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Russian billionaire club sheds two thirds of members

RUSSIA'S economic slowdown has shredded the net worth of its richest people by more than 70 percent in the last year and slashed membership of its billionaires club by two thirds.

Mikhail Prokhorov, despite losing US$13.1 billion, topped the annual rich list published today by the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. The mining tycoon's US$9.5 billion fortune made him US$1 billion richer than second-placed Roman Abramovich.

"The crisis has affected everyone: financiers and developers, metallurgists and oil men, consumer goods producers and sellers and the owners of diversified holdings," Forbes said in an editorial accompanying the list.

"Not a single entrepreneur is in a better position than a year ago."

Russia is facing its first recession in a decade after growing accustomed to commodity-fuelled growth. Stock markets have tumbled by over two thirds since peaking last May and the rouble has lost a third of its value against the dollar.

Russian businessmen who borrowed heavily when money was cheap are battling to restructure their share of the US$130 billion in corporate debt due to mature this year, a task made harder when the state halted bailouts to plug a budget deficit.

Hardest hit has been Oleg Deripaska, whose US$25.1 billion loss was equivalent to about a quarter of the cumulative losses of Russia's 10 richest men. The aluminium tycoon dropped to 10th on the Forbes list after topping last year's rankings.

Alexei Mordashov, owner of steel maker Severstal, also lost more than US$20 billion to drop to seventh from second.

The net worth of Russia's 100 richest people is US$142 billion, down from US$520 billion a year ago, Forbes said. The number of billionaires dropped to 32 from 110.

And while a billion-dollar fortune was not enough to guarantee a place in last year's top 100, a net worth of US$400 million would secure a position in the latest rankings.


Prokhorov, 43, is unique among Russia's super-rich in having sold key assets prior to the market's collapse. Now unencumbered by the debts that plague his peers, he told Reuters in November that he saw the crisis coming.

"Who has suffered least from the crisis? He who has succeeded in selling his business before the crisis and tackled it with all guns blazing -- that is, with cash," Forbes said.

Prokhorov, a kickboxing enthusiast who stands two metres tall, may not be so impressed by his new ranking. "I never think about this bullshit," he told Reuters in the interview.

Oil and steel company owners, despite a collapse in commodity prices in the second half of the year, retained their grip on the top end of the Forbes rankings. Vagit Alekperov, the 58-year-old president of Russia's largest private oil company, LUKOIL, rose to third on the list with a fortune of US$7.8 billion, only US$6.5 billion less than a year ago.

His vice-president, Leonid Fedun, joined him in the top 10 atfer limiting losses to US$2.7 billion. TNK-BP shareholders Mikhail Fridman and German Khan also featured.

From the steel sector, in addition to Mordashov, Novolipetsk Steel owner Vladimir Lisin and Evraz Group shareholder Alexander Abramov were among the top 10.

The only woman on the list is Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was ranked 34th after her fortune -- acquired largely in the construction business -- fell to US$900 million from US$4.2 billion a year ago.


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