Life is good, says the oli­garch

In the first of a se­ries of dis­patches from Rus­sia, Daniella Peled gets a rare au­di­ence with a bil­lion­aire who sees ‘no ob­sta­cles’ to lo­cal Jewish life

The Jewish Chronicle - - News -

RUS­SIAN JEWS can look for­ward to far greater op­por­tu­ni­ties in the for­mer Soviet Union than they can in Is­rael, ac­cord­ing to one of the coun­try’s wealth­i­est Jewish busi­ness­men.

Mikhail Fried­man, a core mem­ber of the so-called “oli­garchs”, the busi­ness­men who made vast sums from Rus­sia’s mar­ket lib­er­al­i­sa­tion in the 1990s, was as­sessed last year by Forbes as be­ing worth $12.6 bil­lion, mak­ing him the 45th rich­est per­son in the world.

Hav­ing wit­nessed the re­pres­sion of the Soviet era and the fierce com­mu­nal in­fight­ing of more re­cent years, the pub­lic­ity-shy fa­ther-of-two — seen as close to the Krem­lin — de­clared him­self full of op­ti­mism at the cur­rent po­si­tion of the com­mu­nity.

“Right now Rus­sia’s eco­nomic po­si­tion is strong,” he said. But Is­rael’s rel­e­vance was di­min­ish­ing in the eyes of much of the com­mu­nity.

“It is an im­por­tant coun­try for the Jews, but it’s not good for me,” he told the JC this week in Moscow. “It’s not a very lib­eral coun­try, it is mostly so­cial­ist. I don’t like it very much. But we have many con­nec­tions; one-fifth of its pop­u­la­tion is ex-Soviet.”

Ukraine-born Mr Fried­man said he knew many of “the most en­er­getic and ac­tive” olim who had re­turned to Rus­sia. Cit­ing him­self as an ex­am­ple of what could be achieved in the coun­try, he joked: “I am just a sim­ple Jewish guy from Lvov.”

Born in 1964, Mr Fried­man moved to Moscow to study at the cap­i­tal’s Oil and Al­loys In­sti­tute. But his ca­reer in busi­ness be­gan af­ter he be­gan deal­ing in theatre tick­ets on the black mar­ket. He was a co-founder of the Alfa Group, a con­glom­er­ate which has di­ver­si­fied with in­ter­ests in oil, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion and bank­ing, and of the Rus­sian Jewish Congress.

Many of the early oli­garchs, most of whom were Jewish, fell into dis­as­trous dis­favour with the then Pres­i­dent and cur­rent Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin — such as Boris Bere­zovsky, now liv­ing in ex­ile in Lon­don.

In a clear ref­er­ence to the fate of some of his con­tem­po­raries, Mr Fried­man said: “I think it’s not use­ful to use the gov­ern­ment for in­ter­nal Jewish busi­ness in­ter­ests.

“For the time be­ing this is not the case. Be­fore, some peo­ple used to use their per­sonal po­si­tion, and this is the wrong approach. Since the time of Pharaoh, we have known that it is dan­ger­ous for Jewish life.”

How­ever, he con­tin­ued, in mod­ern­day Rus­sia, “there is no se­ri­ous ob­sta­cle to de­vel­op­ing Jewish life”.

He put the com­pet­ing in­ter­ests of dif­fer­ent com­mu­nal fac­tions, some­times seen as the per­sonal fief­dom of wealthy busi­ness­men, down to “in­ter­nal jeal­ousies, emo­tions, the re­flec­tion of per­sonal am­bi­tions, com­pe­ti­tion be­tween busi­ness­men — as among the top Rus­sian busi­ness­men there are pretty many Jews”.

He said: “There are many Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tions, but then Jews couldn’t live in one or­gan­i­sa­tion. You know the say­ing, one Jew, three dif­fer­ent opin­ions… we have a lot of in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions, shall we say.

“I per­son­ally be­lieve, be­cause I am pretty lib­eral in my be­liefs, that com­pe­ti­tion is pretty good for the cus­tomer. Jews as a mar­ket niche have a chance to make a choice and it’s good. I’m not against it.”

As for the fu­ture, he pre­dicted a boom for Jewish char­ity-giv­ing in a coun­try which un­til re­cently had lit­tle tra­di­tion of phi­lan­thropy.

“The next gen­er­a­tion will do even more,” he said. “Money be­came a less cru­cial is­sue. The first gen­er­a­tion is more con­cerned with mak­ing money and the next gen­er­a­tion is more com­mit­ted to char­ity. It de­pends on us. We should work to make the Jewish com­mu­nity much stronger. We are flexible enough, ex­pe­ri­enced enough, we are well-adapted.

“I would say that now an­tisemitism is not a big prob­lem. Xeno­pho­bia is a big­ger prob­lem. The prob­lem of Jews are solved, but those of oth­ers such as the Ar­me­ni­ans and the Uzbeks are not. On a so­cial level, peo­ple far more of­ten face com­pe­ti­tion with non-eth­nic Rus- sians and it’s much more prob­lem­atic. It’s very im­por­tant to ex­press clearly our sol­i­dar­ity with non-Rus­sian peo­ple fight­ing for their rights.”

Mr Putin had been ben­e­fi­cial for Jewish life in Rus­sia, he added, be­cause “he did not in­ter­fere too much”. As for his hand-picked suc­ces­sor, Dmitry Medvedev, he de­scribed him as “a pret- ty smart guy” whom he knows well. And he played down con­cerns over Rus­sian sales of nu­clear tech­nol­ogy to Iran, claim­ing such ac­tions were “more about un­der­lin­ing the im­por­tance of Rus­sian power in the world”.

In the long-term, he said, Rus­sian in­ter­ests had more in com­mon with those of Is­rael, Amer­ica and Europe.


Mikhail Fried­man: his con­glom­er­ate has led him to wealth of $12.6bn

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