Partner breaks silence over Usmanov deals

As Alisher Usmanov prepares the $2.1bn London flotation of Megafon, his mobile operator, it is his friend Andrei Skoch, a fellow Russian billionaire, who has also found himself in the spotlight.

The 46-year-old Mr Skoch is to indirectly take a 30 per cent ownership in Mr Usmanov’s soon-to-be-created holding company, an umbrella group that will hold the oligarch’s stakes in Megafon, Facebook, London-listed internet group Mail.ru and Arsenal Football Club, according to Megafon’s prospectus. Farhad Moshiri, Mr Usmanov’s
co-shareholder in Arsenal will take a 10 per cent stake in the holding.

This planned reorganisation was a key factor behind Goldman Sachs’ decision last month to drop out of the Megafon’s IPO as a lead bank, causing the listing to be delayed until this month. The bank’s compliance department needed more time to examine the structure of the new group and the biographies of the people who would be controlling the assets, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr Skoch, who has kept a low profile throughout his business and political career, is an example of the so-called silent partners of major Russian oligarchs who have only now started to come to the public’s attention as a result of due diligence performed on initial public offerings and cross-border deals.

In a rare interview, Mr Skoch stressed that Mr Usmanov would stay fully in charge of the holding and of Megafon’s strategy, even if Mr Skoch decided to assume direct ownership of the 30 per cent stake. Currently, the stake is held in the name of his
79-year-old father.

“Alisher Usmanov is managing the assets and he will keep managing them. If he wants to expand, he’ll expand. If he wants to sell, he’ll sell,” he told the Financial Times.

“I trust him. I know he always does what he needs to do,” he said at a different point.

While Mr Skoch will not hold any voting rights in the new group, he has come under scrutiny for his past business dealings with two men who the Federal Bureau of Investigation claims were leaders of one of Russia’s most powerful organised crime groups in the 1990s.

Mr Skoch was candid about his acquaintance with Viktor Averin and Sergei Mikhailov of the
so-called Solntsevskaya Organisation, and his brief arrest by Czech police at Mr Averin’s 38th birthday party in Prague.

Over cigarettes and herbal tea, a gruff but chatty Mr Skoch recalled how he would meet with the two men roughly twice a year from 1992 to 1999 to negotiate kerosene contracts that Mr Skoch’s then oil services trader was selling to a Moscow airport terminal the men owned.

“I can’t say they were bandits. They were ordinary businessmen. You could meet them in a restaurant like this,” he says, gesturing to the darkened VIP room he is sitting in the back of one of Moscow’s most expensive restaurants.

In 1995, Mr Skoch and his wife were invited along with 50 other guests to help Mr Averin celebrate his birthday in Prague. Shortly after they sat down at the banquet, all of the guests were briefly arrested by Czech police and brought into the station for questioning and mug shots – a scene Mr Skoch gamely re-enacts with a grin.

Mr Skoch says he continued to meet with Mr Averin for business purposes after the incident. The last time they saw each other was seven years ago, he said, when they happened to run into each other at a Moscow restaurant. “He’s a nice enough guy,” Mr Skoch says of his former acquaintance.

The businessman dismisses Russian media reports claiming he smuggled arms for Solntsevskaya and worked for the Soviet KGB as a “fantasy”.

Asked what would happen if his elderly father could no longer hold control of the 30 per cent stake in Mr Usmanov’s holding company, Mr Skoch said he would probably transfer it back to himself. But he stressed that Mr Usmanov would continue to manage the assets. “What is friendship? What is trust? . . . The most important thing in friendship is overcoming the fear that the other person can betray you,” he said. “If you overcome this fear, it means this person is a real friend.”

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