Monday, October 15, 2007

Fisking Finsbury's finest efforts

An extraordinary article has appeared in the Sunday Times, which appears to be the first shot fired with the aid of PR firm Finsbury Limited. Please note that differs from an earlier PR push in that the journalist involved actually makes a note of the opulent circumstances surrounding the interview. In fact, he seems positively hypnotised by them at times...

The Times - Arsenal billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, recalls six years in penal colony

Mark Franchetti, Moscow

When Alisher Usmanov was sent to an Uzbek penal colony stuffed with 3,500 inmates, including murderers and rapists, he came face to face with two dozen hardened criminals who had been prosecuted by his father. Few thought he would get out alive. “When they realised that my dad was Uzbekistan’s deputy prosecutor-general they wanted to rip me to shreds,” Usmanov recalled last week in his first full interview since he bought a £120m stake in Arsenal football club. “My life was in serious danger and I was shocked at what had happened to me. After a privileged upbringing I suddenly found myself in a tuberculosis-infested maximum security penal colony. Conditions were appalling and I had to survive day by day. But in time the inmates learnt to respect me and I managed to stay true to myself. I stayed alive and remained an honest person.”

Pollyanna plays the victim. Next!

Usmanov was 33 when he was released, six years into an eight-year sentence for fraud and embezzlement, in 1986. The convictions were later overturned by Uzbekistan’s Supreme Court, which ordered his police record to be expunged.

This would appear to run contrary to Usmanov's earlier statements that he was "a political prisoner who was then freed and granted a full pardon once Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as president." In fact, in the article by Craig Murray that kicked this whole thing off (now republished in full here), Murray says quite clearly; "The lawyers cunningly evoke Gorbachev, a name respected in the West, to make us think that justice prevailed. That is completely untrue. Usmanov's pardon was nothing to do with Gorbachev. It was achieved through the growing autonomy of another thug, President Karimov, at first President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic and from 1991 President of Uzbekistan. Karimov ordered the 'Pardon' because of his alliance with Usmanov's mentor, Uzbek mafia boss and major international heroin overlord Gafur Rakimov."

Transfattyacid later noted that; "it could not possibly have been Mikhail Gorbachev who annulled his convictions, as he was overthrown by Boris Yeltsin in 1991: 9 years before (the Soviet conviction was annulled by the Uzbekistan supreme court in 2000)."

So there are two clear reasons to distrust this new line;

a) It has clearly changed after an early attempt at spin

b) It's remarkably coy about details such as the past and present level of corruption in Uzbekistan that is so deep-rooted that some fear any comprehensive effort to correct it could topple the economy.

[Those with an eye for detail may want to search for 'uzbekitsan' on this website.]

Little more than 20 years after he was freed, he has amassed an estimated £5 billion fortune and is ranked 18th in the list of Russia’s richest. He runs a metals to media business empire that spans three continents. There are properties in Moscow, Surrey and Sardinia and a “mega-yacht” with its own helipad. As a senior adviser to Gazprom, the world’s biggest extractor of natural gas, and the president of one of its subsidiaries, Usmanov also maintains regular contact with influential figures in the Russian government. He is on good personal terms with President Vladimir Putin and is often summoned to the Kremlin by officials seeking his opinion. Unlike some Russian tycoons who dabbled in politics, angered Putin and ended up in exile or in jail, Usmanov has stuck to business. He describes Putin as a “blessing for Russia” and spends £20m a year supporting Russian sport and culture, including the Bolshoi ballet. Last month he bought the entire art collection of the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich for a reported £30m to stop it being broken up and sold abroad. The 450 works were donated to the Russian state.

He is rich. He is generous. If you're having difficulty containing your awe, then consider that some might think that because he is so obscenely rich he can afford to throw obscene amounts of money around in an effort to be seen as generous.

Now 53, Usmanov appears to have led a charmed existence since he was released from detention. But he remains haunted by his years of incarceration on the outskirts of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. Although he was fully absolved in 2000 and no longer has a criminal record, rumours about his past persist. Usmanov believes they are promulgated by business rivals and feels wronged by his portrayal in Britain since he bought 23% of Arsenal during the summer.

Diddums. First he's imprisoned because everybody had it in for him and now his past is being thrown in his face because everybody has it in for him. Is there no justice?

Craig Murray, the outspoken former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, has accused Usmanov of links with organised crime but has offered no proof. Usmanov rejected the charges and threatened to sue Murray “if he can first prove that he is completely sane”.

