Oligarchs sign up to charity pledge

Fri, Feb 22, 2013, 00:00

Two of the former Soviet Union’s richest men have joined a US initiative to give at least half of their fortunes to charity, highlighting changes in how the infamous “oligarchs” are spending their money and burnishing their images.

Russia’s Vladimir Potanin and Ukraine’s Viktor Pinchuk, who became powerful businessmen during the chaotic, corrupt and dangerous post-Soviet 1990s, signed up this week to the Giving Pledge club created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and financier Warren Buffett.

They are the first from the former Soviet Union to join a group that until now was composed only of Americans.

The move helps Mr Potanin and Mr Pinchuk, both 52, distance themselves from fellow oligarchs who are best known for splashing out on the pleasures of football clubs, mega-yachts and young lovers.

It also sprinkles a little public-relations stardust over the murky origins of their wealth, as they try to transform themselves into respected philanthropists.

The son of an official in the Soviet ministry of foreign trade, Mr Potanin was one of the handful of original oligarchs who lent money to the administration of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1995 to help him win re-election. The cash-strapped state repaid the men by giving them large stakes in Russia’s finest industrial enterprises at fire-sale prices.

Several of those tycoons have since been driven out of Russia and Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been jailed for financial crimes. However Mr Potanin has thrived; a business empire centred on metals firm Norilsk Nickel has earned him an estimated €10 billion.

He has pumped large sums into charitable ventures and is on the board of trustees of both the Guggenheim Foundation and the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Other tycoons

Other Russian tycoons have spent large sums buying Russian art treasures and returning them to their homeland.

Mr Pinchuk, whose interests have expanded from metal pipe manufacturing to encompass several television stations and a newspaper, is married to the daughter of former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and is believed to be worth more than €3 billion.