Never apologize, never explain. Charles de Gaulle, the French leader, made this a tactic – which many lesser, and less popular, politicians than he have followed; but none as successfully as de Gaulle. Richard Nixon tried it, for example, when he was guilty of the minor crime of spying on his opposition. The tactic became a spur to find evidence of the greater crimes that would ultimately remove him from office. Bill Clinton tried modifying de Gaulle’s advice, but the explanation was too weak to be credible, and the apology too late.
What de Gaulle meant was that, if you are under pressure, you should never show the strain. Otherwise, you will encourage your adversaries as inevitably as blood in the water draws the shark. Tough it out when you are in a comer, Nixon and Clinton told themselves.
That’s good advice if you are a general. It’s not bad if you are the chief executive of a company you own. It’s not so effective if you are a politician facing an election. But whatever you are, the weaker you are to begin with, and the guiltier you may be, the more protracted the process can become. This is what is known to politicians as twisting in the wind. The public spectacle is embarrassing. Also, it doesn’t matter if a choking man doesn’t apologize, and doesn’t explain. He will die just the same.
In December, Oleg Deripaska was charged in a federal U.S. court with serious business offences. If proved to the satisfaction of the U.S. judge, they could cost him and his company $2.7 billion, Although that would be bad enough, the civil proceeding may trigger a criminal one, with unpleasant personal consequences. At the very least, Deripaska may be unable to visit the United States. At worst, no U.S. company would dare to do business with him.
Deripaska is chief executive of Russian Aluminum, one of Russia’s largest companies, and the second-largest aluminum producer in the world; only Alcoa of the United States is bigger. The business that is the subject of the New York case is the way in which those who control Russia’s aluminum smelters acquired control – and how they organize the export trade of almost 3 million tons of the metal per annum, worth almost $4 billion.
The New York court filing explicitly alleges that Deripaska and his associates used fraud and extortion to drive Mikhail Zhivilo and his associates from control of the Novokuznetsk aluminum smelter in which the latter owned a majority share.
In addition, it is alleged that Zhivilo’s trading companies were deprived of almost $900 million in aluminum sales that they had contracted with the smelter. And finally, it is alleged that Deripaska and the Russian Aluminum group of companies divert the proceeds of their export business to the benefit of the shareholders, in a pattern of bank transfers that violate racketeering and money-laundering laws of the United States.
Because the case has been filed to bring it within the provisions of the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the civil complainant, Zhivilo’s trading group, can ask for treble damages. Hence, the $2.7 billion claim.
From the start, Deripaska understood this was a contest between himself and Zhivilo. Having judged that Zhivilo was guilty at Novokuznetsk of the very same charges that were lodged in the New York court, Deripaska decided to play de Gaulle.
He instructed his chief of public relations, Yevgeny Ivanov; his personal spokesman, Maxim Remchukov, Russian Aluminum’s press office staff; and the public relations agency he engaged in London. And so, for the 10 weeks since the case was filed, Deripaska has said nothing at all, at least nothing in Russia.
Lesser officials have said lesser things. Konstantin Remchukov, the State Duma deputy who accompanies Deripaska on his foreign trips, put his foot in his mouth when he told a Financial Times interviewer that Deripaska’s invitation to the Davos world economic forum had been withdrawn.
Until that moment, Deripaska had been playing the de Gaulle role with panache, especially with a group of European bankers he met ahead of the Financial Times interview.
To the bankers, Deripaska realized he had to explain. To the question of his relationship with Mikhail Cherny, Deripaska said Cherny owned a 20 percent stake in the Sayansk smelter, and had no influence on Russian Aluminum. The bankers did not think to ask for an explanation of Chemy’s statement last November. At the time, Cherny claimed to control 50 percent of Siberian Aluminum, along with Iskander Makhmudov, and to out-vote Deripaska in that company, as well as Russian Aluminum, in which Siberian Aluminum is Sibneft’s equal partner.
To the bankers, Deripaska realized, it was also necessary to say something about the allegations in the New York lawsuit. Accordingly, he said the jurisdiction of the U.S. court was unlikely to be sustained. That hasn’t proved so in a similar RICO claim brought by the same U.S. law firm on behalf of the Russian titanium producer, Avisma/VSMPO. Although that case, filed in 1998, has yet to come to trial, most of the defendants have already settled.
Deripaska also told the bankers that Zhivilo had no standing to make the claim because he had already sold out his stake in the smelter. Subsequently, the purported purchaser, Grigory Luchansky, announced in Moscow that he had bought the shares from Zhivilo, and was thinking of selling them to Deripaska. According to Luchansky, he is also thinking of suing Zhivilo. Zhivilo says he has signed no agreement with Luchansky, and the claim in New York is independent of Luchansky’s allegations. This is the problem of explanations. Once you start, there can be no end to them.
The problem for Deripaska remains. This cannot be solved by dispatching American lawyers to hold press conferences in Moscow without the mandate to answer the fundamental questions on which everything depends, and on which Deripaska now twists. The questions are: What is the shareholding of Siberian Aluminum and Russian Aluminum? How are those shareholders connected to the trading companies in which the receipts for aluminum sales flow?
Until the New York court filing, Deripaska had convinced a great many in the aluminum world that the days of mortal combat were over; and that the trading schemes and shareholder skimming that had made metal company shareholders so wealthy were on their way out.
Conviction on these two scores is essential to the financing Deripaska and Russian Aluminum are looking for from Western banks. Without it, the banks have to worry that shareholders may be pocketing the trade revenue in a fashion that sooner or later exposes them, and the banks, to the type of racketeering and money-laundering charges that have been filed. When bankers worry, they don’t lend money.
Deripaska needs to raise at least $300 million in foreign-bank finance for Russian Aluminum’s operations; another $300 million has already been committed by Sberbank and MDM Bank.
Cash is important, but there should be plenty of that in a company turning over at least $3 billion a year. Reputation is even more important, and that’s why bank willingness to lend to Deripaska is as valuable as the money itself.
I don’t know how much money de Gaulle borrowed from his bankers, if any. I do know that his advice doesn’t suit such transactions. Explain borrowers must, whoever they are.