An extraordinary ad hominem attack, which Mark Franchetti (an alleged journalist) passes on without comment or qualification. In fact, Franchetti even seeks to kick it along with his use of the ever-reliable codeword 'outspoken'.

And it comes complete with an empty threat; a spokesperson for his law firm Schillings made it clear recently that; "they did not intend to sue Murray directly."

[Personal Note - Many of you will be familiar with this particular brand of ad hominem attack, used repeatedly by many sock-puppeting losers during the recent Bit Of Necessary. Usmanov will no doubt be calling Murray an 'obsessive stalker' next.]

It was partly in an attempt to curb claims of a shady past that he invited me to his Moscow mansion and agreed to talk for the first time about the circumstances that led to his being imprisoned in 1980.

Our first hint that Mark Franchetti's helmet has handlebars.

“I was jailed on trumped-up charges and lost six years of my life as a result of infighting within the KGB,” he said. “It took another 14 years to clear my name and prove that I was framed. All my career I’ve been confronted with prejudiced people who are determined to turn me into a stereotype, a central Asian thief.

Apparently, one who acknowledges institutionalised corruption is prejudiced. Perhaps even a borderline racist.

“I’m fed up with having to answer these slurs. Not only did I never do anything criminal but I managed to stay honest and become one of the world’s most successful businessmen, despite being locked up with criminals for six years. It’s high time that those who continue to insinuate things about me recognised that.”

I would like to state for the record that I fully recognise that Alisher Usmanov has become one of the world’s most successful businessmen, despite being locked up with criminals for six years. As for his being honest before going into prison, remaining honest throughout, and emerging possibly even more honest than ever... well, we'll get to that right after the money shot.

Usmanov runs his empire from the headquarters of Metal-loinvest, his main company, in a lavish building in central Moscow fitted with Italian marble and heavy chandeliers. From there I was driven 30 miles along Rublovka, a road that cuts through a forest of firs to a “billionaires’ row” where Usmanov has a 30-acre estate beside the Moscow river. A 16ft-high metal fence encircles the property. Usmanov, who never leaves home without a retinue of bodyguards armed with machine-guns, was working in a large, single-storey wooden villa which he has built as a private office next to his palatial house. Casually dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt, tracksuit bottoms and leather slippers, he was sitting in an armchair, advising a friend on the telephone on how best to clinch a £1m deal. In front of him was a small table and a bell with which to summon staff. In the next room, his personal adviser on equities was checking the latest share prices on a 30in computer screen. Sipping tea after his phone call, Usmanov studied the screen with the analyst as they discussed whether to sell a large holding in a Russian bank. A butler delivered frequent messages or passed on one of several mobile phones on which the tycoon fielded further calls.

Translation: Alisher Usmanov does not own a cat.

“I’m less excited now by day-to-day business,” he explained as he kept an eye on a news bulletin on a gigantic flat-screen television. “One thing I’ll always have a drive for, though, is the equity market. Intellectually I find the markets deeply stimulating. And then there are things like Arsenal. That’s a passion. It’s a fantastic team and a wonderful game I want to be a part of.” Usmanov said that when the chance of buying into the club arose, he consulted Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea, who told him: “It’s a great club, go for it.”

Translation: Alisher Usmanov wishes you to know that he is a philanthropist at heart.

“I’m very surprised by all the press hostility,” Usmanov added. “The more I say that I’ve no intention of launching a hostile bid, the more people claim that it’s precisely what I want to do. I just don’t get it.”

Hmmm. Perhaps they've somehow arrived at the conclusion that he's a ruthless businessman and congenital liar. That might make it a little easier to understand.

It is all a far cry from the teenaged Usmanov’s dream of becoming a diplomat. His father held a powerful post in the Uzbek judicial system, his mother was a Russian language teacher and as a child of the elite, he was sent away at the age of 18 to study at the State Institute for International Relations in Moscow. There, he read international law, Arabic and French and planned to join the Soviet diplomatic service in the Middle East. He also became close friends with fellow students Sergei Yastrzhembsky and Sergei Prikhodko, both now aides to Putin, and was later a pupil of Yevgeny Primakov, who went on to head Russia’s foreign intelligence service and was subsequently appointed foreign minister and prime minister.

Craig Murray points out here that; "(This) is the first published admission I have seen of the key Usmanov/Jastrzebski relationship. Franchetti shows that I was right about this, and about the origin of that relationship as students."

“People say now that I’m well connected in the Kremlin,” he said over a lunch of lamb stew and red wine served by the butler in one of his private dining rooms, a hall lined with gilded central Asian vases.

Our second hint that Mark Franchetti's helmet has handlebars.

