A Kazakh Oligarch Trying to Be a Jewish Tycoon

Up to 1987 Alexander Mashkevich was a lecturer in clinical psychology, and was the youngest professor in his field. In the past 15 years he has become a businessman and has accumulated personal wealth estimated at more than $1 billion.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

Up to 1987 Alexander Mashkevich was a lecturer in clinical psychology, and was the youngest professor in his field. In the past 15 years he has become a businessman and has accumulated personal wealth estimated at more than $1 billion.

Such a summary of Mashkevich's resume sounds like some fulfillment of the American dream in a land of unlimited opportunity - and in times now gone. However, 48-year-old Mashkevich was born and educated in Kyrgyzstan, a Muslim republic of the former Soviet Union.

He has accumulated his wealth, since the beginning of perestroika, in the neighboring Republic of Kazakhstan, where he is the owner of the Eurasian Bank, the leading bank in the metal, railroad and energy industries. It is estimated that about a quarter of the economy of this huge country is subject to his influence.

He replies with a dismissive little smile when asked the real extent of his wealth and says: "What's another billion more or less?" Even when he was a university lecturer he was not really poor. His salary at the time was 420 rubles (about $50) a month - far above the average salary of a government minister then, in a country that honored its intelligentsia.

Even then he had his own apartment and a car, as well as a dacha for vacations. The only difference is that now he has a different car, a different dacha, and homes in various places around the world. Where?

"In all kinds of places," replies Mashkevich in that same evasive tone he uses to reply to questions about political matters and issues concerning the Jewish world. He is president of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, which he founded and supports and which encompasses the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, Japan, China and the countries of Oceania - altogether 28 states.

By all the usual definitions, Mashkevich is one of the biggest oligarchs to have emerged from the former Soviet Union. The oligarchs, who combine wealth and government power, have acquired a bad reputation. Unlike the more usual Western word "tycoon" which has a positive ring, "oligarch" has negative connotations.

A movie has just been released under this name (in Israel it is in fact called "Tycoon") which casts a negative light, with anti-Semitic overtones, on the Jewish oligarchs. In the Russian-speaking communities, this is a film that is like a roman a clef.

"I haven't seen it," said Mashkevich, in a rare interview during his brief visit to Israel last week. "I can't say there is a single image of the oligarch. Altogether, the profound suspicion of people who accumulate wealth rapidly seems understandable to me."

He says: "This was also the case in the United States, when big capital was born. To my regret, there is a basis for this attitude toward certain people, but not all of them. From time to time you meet suspicion, until people find out who you really are. This doesn't happen a lot, and I suppose that in the future a wealthy individual from the CIS will be perceived as a normal phenomenon, just like an American capitalist."

Rabbis and imams

Mashkevich learned one important lesson from other Jewish oligarchs like Vladimir Guzinsky and Boris Berezhovsky, who were very close to politicians in Russia - including President Putin - until they fell out of favor.

"Because of this I don't like to be involved in politics," says Mashkevich. "What I care about is business and philanthropy."

Well, not exactly. Mashkevich cut short his solidarity visit to Israel, accompanied by a delegation of 50 rabbis, on its second day and before he had completed his round of meetings with figures from across the political spectrum. He flew home after the takeover of the theater in Moscow by 50 Chechen rebels.

The geopolitical location of Kazakhstan, and his unique personal status, afford him extraordinary access to the Muslim world. The day before he came to Israel, in his capacity as president of the Jewish Congress, he convened a meeting between 30 important rabbis and a group of Kazakh imams.

"As the dialogue proceeded, it was clear that there is no dispute between Judaism and Islam," he said.

He enlisted his status recently in another important matter - not long ago Mashkevich appealed to the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazabayev, and asked him to intervene in the affair of the missing Israeli soldiers.

Mashkevich relates that Nazabayev has excellent relations with President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, and the president did promise to deal seriously with the matter of the missing solders and ordered the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan to take up the matter of navigator Ron Arad.

Apparently Mashkevich sees a kind of personal mission in minimizing the tensions between Jews and Israel and the Muslim world. He stresses that there is no problem with the Muslim world, but rather with Muslim extremists, who are a minority.

"I myself grew up among Muslims," he relates. "I was born in Kyrgyzstan, and I am very familiar with Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan as well as Kazakhstan. In business, we also work with the Arab states, and we have accumulated a lot of experience with the Arab and Muslim world. Everyone has to join in an effort to distinguish between extremists and Islam as a whole. This seems definitely possible to me."

