Nornickel boss Vladimir Potanin: billionaire and environmental offender

Nornickel boss Vladimir Potanin
As early as the 1990s, Vladimir Potanin secured a bear share in Nornickel sharesimago images / ITAR-TASS

After 30 years of marriage, Vladimir Potanin has had enough of his first wife Natalia, in the truest sense of the word. At dinner together, shortly after the children left the table, he explains to her: “We lived together for a long time. And now I’ve decided I’ve had enough of you. I want a divorce, today. ”This is how his wife later described in court what happened in November 2013. “I thought this was a joke.”

But then Potanin’s bodyguard came to the table with the divorce documents in hand, Natalia says. Her husband insisted that she waive all property claims. She refuses – and has been fighting in court for what she believes is the fair distribution of the Potanin billion. So far in vain.

Should it still prevail, it would probably be the second most expensive divorce in history. Because Vladimir Potanin is the richest man in Russia. And when it comes to his money, he makes no jokes. According to Bloomberg’s “Billionaires Index”, it currently weighs $ 26.4 billion. Worldwide, only 39 people are richer than the oligarch.

Success despite the corona crisis

The corona virus does not change this. While other Russian oligarchs who rely on oil and gas are suffering from the global economic collapse, potanin can sit back and relax. His mining group Norilsk Nickel, or Nornickel for short, is the largest nickel and palladium producer in the world. In the Corona crisis, the company benefited from the fact that, for example, the South African competition had to reduce its funding due to viruses.

But as dazzling as it is financially for the oligarchs, the press he is currently getting is bad. This is due to the environmental disaster that Nornickel caused in the Siberian nickel capital Norilsk.

At the end of May, more than 21,000 tons of diesel ran out of a damaged power station tank into the two rivers Daldykan and Ambarnaja and from there into the freshwater lake Pyassino. Environmentalists speak of the worst oil spill in the Russian Arctic in history.

Environmental damage in the millions

But that may be just a drop in the bucket, because Nornickel is said to have pumped highly toxic wastewater into the tundra for years – with clearly visible consequences: “There are dead trees in the region, some are colored yellow-orange,” says Dorothea Wehrmann, expert for Arctic cities at the German Development Institute (DIE). “You can find larger, smelly pools deeper in the forest, which suggest that this was not the first time this was done.”

Potanin should pay the bill for the catastrophe – or the catastrophes – out of his own pocket. This is expected by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is actually considered well disposed to the oligarchs. “There would have been no harm if they had replaced the tank in good time,” he warned the management and especially Potanin in a public and state-staged video conference.

The billionaire took a bite and showed remorse: he wants to make 10 billion rubles loose, the equivalent of 127 million euros, to remedy the environmental damage in and around Norilsk. Peanuts for the man who secured the bear portion of nornickel in the 90s.

His sense of power, money and influence is no accident. Potanin started to make connections in politics and business at an early age. His father Oleg, who worked in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade and often took him on trips, was a good teacher with the right contacts.

From official to businessman

No wonder that Potanin received one of the coveted places at the diplomatic university in 1978: the Soviet elite was trained at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, MGIMO for short. After graduating, Potanin followed in his father’s footsteps and started his career as a bureaucrat in the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Potanin left his state post and used his knowledge of market economy and capitalism for personal wealth planning. In the early 1990s he founded Bank Oneksimbank and the holding company Interros, with which he still controls companies like Nornickel.

At the time, the young Russian state was in dire need of money that the Moscow entrepreneur could supply with his bank. With the so-called “share-for-credit program”, he helped Russia financially and in return secured 38 percent of the shares in the former metal combine Norilsk Nickel.

Potanin made the leap from civil servant to billionaire in just a few years, and his growing wealth also gave the now 59-year-old political influence. At the end of the 1990s, he was vice-prime minister of the Russian government under the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and as such was responsible for financial issues.

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