Another Putin opponent may have fled to London

Relations between Russia and Britain were facing fresh turbulence on Wednesday after a billionaire oligarch wanted by the Kremlin for tax evasion was reported to have escaped to London. Mikhail Gutseriyev — the former head of one of Russia’s largest private oil firms — disappeared from Russia last week. On Tuesday a court in Moscow issued a warrant for his arrest.

Last month Gutseriyev stepped down from his oil company, RussNeft, citing ”unprecedented bullying” by Vladimir Putin’s government. Gutseriyev — whose personal fortune is estimated at $3-billion — accused the Kremlin of ”illegally” forcing him out of business using trumped-up tax claims.

On Wednesday Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported that Gutseriyev had fled to London, apparently taking his billions with him. Quoting ”unofficial sources”, the paper said he had slipped past Russian investigators and gone to the United Kingdom.

Gutseriyev’s whereabouts was unclear on Wednesday night. But the case has the potential to exacerbate the government’s already brittle relations with Moscow. Putin regularly denounces Britain as a haven for ”criminals and terrorists” following Britain’s refusal to send home the London-based former oligarch Boris Berezovsky.

Numerous Russian dissidents and opponents of the Putin regime now live in London. They include Berezovsky — who enjoys political asylum and is Putin’s biggest critic — the Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev, the former Kommersant journalist Yelena Tregubova, and executives from the bankrupt oil company Yukos.

On Wednesday night prominent members of London’s Russian community said there had been persistent rumours over the past few days that Gutseriyev had fled Russia to set up in the UK. The Home Office refused to comment on the reports.

Berezovsky said: ”I know him and although I don’t have an especially close relationship with him I will help if he gets in touch, although he will not need all that much help because he has big experience abroad and he has money.” Berezovsky said he expected more Russians to come to London because the UK’s legal system offered protection from what he described as Russia’s ”gangster” government.

Any application by Gutseriyev for political asylum in the UK will infuriate the Kremlin. Putin has already accused Britain of ”stupidity” for trying to extradite Andrei Lugovoi — the former KGB agent charged with the murder and poisoning of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko. Last month both countries expelled four of each other’s diplomats.

Gutseriyev was last seen in Russia attending the funeral of his British-educated son, who died last week following a mysterious car crash, Kommersant reported. Chingiskhan Gutseriyev (22) was educated at Harrow and Warwick University. He apparently died from trauma after possibly crashing his Ferrari. Police and hospitals in Moscow, however, say they have no record of a crash.

Gutseriyev’s woes appear to have started after he bought up assets from the oil firm Yukos. On July 30 he published a damning letter accusing the Russian authorities of using regulation as a pretext to grab back oil and gas assets from Russian and Western companies.

He wrote: ”They made me an offer to leave the oil business, to leave on ‘good terms’. I refused. Then, to make me more amenable, they tightened the screws on the company with unprecedented persecution.” The letter marked the most significant public challenge to Putin from a leading businessman since the imprisonment four years ago of the former chairperson of Yukos Oil, Mikhail Khordorkovsky.

Khordorkovsky was jailed for eight years in 2004 for tax evasion and fraud. The case was widely seen as political punishment for his refusal to stop funding anti-Kremlin opposition parties ahead of 2004 elections. The oligarch, once Russia’s richest man, is now in jail in Siberia.

On Wednesday Russian newspapers dubbed Gutseriyev a ”second Mikhail” — a reference to Khordorkovsky. They predicted that, like Yukos, his RussNeft oil empire would be swiftly dismantled, sold off, and most probably absorbed into a new state-run firm. Russian investigators have already seized the firm and accuse Gutseriyev of failing to pay $800-million in tax.

Gutseriyev (47) was one of Russia’s most successful Muslim businessmen, and according to Forbes magazine is Russia 31st richest man.

Last month he announced that following government pressure he was selling his firm to the pro-Kremlin oligarch and billionaire tycoon Oleg Deripaska. On Wednesday Kommersant said the deal had already gone through — with Gutseriyev pocketing $3-billion. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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