Billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev has returned to the world of Russian business after patiently waiting out a two-year Russian investigation from the safety of London.
His next anticipated step is actually returning to Russian soil, where his vast business and political experience make him a top candidate to steer efforts to stabilize his native Ingushetia and promote economic recovery there.
"Gutseriyev is a very powerful manager and economist who could tremendously help us here," said Kaloi Akhilgov, a spokesman for Ingush President Yunus -Bek Yevkurov.
"He and his expertise and knowledge would be highly desired by the republic's presidential administration," Akhilgov told The Moscow Times.
Gutseriyev, who fled Russia in mid-2007 after the Prosecutor General's Office piled up charges of tax evasion, fraud and license violations against him, regained control of his Russneft oil company earlier this month, reportedly on Jan. 4, from billionaire Oleg Deripaska. A clause in the sales agreement reached in July 2007 stipulated that it would be cancelled if Deripaska failed to secure government clearance in two years, said Deripaska's company En+.
Approval never came from the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, whose director, Igor Artemyev, said Russneft's ownership was so complex that his agency was unable to deliver a judgment in two years.
Artemyev confirmed Thursday that Gutseriyev remained the owner of Russneft, Interfax reported.
Gutseriyev, who received $3 billion for the company from Deripaska in 2007, paid either nothing or $600,000 to take it back, Vedomosti reported last week, citing various unidentified sources. The lack of repayment stemmed from a large debt that the company ran up during those two years, the sources said.
Russneft is the only large Russian company that does not trace its origins to the dubious loans-for-shares auctions of the mid-1990s. Gutseriyev crafted it in 2002 out of numerous smaller production and retail assets that he had bought on the market.
What prompted the criminal case against Gutseriyev remains unclear. In July 2007, Gutseriyev wrote in an open letter that he had decided to step down as Russneft's president and sell the company to save it and its 25,000 jobs after being tormented by Russian law enforcement agencies. Gutseriyev accused investigators of targeting him personally but would not say why.
Commentators speculated at the time that Russneft was being punished for snatching away minor pieces of the Yukos oil giant — which was carved up after the politically tinged arrest of its founder Mikhail Khordorkovsky — from the state oil behemoth Rosneft, which gobbled up most Yukos assets. Another version floated by political pundits was that Gutseriyev had been targeted because of his support for the Ingush opposition, which was at odds with then-Ingush President Murat Zyazikov.
Gutseriyev was a big name in Ingushetia under Zyazikov's predecessor, Ruslan Aushev. In 1994, the Russian government appointed Gutseriyev as head of the administration of a free economic zone that was established and lasted in Ingushetia throughout most of the 1990s. Twice Gutseriyev was elected to represent Ingushetia in the State Duma, where he served as a deputy speaker from 1995 to 1999.
President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to replace the unpopular Zyazikov in the fall of 2008 with Yevkurov is widely seen as his first major independent personnel decision.
Yevkurov, who enjoys broad popular support, has opened a dialogue with the opposition and started a campaign against local corruption. But he has failed to curb violence and economic crime in Ingushetia, which remains Russia's least developed and poorest region. He barely survived an assassination attempt last year.
Medvedev pledged 32 billion rubles ($1.07 billion) in financial aid to Ingushetia from 2010 to 2016 in his state-of-the-nation address Nov. 12. A day before the announcement, the Prosecutor General's Office removed Gutseriyev from Interpol's international wanted list. Two weeks earlier, the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, which led the probe into Russneft, had called off its warrant to arrest Gutseriyev in absentia.
These moves immediately stirred speculation that Gutseriyev was being given the green light to return and help Yevkurov facilitate economic recovery in Ingushetia.
A criminal case in which Gutseriyev and other Russneft managers are charged with evading 20 billion rubles ($750 million) in taxes remains open.
Akhilgov said the Ingush presidential administration has not held any negotiations with Gutseriyev, adding that the Gutseriyev affair was being decided in the Kremlin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Cabinet.
Vedomosti, citing an unidentified Kremlin source, reported in October that Yevkurov had asked Medvedev to allow Gutseriyev to return and that Medvedev had embraced the idea but Putin had opposed it.
Spokesmen for Medvedev and Putin said they were unaware of any negotiations over Gutseriyev.
Gutseriyev could not be contacted this week.
"Medvedev has placed his bets on Yevkurov, and he doesn't want him to fail in Ingushetia," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies. "If Gutseriyev can help Yevkurov, this could be his guarantee to criminal immunity."
Unlike several other Russian businessmen — including Boris Berezovsky and, more recently,Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who turned into outspoken critics of Putin after fleeing to Britain to avoid Russian prosecution — Gutseriyev has kept mum, although he reportedly applied for political asylum in October 2007.
Gutseriyev has not become a major irritant for Russia's leadership, Makarkin said.
In the meantime, the pro-Putin siloviki faction in the government that has sought Gutseriyev's arrest has weakened politically, opening the door for his return home, said Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus specialist at the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations.
A strong reason for Gutseriyev to return to Russia is Russneft, which the businessman has fondly described as his brainchild but would be difficult to manage from abroad, especially in its current financial situation, Silayev said.
Gutseriyev reclaimed Russneft in much worse shape than when he left. Russneft has remained the country's eighth-largest oil company but saw annual output drop by 14 percent to 12.7 million tons last year in comparison with 2006, the last full year when Gutseriyev was at the helm.
Russneft's debt burden surged to nearly $7 billion during the time when the company had no formal owner and was managed by a mixture of Deripaska and Gutseriyev appointees.
In a statement announcing Gutseriyev's departure from the company in 2007, Russneft said it had 30 production units and 311 gas stations and operated in 22 regions of Russia and in Belarus.
Russneft said in a statement last week that it now runs 21 production units and 96 gas stations across 13 regions of Russia and in Belarus.
Russneft could expand if it teamed up with a partner like billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who last month announced that his company Sistema was interested in buying as much as 49 percent of the oil firm. Sistema in March agreed to pay $2.5 billion for control in another oil producer, Bashneft, a company that has capacity to refine more crude than it produces.
Russneft would complement that asset because it pumps more oil than it can refine, said Sergei Karykhalin, an analyst at asset management company Kapital.
Much of Russneft's debt is long-term or appears easy to refinance because the credit market is unfreezing as the country's economic situation improves, he said.
"The company hasn't been managed very well in recent years," he said. "It probably was forced to live through worse conditions than its peers, but a change for the better is possible."
State-owned Sberbank may take a token 1 percent or 2 percent stake in Russneft to act as a moderator between Gutseriyev and Sistema, Vedomosti reported Tuesday. Sberbank is the company's largest creditor and has all its stock as a collateral.
Russneft spokesman Eduard Sarkisov said he was unaware of the possible arrangement. Sberbank declined comment.
Russneft elected a new board of directors last week, but Gutseriyev was not among them. The board includes a representative of Swiss commodities trader Glencore, Yana Tikhonova; Sberbank executive Ashot Khachaturyants; and three Russneft executives, including company president Oleg Gordeyev, a Gutseriyev ally.