January 5th, 2011

Facebook Financing Raises Russian Corruption Concerns

Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News

News that Goldman Sachs engineered a major stake in Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking website, by Moscow-based investment firm DST Global offers more evidence to support Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s observation in the Washington Post last year that corruption ranks as a leading Russian export.

“The source of the funds used to make the Facebook investment merits further investigation,” said Pavel Ivlev, chairman of the Committee for Russian Economic Freedom. “It’s increasingly clear that money stolen by corrupt Russian officials is being spirited out of the country and invested in legitimate Western businesses.”

Created in 2005, DST is owned by oligarch Alisher Usmanov and Yuri Milner, founder of Russia’s most successful Internet ventures, including Mail.ru.

Usmanov, a native of Uzbekistan, spent six years in an Uzbek prison on a conviction of fraud and embezzlement in the 1980s, charges he says were politically inspired. A Soviet court later dismissed the charges and Usmanov eventually made billions of dollars in the post-Soviet era by managing steel mill subsidiaries for Gazprom before they were spun off as his own businesses.

The record shows that Usmanov’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin leaders has made him one of Russia’s wealthiest men. From his lead role at Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant that absorbed assets stolen from Khodorkovsky’s Yukos in 2003-2004, to his current company Metalloinvest, Usmanov has made the money he used to invest in Facebook by capitalizing on what former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov calls “Putin’s capitalism for friends.”

Milner got his start in business working for Khodorkovsky’s bank Menatep, setting up a brokerage and investment arm before leaving in 1997, the Financial Times reported. Officials aligned with the regime later prosecuted former Menatap financial executives and tried to force them to testify falsely against Khodorkovsky. But not Milner, who shifted into investing in the Internet with the backing of Usmanov and others tied to Putin.

Following Khodorkovsky’s conviction last month a second round of trumped up charges, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko dismissed protests from leaders in Washington and EU capitals, saying “we expect everyone to mind their own business, both at home and in the international arena.”

Investors in Russia have done just that, “minding their own business” by pulling assets out of the country at an accelerated pace, according to Pavel K. Baev in a post-verdict analysis.

The conviction of Khodorkovsky proves that Prime Minister Putin and not President Medvedev controls Russia and “translates into a re-evaluation of business and personal prospects in a country of self-serving bureaucracy – and into capital flight that increased sharply in the last months of 2010 and is set to reach $25 billion to $30 billion,” Baev wrote.

“Medvedev tries to explain away this worrisome trend by emphasizing the need to improve the investment climate, which in his view “leaves something to be desired; it is bad.” Medvedev has also initiated a package of reforms in economic legislation that should take effect in 2011-12, and quite probably he simply does not understand that the Khodorkovsky case is not a minor setback for the markets, as it was five years ago, but the irrefutable verdict on his “modernization” strategy.” Yet the verdict renders hollow Medvedev’s statements supporting the rule of law and enforceable contracts in Russia.

“Investors in PepsiCo, Morgan Stanley, Facebook should closely question their board members about the prudence of those companies risking capital with the Putin regime given the growing list of major Western companies that have been defrauded by corrupt Russian officials,” Ivlev said. “But more telling are the latest statistics which show that Russian businesses that have benefited from the regime are now eschewing further investments in the country given the lawlessness that they themselves helped promote.”

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