Mikhail Fridman: Kremlin-linked billionaire, Jewish philanthropist

Tycoon, who is accused by Spain of trying to bankrupt takeover target, is a backer of Israel’s Genesis Prize; has been flagged by the US over ties to Russian leaders

Mikhail Fridman, chairman of the Genesis Prize, speaks during the award ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater on June 18, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Mikhail Fridman, chairman of the Genesis Prize, speaks during the award ceremony at the Jerusalem Theater on June 18, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

MOSCOW — Mikhail Fridman, a 55-year-old billionaire who is under investigation for alleged corruption in Spain, built his vast business empire on the ruins of the Soviet Union.

Now one of Russia’s richest men, he is accused by a Spanish court of having helped orchestrate the bankruptcy of technology company Zed.

Here are five things to know about the Kremlin-friendly oligarch:

Humble beginnings

Fridman was born into a family of Jewish origin in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv in 1964 and studied at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys.

He prided himself on having an entrepreneurial streak and as a student made his first money by reselling theater tickets.

With a net worth of more than $15 billion, Fridman is now Russia’s seventh-richest man.

Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman attends a conference of the Israel Keren Hayesod foundation in Moscow, Russia, September 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)

He holds Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli citizenship but lives mostly in London. This year, Forbes called him the city’s richest resident.

In 2016, Fridman reportedly bought a derelict Victorian mansion called Athlone House for £65 million, promising “to restore it to its former glory.”

Kremlin-friendly oligarch

Fridman is a founder of Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest non-state bank. He made his fortune under Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin.

He was one of seven bankers who famously ensured Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996.

His empire survived the turmoil of the 1990s and 2000s.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Alfa Group Chairman of the Supervisory Board Mikhail Fridman seen during their meeting at the Gorki residence outside Moscow, October 13, 2009. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service)

The oligarch managed to cultivate strong ties to the administration of Vladimir Putin, even if he has never become part of the president’s inner circle.

His business has gone from strength to strength.

In 2013, he made $5.1 billion in cash when he and his partners sold stakes in oil giant TNK-BP for $14 billion.

In 2018, the US Treasury Department put Fridman on a list of figures with ties to the Kremlin.

Interference in US polls

Alfa Bank was named in a controversial dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele as being part of Russian government efforts to influence the US presidential election in 2016.

US President Donald Trump has dismissed the report as “fake.”

Fridman and Alfa Bank co-owners Pyotr Aven and German Khan sued Steele in Washington, claiming he had defamed them. The former MI6 officer won the case.

Iron fist

Fridman’s chubby, boyish face and affable manner conceal a ruthless operator. He is widely known for waging epic boardroom battles and is notoriously litigious.

A spectacular power struggle with oil giant BP over their joint venture TNK-BP ended with the embattled chief executive Bob Dudley fleeing Russia in 2008.

Later Fridman bought German oil and gas company DEA.

Alfa Group head Mikhail Fridman, right, leaves a press conference in Moscow, June 16, 2008. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

This year it merged with Wintershall, creating Europe’s top independent natural gas and crude producer, expected to compete with Shell, Total and BP.

Vast empire

Together with partners, Fridman controls Alfa Group which includes Alfa Bank, the country’s biggest food retailer X5 Retail Group, and other assets.

The tycoon also controls Luxembourg-based LetterOne investment fund, which focuses on energy, telecoms, health and technology. In 2016, LetterOne invested $200 million in ride-hailing company Uber.

In this photo from May 22, 2014, Mikhail Fridman, second right, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, third left, his partner Diana Taylor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah laugh as they listen to TV comedian Jay Leno, who is hosting the Genesis Prize award in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)

This year, the fund bought embattled Spanish supermarket chain Dia, of which it was already the main shareholder, via a hostile takeover.

Fridman supports Jewish initiatives such as the Genesis Prize and is also the founder of an international jazz festival in his home city of Lviv.

The divorced father of four has said he will leave his money to charity.

“I am good at making money but not at spending it, so I don’t have cars, houses, boats and other things,” he once told Britain’s The Ham & High newspaper.

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