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Gutseriyev Case Is Closed, But His Return Is in Doubt

The last two charges in a controversial case against billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev were closed Friday, but political analysts said it remained an open question whether he would return from the safety of London any time soon.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, Irina Dudukina, told reporters that charges of illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering brought against Gutseriyev in 2007 had been dropped because there was no evidence of a crime.

Dudukina also noted that the case was closed because of recent changes to the Criminal Code initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev. Last month, he signed a package of Kremlin-drafted amendments making it more difficult for investigators to accuse businessmen of illegal entrepreneurship and money laundering.

The charges were among those most commonly used by law enforcement to jail entrepreneurs in hopes of extorting money or settling a business conflict.

Gutseriyev could not be reached for comment Friday.

The founder and former head of oil company Russneft fled the country in 2007 after the Prosecutor General's Office accused him of tax evasion, fraud and license violations.

The charges were widely seen as punishment orchestrated by the siloviki — as security, defense and law enforcement officials are known — for snatching up some Yukos assets before state-run Rosneft could take them.

Before leaving the county, he managed to sell Russneft to companies linked to Kremlin-friendly tycoon Oleg Deripaska for $3 billion, although the deal never received required approval from anti-monopoly and foreign investment bodies.

Unlike other self-exiled businessmen hiding from the Russian law, Gutseriyev has maintained a low profile since arriving in London and has not continued his criticism of the state.

The tactics seem to have paid off. Last year, the tax charges were dropped and Russian authorities removed him from international wanted lists. No official reason was given, but it was widely believed that the Kremlin was considering recruiting Gutseriyev to help with the economic development of his native Ingushetia.

The failing republic suffers from massive unemployment and violence, including a nearly successful assassination attempt on the corruption-fighting local president, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

Still, prosecutors said Gutseriyev remained wanted on the illegal entrepreneurship and money-laundering charges. Russian Newsweek reported earlier this month, citing an unidentified source close to Gutseriyev, that the tycoon recently tested the soil in Russia by sending his empty jet to Moscow.

The aircraft was met by police commandos at an airport, the source said.

In January, Gutseriyev recovered Russneft from Deripaska, paying either nothing or $600,000 for the debt-burdened company, according to varying Russian media reports. In late March, Vladimir Yevtushenkov's Sistema holding signed a tentative agreement with Gutseriyev to purchase 49 percent of the company.

Under the deal, which has yet to be finalized, Gutseriyev would retain operational control over Russneft, which was Russia's seventh-largest oil producer by output last year. Yevtushenkov has been buying up oil assets, most notably Bashneft, Russia's eighth-largest producer last year.

Yevtushenkov has said he will not seek more than 49 percent in Russneft until the company's debt problems are resolved.

While Friday's decision to drop the charges clears the final legal hurdle for Gutseriyev's return, it is unlikely that he will hop on a plane for Moscow any time soon, political analysts said.

Mikhail Delyagin, head of the Institute of Globalization Problems, attributed the change to the growing power of Medvedev's clan within the government rather than a broader effort to build stronger partnerships with business.

"Gutseriyev has proved to be a tough man, and his return may instill fear into quite a few senior siloviki," he said, referring to Gutseriyev's crucial role in returning hostages held by the Chechen separatists in the 1990s.

But announcement would not prevent siloviki from arresting Gutseriyev the minute he comes to Russia, after which they could easily come with new charges, Delyagin said.

Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said part of the country's ruling elite, embodied now in Medvedev, wants to stop the government from treating business as a cash cow that can be made to pay for anything.

"Two years ago, it would not be possible to imagine what happened now with Gutseriyev. Under then-President Putin, the government would not make any concessions to business," she said.

Even though the decision in the Gutseriyev case was made at the top of the government, it does not mean that the Kremlin will bother to follow this line to the very end or give any security guarantees to the billionaire if he returns, Stanovaya said.

Nikolai Silayev, a Caucasus expert with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said the government's need for Gutseriyev's help in Ingushetia should not be overestimated.

"It is obvious to everyone in the government and to Gutseriyev himself that as long as corruption and bad governance reign there, the arrival of a single businessman, even as big and tough as Gutseriyev, will not change much in Ingushetia," Silayev said.

Many analysts had speculated that the final charges would be dropped so that Gutseriyev could lend his local authority to Yevkurov's struggling reform drive.

In January, Medvedev tapped businessman and then-Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Khloponin to lead a newly formed North Caucasus Federal District. The former Norilsk Nickel chief was simultaneously promoted to deputy prime minister, giving him broad authority to encourage political and economic reforms in the region.

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