Chichvarkin Sought in Criminal Investigation

MTChichvarkin speaking to a Moscow Times reporter in his office last year.��
Former Yevroset chairman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who left the country in December and has not returned, is being sought by investigators in connection with allegations of smuggling, kidnapping and extortion.

The Yevroset founder's whereabouts are currently unknown, and speculation is swirling that he will remain abroad permanently given the possibility of arrest in Russia.

The Basmanny District Court on Wednesday is to rule on whether to grant a request by investigators to issue a warrant for Chichvarkin's arrest, Moscow City Court spokeswoman Anna Usachyova told The Moscow Times on Friday.

Chichvarkin's lawyer Yury Gervis said investigators were seeking his client's arrest as part of a criminal case against two former Yevroset employees, Boris Levin and Andrei Yermilov. Levin and Yermilov were arrested in September on suspicion of smuggling, kidnapping and extortion.

Gervis could not say what specific charges Chichvarkin, 34, might face, saying he first needed to study case materials provided by investigators.

Usachyova of the Moscow City Court said she had no information on possible charges against Chichvarkin. A spokeswoman for the Investigative Committee, which is investigating the case against Levin and Yermilov, declined to comment Friday.

Chichvarkin's assistant, Natalya Ikonnikova, who answered Chichvarkin's cell phone Sunday, told The Moscow Times that her boss and his wife were on vacation abroad. She said she did not know which country Chichvarkin was in or when he might return to Russia, but she added that Chichvarkin was arranging for his 10-year-old son Yaroslav to attend a school somewhere in Europe.

Ikonnikova said she had learned that investigators wanted to arrest Chichvarkin from media reports.

Gervis refused to comment on Chichvarkin's whereabouts but said there was little chance his client would appear at Wednesday's court hearing "given the current circumstances."

Investigators believe that he may be in London, where several Russian businessmen who have fallen out with authorities currently live. Chichvarkin left Moscow for London at 10 p.m. on Dec. 22 and an hour later was summoned to the Investigative Committee for questioning, Kommersant reported Saturday, citing a police report. Investigators are now seeking an international warrant for his arrest, the report said.

Chichvarkin was questioned by investigators in the Levin and Yermilov case after their arrest in September. He has said the two men were arrested in connection with a case involving former employee Andrei Vlaskin, who was charged with reselling phones stolen from shipments to Yevroset. Vlaskin later paid 20 million rubles ($608,000) in damages to settle the case.

Levin, Yermilov and two other Yevroset employees are suspected of kidnapping Vlaskin in 2003 and holding him in a rented apartment until he paid back the money and returned the handsets, Kommersant reported Friday. Chichvarkin has vigorously defended his former employees, saying they are guilty of nothing.

Chichvarkin founded Yevroset in 1997 and subsequently turned it into the country's largest mobile phone retailer. Citing liquidity woes, he sold Yevroset in late September to billionaire Alexander Mamut in a deal that reportedly involved Mamut paying $400 million in cash and assuming $850 million in debt.

Chichvarkin, however, stayed on as chairman of the company until November, when he announced that he was stepping down to focus his energy on promoting the new Kremlin-backed pro-business party Right Cause, whose Moscow branch he was tapped to lead.

The party's co-chairman, Leonid Gozman, told The Moscow Times on Friday that the party was ready to support Chichvarkin in his legal battle and that the offer was open for him to head up the party's Moscow branch if he returned to Russia and was not arrested. The party was to discuss alternative candidates for the position Monday.

"Our decision [to appoint Chichvarkin] doesn't depend on the opinion of investigative bodies," Gozman said.

Gozman called the allegations against Chichvarkin "yet another example of the onslaught against business" by authorities.

Right Cause leaders said they had not been in contact with Chichvarkin for several weeks. Party co-chairman Boris Titov said Thursday that Chichvarkin went on vacation abroad before the new year and that he had not spoken with him since.

State Duma Deputy Igor Lebedev, head of Liberal Democratic Party's Duma faction, said Chichvarkin's flirtation with Right Cause was merely an unsuccessful attempt to buy political capital in order to ward off criminal prosecution, RIA-Novosti reported Friday.

Chichvarkin last summer participated in the annual party congress of United Russia, which has an overwhelming majority in the Duma and is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Alexandra Odynova contributed to this report.