Russian tycoon criticized Putin’s war. Retribution Was Quick.

Oleg Y. Tinkov was worth more than $9 billion in November, known as one of Russia’s few business moguls after building his fortune outside of the energy and mineral industries that were Russia’s playgrounds. kleptocracy.

Then, last month, Tinkov, founder of one of Russia’s biggest banks, criticized the war in Ukraine in an Instagram post. The next day, he said, the government of President Vladimir V. Putin contacted its executives and threatened to nationalize his bank if it did not cut ties with him. Last week, he sold his 35% stake to a Russian mining billionaire in what he describes as a “desperate sale, a fiery sale” that was forced on him by the Kremlin.

“I couldn’t argue with the price,” Tinkov said. “It was like a hostage – you take what you’re offered. I couldn’t negotiate.”

Tinkov, 54, spoke to The New York Times by phone on Sunday from a location he did not reveal, in his first interview since Putin invaded Ukraine. He said he hired bodyguards after friends with contacts in the Russian security services told him he should fear for his life and joked that although he survived the leukemia, maybe “the Kremlin will kill me”.

It was a quick and shocking turn of events for a longtime billionaire who for years avoided running afoul of Putin while presenting himself as independent from the Kremlin. His downfall underscores the consequences faced by those in the Russian elite who dare to antagonize their president and helps explain why there has been little beyond silence from business leaders who, according to Tinkov, are concerned about the impact of the war on their lifestyles. and their wallets.

Indeed, Tinkov claimed that many of his acquaintances in the business and government elite told him privately that they agreed with him, “but they’re all scared.”

In the interview, Tinkov spoke out more forcefully against the war than any other major Russian business leader.

“I realized that Russia as a country no longer exists,” Tinkov said, predicting that Putin would remain in power for a long time. “I believed that the Putin regime was bad. But of course I had no idea it would lead to such a catastrophic scale.”

The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Tinkoff, the bank that Tinkov founded in 2006, denied his characterization of events and said “there were no threats of any kind against the bank’s leadership.” The bank, which announced last Thursday that Tinkov had sold his entire stake in the company to a company run by Vladimir Potanin, a mining tycoon close to Putin, appeared to be distancing itself from its founder.

“Oleg has not been in Moscow for many years, has not participated in the life of the company and has not been involved in any matters,” Tinkoff said in a statement.

Mr. Tinkov also had problems in the West. He agreed to pay $507 million last year to settle a US tax fraud case. In March, Britain added him to a list of sanctions against Russia’s business elite.

“These oligarchs, companies and hired thugs are complicit in the murder of innocent civilians and they are right to pay the price,” said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at the time.

Despite this, Tinkov is widely seen as a rare pioneer of Russian business, modeling his independent capitalism on Richard Branson and transforming himself from irreverent brewer to founder of one of the world’s most sophisticated online banks. He says he has never set foot in the Kremlin, and has occasionally criticized Putin.

But unlike the Russian tycoons who broke with Putin years ago and now live in exile, like former oil tycoon Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky or tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, Tinkov has found a way to coexist with the Kremlin and earn billions. . at least until April 19.

That’s when Tinkov posted an emotional anti-war Instagram post, calling the invasion “crazy” and deriding Russia’s military: “Why would we have a good army,” he asked, if everything else in the country is dysfunctional “and mired in nepotism.” , servility and subservience?”

Pro-war Russians posted pictures of their torn Tinkoff debit cards on social media. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television presenter, gave a speech against him, declaring: “Your conscience is rotten.”

Mr. Tinkov was already out of Russia at that point, having left in 2019 to receive treatment for leukemia. He later resigned and ceded control of Tinkoff but retained a 35% stake in the company, which was valued at more than $20 billion on the London Stock Exchange last year.

A day after the April 19 post, Tinkov said Sunday, the Kremlin contacted the bank’s senior executives and told them that any association with its founder was now a big issue.

“They said, ‘Your shareholder’s statement is not welcome, and we’re going to nationalize your bank if he doesn’t sell it and the owner doesn’t change, and if you don’t change the name,'” Tinkov said. he said, citing sources in Tinkoff he declined to identify.

On April 22, Tinkoff announced that he would be changing his name this year, a step he claims was long planned. Behind the scenes, says Tinkov, he was struggling to sell his stake – one that had already been devalued by Western sanctions on Russia’s financial system.

Mr. Tinkov said he was grateful to Mr. Potanin, the mining tycoon, for allowing him to save at least some money for his company; he said he could not disclose a price, but that he had sold at 3% of what he believed was the true value of his stake.

“They made me sell it because of my pronouncements,” Tinkov said. “I sold for kopecks.”

He was considering selling his stake anyway, Tinkov said, because “as long as Putin is alive, I doubt anything will change.”

“I don’t believe in Russia’s future,” he said. “More importantly, I am not prepared to associate my brand and my name with a country that attacks its neighbors for no reason.”

Mr. Tinkov is concerned that a foundation he started, dedicated to improving blood cancer treatment in Russia, could also fall victim to his financial problems.

He denied that he was speaking out in the hope that UK sanctions against him would be lifted, although he said he hoped the British government would eventually “correct this wrong”.

He said his illness — he is now suffering from graft-versus-host disease, a complication of stem cell transplantation, he said — may have made him braver to speak up than other Russian business leaders and senior officials. Elite members, he said, are “in shock” about the war and have called him in large numbers to offer support.

“They understand that they are linked to the West, that they are part of the global market and so on,” Tinkov said. “They are fast, fast being transformed in Iran. But they don’t like it. They want their children to spend their summer holidays in Sardinia.”

Tinkov said that no one from the Kremlin had ever contacted him directly, but that in addition to the pressure on his company, he had heard from friends with security service contacts that he could be in physical danger.

“They told me, ‘The decision about you has been made,’” he said. “Whether that means that, on top of everything else, they’re going to kill me, I don’t know. I don’t rule it out.”

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