MOSCOW — Evgeny Chichvarkin has always stood out. He favors bright yellow T-shirts and funky haircuts, a playful manner and straight talk in a country where Soviet bureaucratic style continues to die an excruciatingly slow death.
Now the flamboyant multimillionaire has become the latest businessman to flee Russia, avoiding charges of kidnapping that his lawyer and friends insist are motivated by corrupt interests.
A Moscow court on Wednesday officially issued an arrest warrant for Chichvarkin, who flew to London last month as prosecutors ramped up their case against him. He left for London on vacation; his family joined him soon after. Russia has also appealed for an international arrest warrant from Interpol.
"We've decided he should stay abroad," said Vladimir Zherebenkov, one of Chichvarkin's Moscow-based lawyers. "The state our prisons are in, there's no way he could sit there. And it's easier to fight from outside."
Chichvarkin is the founder of Yevroset, Russia's biggest and most successful mobile phone retailer, founded in 1997.
Chichvarkin, 34, joins a growing circle of London-based Russians who have fled their country for fear of political persecution or campaigns against their businesses. Sometimes the Kremlin is involved, sometimes it isn't.
Chichvarkin's case appears to be one of revenge, said Boris Titov, co-chairman of Right Cause, a new political party that counts Chichvarkin among its high-profile members.
Things began going awry in September of last year, when two former Yevroset officials were arrested on charges of smuggling, kidnapping and extortion that dated to 2003. Prosecutors said the men had been punishing another former employee, Andrei Vlaskin, who had been charged with seizing a huge shipment of Motorola telephones at customs and then selling the stolen goods. He avoided prison with a 20 million ruble fine ($600,000).
The revival of the case in September was met with shock in Moscow, where it was widely seen as a means of putting pressure on Chichvarkin's successful business.
The technique has its own term in Russia. It is known as "raiding." Let's say someone has an eye on your business. They pay some cops or tax police to start a case against your company. The pressure mounts, and you are made to understand all charges will disappear once you sell — often for well below value.
In the weeks following the scandal, Chichvarkin sold his firm to billionaire Alexander Mamut for $400 million in cash plus $850 million in debt.
Observers thought that with the deal done, the pressure on Chichvarkin would subside. But now, prosecutors accuse Chichvarkin of having organized the kidnapping of Vlaskin more than five years ago.
As usual in Russia, rumors are swirling about why Chichvarkin was targeted. Does someone else have their eye on the business? Was someone unhappy with Chichvarkin's involvement in Right Cause, the new political party that is pro-business but has the Kremlin's blessing? Now that the financial crisis has struck and retail in Russia is suffering, was the deal too expensive?
Titov, of Right Cause, sees it as a case of revenge. "The fact that they didn't look into this case before means something is wrong," he said.
Titov said he believes that a number of police who were arrested in the smuggled phone case and spent time in pre-trial detention before the case was dismissed are trying to pay Chichvarkin back.
"They're trying to punish him and maybe get something from him," he said.
Chichvarkin's lawyers are challenging the warrant, arguing that the investigation against him has been laden with procedural violations. Zherebenkov, one of the lawyers, said they even plan to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
"It's all motivated by politics and economics," Zherebenkov said. "Regarding why the case was opened? There are many, many possibilities."
Chichvarkin left for a London vacation Dec. 22, with the blessing of prosecutors, Zherebenkov said. One hour later, investigators arrived at his home to issue the millionaire with an arrest warrant. Chichvarkin's wife and son have now joined him in London.
London is already home to Boris Berezovsky, who accuses Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of chasing him out. In the summer of 2007, Vladimir Gutseriyev, the former head of Russneft, Russia's seventh largest oil company, also fled to London, publicly accusing the authorities of launching a campaign of tax charges against his firm in a bid to get him to sell.
For those who resist, the situation can be dire. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos, once Russia's largest oil firm, remains in a Siberian prison six years after he was first arrested for suspected fraud and tax evasion. The bulk of the firm's assets now belong to Rosneft, Russia's state-run oil company.
Chichvarkin has remained unusually quiet since his flight. He doesn't answer his mobile phone, and friends said he is busy looking into schools for his 10-year-old son. It's possible that Russia has lost one of its brightest young entrepreneurs, and gained another critic based abroad.
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