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Basketball Billionaire Facing Full Court Press From Kremlin
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Russian loyalty is a tricky business. Especially among the billionaires in President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. In a minute you'll be in good shape and then your company's offices will be ransacked, your employees threatened, and your assets confiscated. This is almost what happened to billionaire Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov in April. Now he is facing a full court press from the Kremlin and has to decide whether he wants to remain loyal to his homeland or to take over his adopted country, the United States, entirely.
As early as April, Prokhorov had learned from the employees of his media company RBC that masked agents of the Federal Security Service (the successor to the KGB) had raided the offices of their headquarters and its other companies. That’s not a good sign. The next day, Prokhorov boarded his private jet for the nine-hour flight to Moscow.
Mike Stobe / Getty Images
It appears that RBC has angered the Kremlin with investigative reports on the business interests of Putin's close relatives and friends. This despite decades of Prokhorov cow-slinging to Putin in order to win and then stay in his favor.
Shortly after landing in Moscow, Prokhorov sold his largest Russian stake, a $ 2 billion stake in a fertilizer company. Its next largest stake in Russia is a $ 900 million stake in aluminum maker Rusal. That is also for sale. If that is sold, Prokhorov's most valuable asset will no longer be in Russia. You will be in Brooklyn.
Prokhorov is trying to turn things around quickly - and for good reason he knows what the Kremlin can do under Putin and how to change the presidential loyalty.
Prokhorov made his fortune in the 1990s with then partner Vladimir Potanin. The duo set up a bank and later acquired control of metal giant Norilsk Nickel during privatization. In 2007, Potanin (who recently predated his divorce from his wife by 30 years) urged Prokhorov to split her holdings. During the split, Putin intervened at Prokhorov's request when Potanin tried to force him to accept a bargain price for his stake in Norlisk Nickel. Prokhorov closed with nearly $ 10 billion in cash and other assets.
Prokhorov is a basketball nut, so he bought the Brooklyn Nets in 2010. He is the first NBA owner outside of North America.
At the same time Prokhorov tried to keep things cospacetic in Russia. He moved legal residence to a remote town in Siberia so the hundreds of millions he paid in taxes would help the impoverished region. He even launched a campaign for the president in 2012 - not to be president - but to give Putin's re-election campaign a touch of legitimacy and competitiveness. This is either a good friend or someone who knows where their bread is buttered and doesn't want to go on the wrong side of the mean Putin. Prokhorov isn't a fool, folks.
In the end, that wasn't enough.
In 2013, Prokhorov hired some top notch journalists to turn around the sinking RBCs. These journalists have started investigating things that the Kremlin forbids the media to use (for example, the business interests of Putin's friends and family). The Kremlin told Prokhorov several times that its journalists had crossed the border. Prokhorov would instruct his staff to make adjustments, and they would do so, only to receive another warning from Putin's henchmen. Neither Prokhorov nor his journalists could see where that proverbial line was, it has changed so much.
So, by the end of 2015, Prokhorov had had enough. It was too difficult to monitor the Kremlin's rules to determine the behavior and loyalty of its oligarchs. Prokhorov realized that only entrepreneurs could be successful in Putin's inner circle, and he was clearly not a member of that circle.
In April, Prokhorov's RBC released information from the Panama Papers linking a number of senior Russian officials to shady offshore accounts. Putin wasn't involved in the story, but there was a picture of Putin on the cover of the magazine with that story. But, as you can clearly see, Prokhorov directly defied the Kremlin's directive. Good for him!
Four days later, the Federal Security Service searched the offices of the Prokhorov companies in Moscow looking for evidence of a tax evasion case that lay before his property. This is a classic Russian trick used by the Kremlin to illegally take control of the businesses of people they disagree with, or who they think have amassed too much power, money, or both.
It is therefore not surprising that Prokhorov prefers to focus on his life in the USA. As the owner of the Nets, the 6'8 "tall basketball fan plays with Beyoncé and Jay-Z. That has to be better than looking over your shoulder and wondering when Putin will decide he's mad at you and use your fortune - or worse.
Other Russian billionaires such as Roman Abramowitsch and Michail Fridman have also withdrawn their main goods from Russia and placed them in Europe or the USA. Others who stayed in Russia and maintained their innocence and loyalty to Putin, such as the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were prosecuted in Russia and forced to cede their companies and assets to the Kremlin.
Keep fighting the good fight Mikhail Prokhorov!
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