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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prokhorov Pulls His Charity Out of Norilsk

For MTIrina Prokhorova

Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said Monday that his charitable foundation was forced to leave the city of Norilsk because of threats to its employees, and a source close to the foundation said the management of Norilsk Nickel was behind the intimidation.

“Prokhorov’s business was the target,” the source told The Moscow Times, declining to elaborate. “People employed by the foundation have been receiving threats for some time now, and we decided to move to Krasnoyarsk to protect them.”

Norilsk, the world’s largest nickel and palladium miner, was at the center of a heated and protracted asset split between Prokhorov and his former business partner, Vladimir Potanin. Last year, Prokhorov sold his 25 percent stake to metals giant United Company RusAl, a move opposed by Potanin.  

In an emotional statement posted on the charity’s web site, Prokhorov wrote that threats over the past year and a half were the result of a business conflict. He blamed the “personal ambitions of ‘new feudal lords’” in the region, calling them “people from the ‘Club of Travelers,’ inspired by a charitable shareholder.”

The gibe could be seen as a reference to Norilsk chief executive Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former KGB officer and head of the Federal Tourism Agency who joined the company in August 2008. Industry analysts suggested at the time that Strzhalkovsky, who had no prior metals-industry experience, was brought into Norilsk to keep bickering shareholders from hurting the state’s interest in the company.

Norilsk Nickel declined to comment on the issue. A spokesman for Prokhorov’s Onexim Group directed comments to the foundation, which declined to elaborate on its official statements.

The Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation made headlines in May when Prokhorov, a former CEO of Norilsk Nickel, wrote on his blog that unidentified people had insulted his sister, Irina Prokhorova, a co-founder of the charity.

The foundation, which has about 20 employees, will relocate to Krasnoyarsk, Prokhorova said in a separate statement on the web site. Those willing to leave the Arctic Circle city for Krasnoyarsk, about 1,500 kilometers south, will be given the opportunity to do so, while the rest will be paid a year’s salary, she said.

“It’s a real pity for me that we have to leave Norilsk,” she said. “I don’t want to name specific people who drove us out of Norilsk — I believe it’s humiliating to make things personal.”

Created in 2004, the charity started out with cultural investments in the city of Norilsk, frequently listed among the world’s most polluted cities. Prokhorov, 44, said the foundation could continue to help Norilsk and that he “intends to deal with those who are trying to prevent us from bringing good to this dear city and its residents. I’ll do everything possible so that we can return.”

He wrote in May on his LiveJournal blog that an organized group of young people attempted to sabotage the opening of a modern culture festival in Norilsk, waving signs with slogans critical of his business and personally insulting to his sister.

“One of the participants insulted my sister, and this is something I am not going to allow anyone to do,” he wrote. “I know who is behind the provocation, just as you do. … If these two gentlemen who ordered the campaign don’t apologize to me and my sister in the next three weeks, I’ll do what any normal person would do. I’ll smash their faces in. And you know I can do it. “

The following month, Prokhorov, a kickboxing enthusiast, wrote that the issue was resolved and that those behind the provocation called his sister to apologize.

Until 2006, the foundation worked exclusively on cultural programs in Norilsk, but it has since taken on science, education and health projects in Krasnoyarsk and in the Urals, Siberian and Far East federal districts. It had a budget of 260 million rubles ($8.4 million) last year, up from 29 million rubles in its first year.

According to its web site, the foundation has spent more than 420 million rubles ($13.6 million) in its five years.

Prokhorov, billed this year by Forbes magazine as Russia’s richest person, and Potanin became the owners of Norilsk Nickel in the 1990s, and Prokhorov served as the company’s chief executive and chairman from 2001 until 2007. Analysts credited him with turning the gulag-era enterprise into a more efficient company.

In 2008, he sold a blocking stake in Norilsk to RusAl, controlled by Oleg Deripaska. As part of the deal, Prokhorov obtained 14 percent of the aluminum giant, through which he continues to have an interest in Norilsk Nickel. Potanin owns around 30 percent of the miner.

Dmitry Smolin, a metals analyst at UralSib, said he thought Prokhorov’s decision to remove his foundation was more psychological than economically justified.

“Prokhorov has little to do with Norilsk Nickel now and wants to tear his ties with the city of Norilsk,” he added. “He has already registered himself in Eruda, a small village in Krasnoyarsk region, where his major assets are, so now he’s withdrawing his foundation.”

Eruda is home to a Polyus Gold’s Olimpiadinsky mine. In July, Polyus said Prokhorov had a 26.35 percent stake, while billionaire Suleiman Kerimov controlled 36.9 percent.