“Some of the people I know in the Kremlin have been close friends for decades. I’m not an oligarch because I’ve never received any favours from the state. I’m a businessman and don’t do politics.” After graduating in 1976 Usmanov returned to Uzbekistan where he worked for the Komsomol, the Communist party youth organisation. But his ambitions of travelling the world as a diplomat came to an abrupt end when he was 27.

Tragic, really. The world needs more honest men in diplomatic service.

A power struggle broke out between the KGB in Moscow and its Uzbek arm over the appointment of a new chairman of the Uzbek KGB. The local secret police backed a general who was the father of Bakhodir Nasimov, one of Usmanov’s closest childhood friends. But Moscow favoured another candidate, who saw Nasimov’s father as a potential threat. According to Usmanov, the Moscow nominee sought to destroy his rival’s career by framing his son, the young Nasimov, who was a junior KGB officer. “Nasimov was sent on a covert operation,” recalled Usmanov as we strolled under the watchful eye of a guard from the wooden villa into his mansion, a two-storey stone and marble building with seven bedrooms, several large halls decorated with mosaics, a lift, an indoor swimming pool and a small cinema where the tycoon watches Arsenal’s matches. “His bosses told him he was to accept a bribe from a guy involved in contraband so as to catch him red-handed. The point was to prosecute him for bribery. Nasimov told me that since the guy knew we were friends he might try to pass me the money. ‘If he does – take it,’ he told me, ‘and bring it to me’.”

Usmanov takes the only bribe he has ever taken in his life in order to save his friend. Brings a lump to the throat, doesn't it?

Craig Murray points out here that; "Usmanov was never a political prisoner opposed to communism. He was indeed convicted for corrupt dealings. He claims he was the accidental victim of a friend being set up - even if that were true, it does not make him an anti-communist political prisoner, which is how Schillings attempted to portray him."

Note also how Mark Franchetti peppers this passage with further observations regarding his opulent surroundings. Almost as if he's under some kind of spell.

What a pity that his eye for detail remains firmly focused on the decor...

As Usmanov was able to prove two decades later when he was finally cleared...

Craig again; "being absolved by Uzbekistan's Supreme Court means nothing whatsoever. Uzbekistan is a totalitarian state and has absolutely nil judicial independence."

Mark Franchetti makes no mention of this factor at all. Perhaps for reasons of space?

... the man with the money was a KGB agent posing as a criminal who had been instructed to frame Nasimov. He approached Usmanov and offered him cash for Nasimov. Usmanov duly took it. Nasimov, Usmanov and another third friend who was the son of a high-ranking party official were arrested. “I was hauled in and told to sign a confession,” the billionaire recalled. “‘Confess that you took a bribe to pass on to Nasimov for his father.’ I refused and went on an eight-day hunger strike, fearing that they would try to poison me. “Then they told me that they’d just get rid of me. I thought they’d kill me so I signed.”

Remarkable. Usmanov appears to be describing institutionalised corruption here. Of course, in this scenario, he is an innocent victim, as a corrupt government is sure to reward those who are inherently corrupt themselves, right?

The three young men were sentenced by a military court to eight years for fraud and embezzlement of state property.

Right?

That they were jailed despite being the children of high-ranking officials demonstrated that the charges were politically motivated, Usmanov said. “If I’d really committed a crime, my father, as deputy prosecutor, was sufficiently influential to have spared me an eight-year sentence. He couldn’t come to my rescue because the charges were trumped up for political reasons.”

I'll hand you over to SpyBlog for this whopper; "The idea of a deputy prosecutor having any influence whatsoever in a case involving his own son, is an utter anathema to us here in the United Kingdom, and just shows the depth of corruption which Usmanov obviously still considers to be normal behaviour."

Instead of being sent to a relatively safe penal colony for state officials, he was locked up in an ordinary one. He survived after a prison strongman took a liking to him and warned others not to harm him.

Bait. We're supposed to make jokes about dropping soap in the showers here, while Usmanov plays the victim. Don't fall for it.

Nasimov was less fortunate. He lost his mind and according to Usmanov is still in a mental institution.

And Usmanov still bears the scars of this injustice. So much so that he'll seek to gain advantage in a debate by suggesting that his opponent might be insane.

“Prison is a world apart. It has its own rules and its own reality,” Usmanov said. “I was strong, believed in myself and didn’t get corrupted. I was helped by people inside and the fact that they were criminals is no reason to forget that they saved my life. To this day I’m angry that all those years were taken away from me and wasted.”

Translation: Alisher Usmanov is a forgiving soul... but there are limits.

