WorldViews | Analysis
September 24, 2017 at 12:00 PM
MOSCOW — An aluminum magnate who survived the gangster capitalism of the 1990s and the financial crisis of 2008, Oleg Deripaska is a shrewd self-made billionaire who has managed to stay on the right side of power, whether by marrying into "the family" of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, or by making himself indispensable to its current one, Vladimir Putin.
As my Washington-based colleagues reported this week, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort allegedly offered to provide Deripaska, 49, with personal briefings about the 2016 presidential election less than two weeks before Trump accepted the Republican nomination. The emailed offer, said to have been sent to a Russian colleague of Manafort's, is among tens of thousands of documents that have been turned over to investigators looking into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia as part of an effort by the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
It is unclear whether such an offer reached Deripaska, and a spokesman for the businessman denied that it did. But Manafort's apparent readiness to share information with an oligarch known to be part of a trusted circle of businessmen near Putin is one of the most concrete revelations to emerge from the probe into Trump's Russia links.
Deripaska's relationship with Manafort began in the mid-2000s, when Manafort was a consultant for a Ukraine-based oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, an associate of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. The Associated Press reported in March that Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract with Deripaska in 2005, a report that Deripaska denied and later contested in a lawsuit against the AP. In 2008, Rick Gates, a partner of Manafort's, wrote in a memo that Deripaska was considering partnering with the two men to buy the Drake Hotel in Manhattan. But the relationship later soured. By 2014, Deripaska had filed a petition in a Cayman Islands court accusing Manafort and Gates of taking $19 million intended for investment then failing to account for the funds or return them.
Deripaska, now worth about $6.5 billion, according to Forbes, has always stayed close to power. He married the daughter of Yeltsin's chief of staff, part of "the family," the coterie of influential advisers around Yeltsin. Under Putin, he survived near-bankruptcy to later invest more than $1 billion in Putin's pet project, the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A Russian state bank helped Deripaska with billions in loans, Russia's foreign minister has lobbied to help him get a U.S. visa, and a 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks said he was "among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis" and "a more-or-less permanent fixture on Putin's trips abroad."
After graduating from Moscow State University with a degree in nuclear physics, Deripaska began his career as a metals trader in the mid-1990s before buying a stake in a Siberian aluminum smelter, which eventually grew into the Sibirsky Aluminium Group. The group, now called Basic Element, owns a 47 percent stake in Rusal, one of the largest aluminum-producing companies in the world, along with the hydroelectric power producer EuroSibEnergo, the GAZ automotive group, infrastructure, construction companies and the Russian insurance company Ingosstrakh.
The metals business in 1990s Russia, where the legacy of Soviet industry was up for grabs, was notoriously rough-and-tumble. In a 2008 lawsuit heard in a London court, a man named Michael Cherney claimed that he was a former business partner of Deripaska's and was owed compensation for a 13.2 percent, or more than $1 billion, stake in Rusal. Deripaska said in court that the two had not been partners, but that he had been pressured by violent criminal groups in the 1990s into a "krysha," or protection, arrangement with Cherney. The two settled out of court in 2012. Deripaska alleged that Cherney was in league with another man, Anton Malevsky, who died mysteriously in a parachuting accident in South Africa.
The business also made Deripaska fantastically wealthy. In 2008, Forbes listed him as the richest man in Russia and the ninth-richest man in the world, with a net worth of $28 billion. By this time Deripaska was meeting with a string of high-profile Western politicians, including Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Deripaska helped spark a scandal in British politics in 2008 when it was revealed that he had hosted the Conservative Party's chief spokesman on finance, George Osborne, on his $150 million yacht in the Mediterranean.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department revoked a visa issued to Deripaska, possibly because of alleged ties to organized crime, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal. But The Washington Post has reported that Deripaska's connections to Putin, or at least the Russian government, have been sufficiently close that as recently as 2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had lobbied on behalf of Deripaska for the United States to admit him.
Deripaska's business was blindsided by the financial crisis and collapse in commodity prices of 2008, and he was forced to refinance loans, according to some reports, with support from the Kremlin. In a $50 billion bailout, the state-run Vnesheconombank, or VEB, gave Deripaska one of the largest loans, $4.5 billion, to pay off foreign banks and avoid surrendering stakes in companies he had put up as collateral. When a Financial Times reporter asked him in 2010 how close he had come to going out of business, he replied, "Very close."
That also brought political trouble. In 2009, workers in the town of Pikalevo (population 22,000) began protesting after Deripaska's alumina refinery there halted production, triggering layoffs and pay cuts. The protests attracted the attention of Putin, who flew out personally to show that he was engaged in solving an economic crisis that was repeating itself across the country. In a dressing-down of the factory owners later broadcast nationwide, Putin berated Deripaska and forced him to sign a contract restarting the plant. As Deripaska walked away, Putin said: "And give me back my pen."
Yet Deripaska rebounded, surviving the financial crisis in large part thanks to generous government loans that were extended months after the Pikalevo incident. By 2014, he was investing more than $1 billion in the Sochi Olympics, including building the Olympic Village, a 26-mile road around the Olympic venues and an expansion of the city's airport. According to Russia's Vedomosti newspaper, Deripaska received an award from Putin for his investments in the Olympics.
Deripaska was seeking millions of dollars in recompense from Manafort and Gates as recently as August 2015, according to court records from the Cayman Islands, and at one point hired a private investigator to track the two men down. For now, Manafort's motives for suggesting that briefings be provided to Deripaska remain unclear.