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Analysis & Opinion
01.12.09 The Ever-Elusive Million-Dollar Mullet
By Tom Balmforth

British courts on December 1 postponed their decision on extraditing London-based telecoms tycoon, Yevgeny Chichvarkin, to Russia until August next year. Chichvarkin argues he is the victim of trumped-up charges. But after the British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on November 30 ruled-out any political or economic motivation in the charges brought against him, it was thought the magistrate’s court would rule in favor of extraditing the former owner of Yevroset, a multi-billion dollar mobile phone company. So is this another blow to British-Russia relations?

The case is no longer “straightforward and quick” and the court will now require a large amount of additional material to reach a verdict, Chichvarkin’s lawyer Clare Montgomery told the BBC after the hearing. The final decision is now scheduled for August 10, next year. In the meantime Chichvarkin is free on bail but will remain in the UK, while the British police keep his passport.

The Russian authorities officially filed for Chichvarkin’s extradition in June, after he skipped a summons for questioning in January, and instead fled to London, where a number of Russian businessmen have found political asylum. Chichvarkin, a flamboyant businessman nicknamed the “million-dollar mullet” on account of his hairstyle, is wanted in Russia on charges of extortion and the kidnap of Andrei Vlaskin, a former Yevroset employee. Interpol in March also added the telecoms tycoon to their wanted list.

Back in 2003, Yevroset investigators accused Vlaskin, who transported freight for the firm, of stealing and reselling company telephones on the black market. According to Chichvarkin’s version of events, Vlaskin returned the money to Yevroset after he was found in hiding in Tambov. The mobile phone company subsequently dropped formal charges against Vlaskin. However, Chichvarkin is now accused by the Russian authorities of ordering the kidnap of Vlaskin and coercing him to repay some 20 million rubles ($690,000) to Yevroset by selling his car and country house. If Chichvarkin is extradited, and convicted on both charges, he could serve as many as thirty years.

On the one hand, Vlaskin denies outright any involvement in the theft of Yevroset property. "The case contains no serious proof of Vlaskin stealing any phones, but only contradictory testimony by some witnesses," Maria Konchevskaya, Vlaskin’s lawyer told the Kommersant daily. “They apparently chose him as a scapegoat to bear responsibility for some balance arrears, and also decided to beat the money out of him.”

On the other hand, Chichvarkin and his lawyers are adamant that he is innocent and that someone is pulling strings behind the scenes. “I think that some people in Russia want very much to make the Russian Federation authorities mad at me, so that they unequivocally consider me an enemy and a bandit,” Chichvarkin told Izvestia in an interview on November 25. After selling Yevroset in November 2008, Chichvarkin briefly dabbled in politics and joined the Right Cause party, the nominally pro-Kremlin incarnation of the now defunct Union of Right Forces (SPS) and a handful of other lesser-known liberal-right movements, including Civil Force and the Democratic Party of Russia.

Considering his sizeable fortune (Yevroset turned over $3 billion in 2008) and brief flirtation in politics, Chichvarkin’s case appears to have the hallmarks of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former YUKOS owner whose foray into politics cost him his status as “Russia’s richest man” in 2004 and who is now a poignant symbol of political oppression in Russia. Nonetheless, this apparent similarity between the two cases is no more than superficial.

Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy, denied outright that there was any political aspect to the charges on Chichvarkin, who has cut his signature hair-do and put on considerable weight since arriving in London. “He is more of a businessman. And his accusations are connected mostly with business. There are some small political characteristics, but they are quite small,” said Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy. Masha Lipman, an analyst for the Carnegie Moscow Center and at the other end of the political spectrum from Markov, agreed. “No, I don’t think it’s political. What we’re dealing with here is a business conflict,” she said.

“Chichvarkin believes that he has been the target of harassment, attacks and unsavory practices from somebody who is keen to appropriate his business. Such episodes are not rare in Russia. The question is who?” said Lipman. The answer is not clear. She compared the Chichvarkin case to that of Bill Browder, the Hermitage Capital Management boss who claims he was forced to abandon his practice in Russia by high-level fraud in 2006. “Browder’s allegations are also that he became the victim of unsavory practices by somebody who has good connections with government agencies,” she said. “Of course, these too are just allegations but such allegations do not come as a surprise to people familiar with business practices in Russia,” she added. The Hermitage Capital case is currently back in the headlines in Russia after Sergei Magnitsky, a Hermitage lawyer, died in prison after he was denied medical treatment.

In terms of UK-Russia relations, the suspended decision is unlikely to have much impact. When asked whether Chichvarkin’s extradition would have improved relations between the two countries, Markov said that “his extradition would have had some positive impact, but not much.”

The talk was all about a “reset” in British-Russia relations when British Foreign Minister David Miliband touched down in Moscow on November 1 to visit his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Although there was no breakthrough, the trip did help to identify certain points of common interest between the two countries. When the CPS ruled out a political motivation in Chichvarkin’s case, some Russian journalists suggested, however implausibly, that Chichvarkin could become a “sacrificial peace offering on the altar of troubled British-Russia relations,” as Mikhail Melnikov, a journalist for Russia’s “Argumenti and the Fakti” daily, put it. Lipman doubted this had been a factor or would play a factor in the court ruling scheduled for next year. “I hope the British justice system does not render services to the British government in order to improve its relations with other governments,” she said.

Still, it is unclear whether extraditing Chichvarkin, who has lost his signature hair-do and visibly gained weight since arriving in London, would do anything to patch up the sore points of disagreement between Russia and the UK. “There is a lot more to British-Russia relations than Chichvarkin,” said Lipman. Relations between the two countries have been in deep freeze since autumn 2007, when Andrei Litvinenko, a former FSB-man and vocal critic of the Russian Government, was murdered by polonium poisoning in London. Disagreement over extradition of the chief suspect has been a major sticking point in relations. The UK has demanded the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, another Russian security service veteran and now a State Duma deputy, to face trial for Litvinenko’s murder, whilst refusing Russia’s requests to extradite Kremlin insider-turned-critic Boris Berezovksy and Chechen separatist leader Akhmed Zakayev.

“Chichvarkin’s extradition would improve British-Russia relations. But at the same time not too much, because the remaining cases of Berezovsky and Zakayev are politically important,” said Markov. Moreover, if Chichvarkin is extradited, it could just provoke the Kremlin to pursue their outstanding extradition requests even harder. “If he is extradited, it will just encourage the Russian authorities to increase their pressure and demands for extraditing Berezovsky and Zakayev,” said Markov.
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