Released as a result of reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Usmanov married his teenage sweetheart, Irina Viner, who later became an Olympic gymnast. He had proposed to Viner from prison. “He sent me a handkerchief which, according to Uzbek tradition, is a proposal of marriage,” she said recently. “I still keep it.”

A touching love story that carries a belated qualification to earlier spin. I'd like to see some specifics about these reforms... unless of course Usmanov is referring to Perestroika in general, in which case he can stick his renewed spin where the sun don't shine.

Having lost any chance of a diplomatic career, Usmanov quickly took advantage of the business opportunities that opened up in the early days of perestroika. His first venture was making plastic shopping bags. “It was a lucrative business which taught me a lot,” he said. When Russian banks began to offer loans in the early 1990s, he borrowed several million dollars and displayed a talent for share-dealing. “I quickly realised that the equity market offered a sea of opportunities. We sold and bought whatever we could. We had a few failures and many successes. To me it was like an education and few things are as intellectually stimulating as getting a deal right.” Usmanov bought up former Soviet assets. He engineered leveraged buy-outs of the Oskolsky Electric Metallurgical Combine, the Lebedinsky Mining Combine and the Olenegorsk Combine. The deals made him a leading force in the iron and steel industry. "Those were tough and dangerous times,” he recalled. “Getting the right security and protection was paramount. Everything is much easier now. The legal framework is there and thanks to Putin, the country is back on track.” Usmanov snapped up another lucrative 15% stake in the UK-based steel maker Corus in 2002. He bought Gazprom shares, at a time when others had little faith in the gas giant’s future and went on to become president of GazpromInvest-Holding and owner of the Gaz-Metall/Metalloinvest Group, which controls 40% of iron ore production in Russia and two of the country’s largest steelworks.

Self-made man. Inspiring struggle. Yadda yadda yadda. You can't trust anything from Russia's past, but everything that happens in the present is strictly above board.

He has since expanded his empire by buying a stake in Russia’s third-largest mobile phone network and recently purchased Kommersant, an influential daily newspaper, for £100m. The paper used to be owned by Boris Berezovsky, the London-based tycoon and fierce critic of Putin.

Used to be. This is Usmanov dressing himself in the reputation of others (again), and playing games with his magic time machine (again).

It has since been reported that; "The chief editor of Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading dailies, quit over differences with new owner Alisher Usmanov. Former editor Vladislav Borodulin broke with the paper one month after tycoon Usmanov took the reins... The loss of Borodulin could mean a more restricted paper as the Kommersant aligns with other Kremlin-friendly Russian media."

Well, that's one way of putting it. One might suspect that this was going to happen anyway, and was the main reason why Borodulin left.

“I’ve been very blessed in life,” said Usmanov as he showed me a collection of Soviet art, a cellar stacked with rare wines, and a large mural depicting figures from Uzbek folklore.

Again, Mark Franchetti, keeps his eye for detail firmly on the decor, but this time manages to miss something that's right in front of his face; that large mural doesn't do a lot to support Usmanov's recent attempts to visibly distance himself from Uzbekistan.

“I have everything, except children. That’s the only thing missing in my life."

More bait. We're meant to say something horrible that will allow Usmanov to play the victim. Either that, or it's an intriguing invitation to single women who would like box seats for Arsenal games.

"Those who know me and have done business with me know that I’m an honest person. I’ve proven that what happened to me as a young man was the result of political infighting. I was a victim and when I came out I realised I had one last chance to make a success of my life."

Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!

As for his contention that he's an honest person, he himself provides evidence that is far from honest. Here comes the money shot...

"I won’t fall so low as to fight those who want to blacken my name."

This is a direct and double-bladed contradiction; earlier Usmanov threatens to sue Murray “if he can first prove that he is completely sane."

In one statement he says he will fight, and stoops to blackening the name of his opponent in the same breath.

In the other he says he won't fight, purely on the basis that he refuses to engage in name-blackening games.

"Let their slurs weigh on their conscience. Mine is clean.”

Their slurs?

He's not only a liar, he's a bloody shameless one.


UPDATE: Usmanov's narrative only covers the (*ahem*) trumped-up charge relating to bribery... Where's the heart-warming background story to the trumped-up charges of extortion and rape? Is he saving those for later? Perhaps with brandy and cigars?

UPDATE: A quick link for those who are confused about Usmanov's "I have everything, except children" statement.

1 comment:

johnf said...

Magnificentally, even monumentally bad journalism. Half breathless hardman interviewese, half life-style louche with every single tacky piece of furnishing lovingly lingered over.

Murdoch journalism really is sinking into the swamp.