Just Don't Call Them Gaydamak: Meet Israel's Russian Oligarchs

More than a handful of Russia's richest men have made their way to Israel in recent years, but most keep their ties to the Jewish State out of the limelight for fear of antagonizing the Russian authorities or hurting their business interests.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

In the past decade, wealthy businessmen from the former Soviet Union have flocked to Israel in private planes via the Moscow-Tel Aviv route. Once here, they buy mansions in wealthy communities and get around in luxury cars. Most of them have come to Israel to escape the grasp of Russian President Vladimir Putin. They live below the radar, zealously guarding their privacy and hiding their assets and Israeli citizenship. Unlike Russian businessman Arcadi Gaydamak, who became a dominant figure in Israel a decade ago, they aren't involved in politics, at least openly, and don’t make flashy business deals or grant interviews.

Many of them fear that if their Israeli assets and citizenships were revealed, it would complicate their relations with Russian authorities or hurt their business interests. A good example is the case of Vitaly Malkin, one of the richest and most influential politicians in Russia. A former banker who Forbes estimated to be worth $1 billion, he was elected to the Russian Senate in 2004 and quickly accumulated power and influences in the halls of government. Among other things, Malkin was Gaydamak's partner in the company Avalon, which was involved in a scandal involving Angolan debt to Russia. Malkin appeared to be a man inevitably on the rise until March of this year, when he was forced to resign from government in shame following a shocking revelation: He was an Israeli citizen.

Malkin's Israeli identity was revealed by Russian blogger Alexei Navalny, an organizer of anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia. In his defense, Malkin noted that he renounced his Israeli citizenship in 2007, a year after Russia's parliament, the Duma, passed a law forbidding senior government officials from having dual citizenship. But his protestations were for naught; he was forced to resign, as he put it, to defend his reputation and that of the Duma.

A mysterious oligarch who doesn’t hide his connection to Israel is Valery Kogan. In 2008, Kogan made headlines here when he bought five plots of land covering 11 dunams (nearly 3 acres) in the luxury community of Caesarea for NIS 64 million. Kogan is close to Putin, and Forbes estimated his fortune to be $1.8 billion. Together with his business partner Dmitry Kamenshchik, Kogan owns Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport, the largest airport in Russia, serving 28 million passengers per year. He also owns an $18-million mansion in Connecticut and in 2009, bought an apartment in the Sea One residential tower project along the Tel Aviv promenade for NIS 110 million. Kogan lives in Russia most of the year, visiting Israel every now and then. At the beginning of 2013, he bought more homes in Caesarea, bringing his total property holdings in the community to 15 dunams (nearly 4 acres) – 6,000 square meters of which he is using to construct a giant castle.

Kogan's neighbor in the Sea One project is Alexander Mashkevitch, a Russian oligarch who resides in Israel part of the year. He was ranked number 287 on Forbes' 2010 list of the richest people in the world. At the time, the magazine estimated his wealth to be $3.3 billion. Mashkevitch was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1954 and made his money in the mining industry. He has held Israeli citizenship since 1991. Today, he owns mines in Kazakhstan, Africa and Eastern Europe. His other business holdings include an insurance company in Kazakhstan. Together with his business partners and the Kazakh government, he controls 54 percent of the shares of the mining company Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation. In the past, Mashkevitch has been tied to money laundering investigations in Belgium, the United States and Switzerland. He denies the allegations and has never been indicted or convicted.

Moshe (Viatcheslav) Kantor, 60, is the president of the European Jewish Congress and the person behind the Russian fertilizer empire Acron Group. The Russian tycoon, who Forbes estimated to be the 39th richest person in Russia with $2.3 billion, has ties to Israel but doesn’t significantly invest here. Very active in philanthropy and Jewish organizations, he splits his time between his homes and offices across Europe, particularly in Russia and Switzerland, and his mansion in Herzliya. In the 1990s, he was one of the more prominent rivals of imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky.

Vladimir Gusinsky is a Russian oligarch who once held great influence in Israel but these days makes do with visits. In the late 1990s, he bought a quarter of the shares of the Israeli newspaper Maariv and was the most prominent Russian oligarch in the country. But in 2008, he sold his interest in Maariv along with most of his other holdings here. In Russia, Gusinsky because a media baron in the early 1990s and was seen as one of the big businessmen closest to the government of then-Russian President Boris Yeltson. He is now the owner of the Russian-language television network RTVi.

Another billionaire who maintains ties with Israel is Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the third-richest person in Ukraine. Forbes estimated his wealth at $3 billion, while the Ukranian magazine Korrespondent put it closer to $6 billion. Kolomoyskyi, who comes to Israel once or twice a year, doesn't invest here but holds Israeli citizenship and owns a home in the wealthy neighborhood of Herzliya Pituah. He is involved in philanthropic activity and contributes to various institutions, among them Yad Vashem.

In Ukraine, Kolomoyskyi is one of the cofounders of PrivatBank and a major stockholder in Naftogaz, the largest gas and oil company in the country. He is also one of the key partners in Privat Group, one of the largest holding companies in Ukraine, through which he controls the Ukrainian national airline, Aerosvit, which declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Yachts at the Herzliya marinaCredit: Nir Keidar
Alexander Mashkevitch.Credit: Eyal Warshawski
Vladimir Gusinsky.Credit: AP
Arcadi Gaydamak.Credit: Moti Millrod

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