Friday, 3 December 2010

The Billionaires Burned By WikiLeaks

Whistleblower group WikiLeaks has angered governments worldwide with itsrecent release of a huge cache of U.S. Embassy cables, embarrassing presidents and royals with revelations of backroom dealings. The U.S. is considering legal action against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who isn’t done leaking secret documents: he told Forbes’ Andy Greenberg that his next ‘megaleak’ will involve a major American bank.

In the meantime, as WikiLeaks slowly releases its 251,287 classified cables via handpicked media outlets, it isn’t just heads of state who should worry that their secrets will be compromised. Some of the world’s wealthiest and best-connected private individuals — members of Forbes’ World Billionaires list — have found themselves burned by WikiLeaks’ document dump.

In a January cable from the U.S. Embassy in Astana titled ‘Kazakhstan: Money and Power’, an anonymous diplomat describes a meeting betweenbillionaire Timur Kulibayev, the President’s son-in-law and one of the country’s richest men, and a top official at KazMunaiGaz, a massive state oil and gas firm. Kulibayev, worth $1.1 billion by Forbes’ reckoning, is chairman of the KazMunaiGaz board and, says the unnamed diplomat, one of the “four most powerful gate-keepers” around President Nazarbayev.

In the cable, Kulibayev is nicknamed “the hyphen”: the intermediary between the President and the Prime Minister, and the go-to for anyone wishing to do business with the state. The KazMunaiGaz official is described as having argued with “the favored presidential son-in-law”, who he calls “the ultimate controller of 90pc of the economy of Kazakhstan”. Said the diplomat in the cable:

“They both pretended to ignore the core problem — Kulibayev’s, he alleged, avarice for large bribes.”

The gas official reportedly pleaded with Kulibayev to improve his own reputation and that of Kazakhstan, which is known for endemic corruption. The billionaire was unresponsive, like “a Buddha with a Paris manicure.” According to the gas official, “the games continue”, with Kulibayev “salivating to profit” from these alleged bribes.

Other billionaires referenced in the WikiLeaks document dump includeElena Baturina, a self-made construction tycoon worth $2.9 billion according to Forbes’ latest World Billionaires list. Baturina isn’t just rich but, like Kulibayev, has enjoyed power by association: she’s married toYuri Luzhkov, until recently the Mayor of Moscow. In a February cablefrom the Moscow embassy titled ‘The Luzhkov Dilemma’, US ambassador John Beyrle writes of the then-Mayor’s alleged “corrupt activities”, quoting an anonymous contact as saying:

“Luzhkov has many enemies because his wife has the most lucrative business deals in Moscow and many people think Luzhkov has received too much money.”

Since the time the cable was written, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has dismissed Luzhkov. My Forbes colleague Tatiana Serafin believes his fall could impact Baturina’s fortune. Both he and Baturina deny claims that they abused their position.

A third billionaire has been named in the Wikileaks document dump, not as the target of any corruption allegations, but as a poor host. Israeli-Kazakh mining tycoon Alexander Machkevich, worth $3.3 billionaccording to Forbes’ most recent list, hosted a U.S. embassy official for four dinners at his home in the Kazakh city of Almaty, according to a cable from April 2008. In a somewhat catty missive, the U.S. diplomat reveals he was unimpressed with Machkevich’s parties:

“It is not clear what Mashkevich is spending his billions on, but it is certainly not culinary talent. On all four occasions the Ambassador has eaten at one of his houses, the menu has been similar and focused on beshparmak (boiled meat and noodles) and plov. The wait staff appeared to be graduates of a Soviet cafeteria training academy. The wine, at least, was somewhat upscale with reasonably good French vintage bottles uncorked for the guests. The Astana residence has wooden plaques on the doors that would fit in nicely in a Wyoming hunting lodge but are somewhat out of touch with the upscale ‘Euro-remont’ that is so popular among the Kazakhstani elite.”

WikiLeaks continues to publish more cables every day. These revelations come from the 505 cables that have been leaked to date. Stay tuned: with more than 250,000 cables still to be revealed, more of the world’s super-rich are sure to be named and shamed.