating.

In 1999 and 2000, still reeling from its August 1998 financial crash, the country registered no billionaires at all. But Russia popped back onto the scene in 2001 with eight names on the list, and held on to seven spots in 2002.

The 17 billionaires on this year's list put Russia behind only the United States, Germany and Japan.

Aside from dry statistics, the Forbes list reveals some entertaining personal details about the world's richest people. Khodorkovsky, who is only 39, has four children.

The only Russian billionaire who is a bachelor, says Forbes, is Norilsk Nickel CEO Mikhail Prokhorov, who "is often featured in gossip columns about blow-out parties on the French Riviera."

Prokhorov drew chuckles from the business community last week when, under pressure from striking workers, he announced that his official monthly salary was only some 450 rubles (about $14).

Bogdanov's bio calls him "exceptionally private: Dubbed the Hermit of Siberia, Bogdanov rarely leaves his remote oil town, never grants interviews and shuns the trappings of wealth; often walks to work and does his own grocery shopping."

Deripaska is married to the daughter of former President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, who in turn married Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko -- "which means that Deripaska is now Yeltsin's grandson by marriage," says Forbes.

The list also reminds readers of the close ties between big money and big politics.

Besides Abramovich's governorship and Deripaska's familial proximity to the Kremlin, three of the Yukos debutants have shuttled between corporate suites and public office.

Khodorkovsky's long-time partner Leonid Nevzlin is a Federation Council senator, appointed in 2001 from the Volga region of Mordovia.

Vladimir Dubov, identified as a major Yukos shareholder, made it into the State Duma in 1999 on the Fatherland-All Russia ticket.

Dubov is now a member of the budget and taxes committee and the commission on production-sharing agreements.

Another shareholder of Yukos and Menatep, Vasily Shakhnovsky, served in the 1990s as chief of staff to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and was one of the top managers of Yeltsin's hair-raising re-election campaign in 1996.

(The Moscow Times 03.iii.03)

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