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Record 87 Russians on Forbes Rich List

From the titans of industry to the friends of President Vladimir Putin, Russia's richest just had one hell of a year.

Boosted by soaring oil and commodity prices, the ranks of the country's billionaires have swollen to 87, up from 53 a year ago, according to Forbes' new world rich list, released Thursday.

Forbes' richest Russian, Oleg Deripaska, the majority owner of aluminum giant United Company RusAl, stormed up from 40th to 9th on the list with an estimated fortune of $28 billion -- leaving Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, the former No. 1, trailing in his wake.

With 19 of the global top 100, Russia also now boasts more billionaires than any other country apart from the United States. The 87 Russians on the list have a combined wealth of just over $470 billion -- or more than twice the country's GDP when Putin came to power in 2000.

The Russian billionaires are also the youngest from any major economy, with an average age of 46, compared with a global average of 61.

Deripaska broke into the world top 10 for the first time on the strength of his Russian Aluminum merging with two other companies to create the world's top producer of primary aluminum.

With $23.5 billion, Abramovich is ranked 15th worldwide, ahead of Forbes list stalwarts Alexei Mordashov, the head of steelmaker Severstal, and Mikhail Fridman, the oil, telecoms and banking mogul who heads Alfa Group, who also figure in the global top 20.

Although the Russian section of the list is, as usual, top-heavy with people making their money from natural resources, the sources of wealth are becoming more varied, said Luisa Kroll, the Forbes editor responsible for the list.

"The list was really much more diverse than we expected to see," Kroll said. Geographically, however, the country's wealth is concentrated, with Moscow still having more billionaires than any other city in the world.

Among the most profitable sectors were construction and, despite the turmoil on global stock markets, the financial sector.

The most impressive newcomers were Yury Zhukov and Kirill Pisarev, whose developer, PIK Group, floated on the London Stock Exchange last year, giving them both fortunes of $6.1 billion.

Seven of the 25 youngest billionaires this year are Russian -- although none are as young as American Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, 23, who has a fortune of $1.5 billion.

"None of the Russians inherited their wealth so it's really interesting to see how much has been created in such a short time," Kroll said.

This year's list also sees two men widely perceived to be in Putin's inner circle made an appearance for the first time.

Dubbed Putin's "cashiers" during the 2004 presidential elections by Boris Berezovsky-backed candidate Ivan Rybkin, oil trader Gennady Timchenko and Bank Rossia co-owner Yury Kovalchuk now have fortunes valued at $2.5 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively.

Timchenko, reported to be a judo partner of Putin's who has Finnish citizenship, heads secretive Swiss-registered oil trader Gunvor, which works with state-controlled firms Rosneft and Gazprom Neft.

Kovalchuk, a St. Petersburg banker, had a dacha neighboring Putin's in a compound near the city in the mid-1990s, along with the future Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin and future Education Minister Andrei Fursenko.

No Kremlin officials figure on the Forbes list, and Putin has dismissed as ridiculous rumors swirling in the Western media that he controls a personal fortune of $40 billion. At his annual news conference last month, Putin said the people behind the rumor had "picked everything out of their noses and smeared it on their little papers."

Kroll said Forbes did not have any hard information about the president's income beyond what had been reported in the press.

"It has been tricky to pin Putin down," she said.

Far away from the center of power, the Forbes list also featured some oligarchs who have fallen foul of the Kremlin. Ahead of Putin's arch-foe Boris Berezovsky, who was valued at $1.3 billion, the richest exile was former Russneft president Mikhail Gutseriyev, with a fortune of $2.6 billion.

As before, only one Russian woman made it onto the list -- construction magnate Yelena Baturina, the wife of Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

In general, Kroll said compiling estimates for Russia's rich was trickier than in the rest of the world.

"It is more difficult and less transparent. They are some of the most difficult and fascinating fortunes to follow," she said. There is inevitably an element of art as well as science in the figures, she said.

Despite a number of the Russians on the list refusing to be interviewed for this article, it seems that some of the people on the list take it very seriously.

"There is a group of two dozen high-profile billionaires -- including one Russian -- who are very active in complaining that we have underestimated the numbers," Kroll said.

In part because of the declining value of the dollar, the overall number of billionaires around the world has risen to a record 1,062.

At the very top of the list, U.S. financier Warren Buffett knocked close friend and Microsoft founder Bill Gates off the top spot. Buffett's wealth grew by over $10 billion to $62 billion.

With a fortune of $58 billion, Gates, who had previously topped the Forbes list 13 years running, slipped to third place behind Mexican telecoms mogul Carlos Slim.

(The Moscow Times 10.iii.08)