To the observation that immigrants to Israel from the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union tend to be politically extreme and say accusingly "we know the Muslims," Mashkevich replies: "There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. Even if 10 million of them were extreme, it's just 1 percent. The problem is because of unsuccessful public relations, we encourage the sense that the entire Muslim world is anti-Jewish. The approach should be the other way around. We have to show that the majority of the Muslim world has nothing against Jews, and then the international community will also see what is happening in Israel in a different way."

Mashkevich had time on his brief visit to Israel to hold swift meetings with some leaders. Among them were Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who showed a special interest in efforts to create Jewish-Muslim dialogue, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who was interested in activities for the missing Israelis.

Among the guests at a dinner he held in Jerusalem was Haim Avraham, the father of Benny Avraham, one of the three soldiers abducted by Hezbollah. A shadow was cast by one of the tensions typical of the organized Jewish world - implicit competition with tycoon Lev Levayev over power and influence in the CIS.

Absent from the delegation of rabbis Mashkevich brought with him for a meeting with the two Chief Rabbis of Israel were the Chabad people, who are associated with Levayev. Behind the scenes there was talk that Mashkevich's planned meeting with President Moshe Katsav was canceled because of pressure from this group.

"I don't know why the president did not agree to meet us, but I respect his decision," says Mashkevich with extreme caution. "At most, we'll meet with him next time. After all, we are dealing with things that are good both for the Jewish people and for the state of Israel. The aim of Jewish Congress is to serve the interests of all the Jewish organizations. The Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan is from Chabad. We have too many enemies for us to allow ourselves any more internal rivalries."

New player

From an optimistic viewpoint, it is possible to see in these internal tensions an expression of the normalization of Jewish life in this part of the world as well. There is no doubt that the existence of a Eurasian Jewish Congress, of which communities from 28 countries are members, changes the balance of the bipolar Jewish world that included only Israel and American Jewry.

A new player has come into the Jewish world in the shape of communities that had not been organized until now. This is also a new world for Mashkevich himself. Apart from childhood visits to the synagogue with his grandfather, he grew up in a secular home far from Jewish life.

In 1999 he was elected head of the Jewish Congress of the 700,000 Jews who remained in Kazakhstan, and this year he founded the Eurasian Congress, which encourages the crystallization of a Jewish identity in places where it had almost become extinct.

As in other Jewish organizations around the word, here too a natural, built-in tension exists between support for Israel and investment in the needs of local communities. Often Mashkevich plays a role in preventing decisions that derive from the lack of understanding of Israel in this part of the world.

The obvious role of American Jewry in politics and American-Israeli relations is a new lesson powerful Jews in the countries of the CIS have learned. Recently, for example, Mashkevich engaged in efforts to prevent the closure of the Israeli embassy in Belarus, something that seemed to him to be a grave mistake. In recent years he has been surrounded by rabbis, promoting religious-secular Jewish dialogue, publishing the journal of the Eurasian Jewish Congress - a copy of which was presented about a month ago to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - and has already established five large synagogues, one of them named after his mother.

He connects the dramatic change in his life to the changes that have occurred in the former Soviet Union. "Apparently deep down I had always wanted to be involved in business," he says.

"Psychologically, this wasn't a difficult transition for me. The truth is, I had no idea of how to begin. I learned mainly from my mistakes and from 20 hours of work a day. When did I realize that I was a wealthy man? Apparently I have not yet really internalized this. I'm just at the beginning. Just as a writer has the ambition to write a best seller, a businessman has a series of projects that are intended to place him in the front rank of international business people. I definitely aspire to this. I'm not interested in the power that goes along with official positions, I'm interested in the power that money gives me."

He says of himself that he has not changed. His closest friends are friends from his childhood or from his years in academia, only now some of them are working with him. These are the people he really trusts. Not long ago these and many others attended the opulent wedding he gave for his daughter in Monte Carlo.

"It's simply a central and accessible place for people who came from all around the world," he says in justification of the choice of venue. And even though he says that he has not yet internalized his wealth, the former academic moves around surrounded by a staff of aides as if he had always lived that way.

"Are you wondering how to make a billion dollars in 15 years?" said one of his staff with a smile when Mashkevich got up to answer one of his endless phone calls. "You just go out on the balcony and take another phone call."



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