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Russian businessmen dare to raise voices over Ukraine crisis

Source: Reuters - Thu, 21 Aug 2014 16:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Businessmen urge peaceful resolution to Ukraine conflict

* Russian business normally loath to speak

* Signatories risk wrath of President Putin

By Jason Bush and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW, Aug 21 (Reuters) - A letter signed by five Russian businessmen, along with Ukrainian and Western ones, betrays unease in Russia's business community over the damage being caused to East-West relations by Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis.

Organised by British tycoon Richard Branson, who was among its 16 signatories, the open letter calls on the governments of the West, Russia and Ukraine "to compromise and find a peaceful solution to the current conflict" and "to work together to ensure we don't regress into the Cold War misery of the past."

Other signatories included the CEO of Anglo-Dutch consumer giant Unilever, Paul Polman, and leading Ukrainian industrialist Viktor Pinchuk. But it is the letter's Russian signatories who have perhaps made the bravest statement.

They are Dennis Ludkovsky, chief executive of Svyaznoy, one of Russia's largest mobile phone retailers; Maxim Ivanov, founder of retailer Foodline Group; Arkady Novikov, founder of several fashionable restaurants; Sergei Petrov, founder of Rolf Group, a leading car dealer; and business lobbyist Igor Yurgens.

Branson has said in interviews that he approached nearly 100 Russian business people. Only five signed the letter.

The unwillingness of others to join them pointed to the extreme reluctance of Russian businessmen to comment publicly on all political issues - especially sensitive ones that are close to the heart of President Vladimir Putin.

But the fact that some signed the letter nonetheless also illustrates the festering disquiet over a crisis that is already inflicting huge damage on Russia's economy because of Western sanctions imposed over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and alleged support - denied by Moscow - of pro-Russian separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.

"I don't think that I can speak on behalf of the whole Russian business community," said Yurgens, one of the Russian signatories. "But the people whom I know are very concerned."

"Let's see what happens," he said, adding that the signatories' views also enjoy the sympathy of some business heavyweights. "We have some instruments to move this initiative forward."

Notably absent from the letter were any representatives of Russia's corporate giants in the state-dominated banking and energy sectors - even though they in particular have been at the sharp end of Western sanctions.

Since the arrest in 2003 of then-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin opponent who was released only at the end of last year, most of Russia's "oligarchs" have been careful to steer clear of political involvement.

NECKS STUCK OUT

Worries about the impact of the Ukraine crisis on business were heightened by the decision of Russia's food safety watchdog to investigate dozens of McDonald's restaurants over what it called sanitary breaches.

The entrepreneurs' letter is cautiously phrased and careful not to blame any one side for the turmoil in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Russian signatories may be sticking their necks out by challenging their government's official line.

While Moscow has always denied that it is a party to the conflict - limiting its ability to resolve it - the letter refers from the outset to the "Russia-Ukraine conflict".

"In essence this is a Ukraine-Russia showdown, no matter who tells us what," said Yurgens, who signed the letter in his capacity as President of the All-Russian Insurance Association.

He said that Putin, along with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, needed to find a solution between them. "Putin cannot do it alone, but both of them can announce a ceasefire."

Yurgens warned that the longer the conflict drags on, the greater the risks of an economic collapse in Ukraine, like Russia a former Soviet republic, that would harm both Russian and global business.

Ludkovsky, another of Russia's signatories, was at pains to distance his role in signing the letter from his company.

"In fact I am not looking at this from the point of view of business," he said. "I am looking at this from the point of view of living in a country which I want to be proud of, and in a world where I want to raise my children.

"I love my Motherland, and I also have a good attitude towards America and Europe," he continued. "And I don't want relations between these countries to be ruined forever."

Similar opinions were expressed by Foodline Group's Ivanov. "I don't think we should be silent. We are calling on politicians to reach agreement as we are drifting towards a new Cold War," he told the Russian newspaper RBC Daily.

Significantly, all the Russian signatories came from fast-expanding service sectors which have thrived since the end of the Cold War, but which are still a long way from dominating the Russian economy as do the banking and energy sectors. (Reporting by Jason Bush and Maria Kiselyova)

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