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Russia’s business elite seeks to play down Putin links

Russia’s business elite seeks to play down Putin links

Moscow : It is generally accepted that ignoring an official invitation from the Kremlin is not a great way to get ahead in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But what if turning up is similarly perilous?

Such a dilemma might have exercised advisers to Russia’s top executives and oligarchs last week, in the run-up to Mr Putin’s annual get-together with the country’s richest and most powerful business leaders.

In recent years, proximity to Russia’s president has not been something to shout about — at least not in Washington.

As US officials last year pondered which of Russia’s corporate titans should be sanctioned in an effort to punish Mr Putin’s regime, many of the men who have made billions of dollars thanks partly to their connections to the Kremlin were insisting they had hardly any contact with the president. 

“He is a self-made entrepreneur who stays completely clear of politics” was the common refrain heard from the army of PRs, advisers and lawyers who work for Russia’s tycoons, many of whom own or operate lucrative natural resource or industrial assets acquired through murky privatisation deals.

For those who failed to sell such a story, the result has been crippling. Billionaires Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg were sanctioned by the US in April, alongside 10 others whom the US said “benefit from the Putin regime and play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities”.

Forced to give up control of their companies — with the aim of having them removed from the sanctions list — and to cut ties to US citizens and businesses, the restrictions have made them pariahs in most of the western world.

So for those who have managed to convince US officials and their researchers that they are sufficiently removed from Mr Putin, a star turn at last Wednesday’s meeting in one of the Kremlin’s grandest halls, complete with TV cameras and a bevy of photographers, may have been a daunting prospect.

In Mr Putin’s Russia, the annual event serves as a regular reminder to the small number of men who have made vast personal fortunes of who they need to be thankful to.

“If he asks you to be there, you had better be there. It is not negotiable,” one attendee said. A seating plan means there is no chance of a scramble to choose the seats furthest from those Washington considers toxic. “You don’t know who you’ll be sat next to until you arrive,” he added.

As the guests waited for Mr Putin, sanctioned mingled with non-sanctioned, and the unabashedly politically connected chatted with those who profess to know nothing of the Kremlin’s ways.

Zakhar Smushkin, a timber and pulp tycoon, found himself by virtue of alphabetical order sitting between Igor Sechin — one of Mr Putin’s longest-serving and closest aides and now chief executive to Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft — and Gennady Timchenko, a billionaire friend of the president. Both have been subject to US sanctions since 2014.

But the real cost of obeying the Kremlin’s summons may be rather more straightforward than the danger of being photographed shaking hands with the president or one of his closest allies.