The Russian billionaire daring to speak out about Putin

By Michael Race
Business reporter, BBC News

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Image source, Getty Images

Boris Mints is one of a few rich Russian businesspeople to speak out against Russia's invasion of Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin.

The majority of high-profile people in the country have remained silent over the war, avoiding criticism of the Kremlin.

There is one simple explanation, according to Mr Mints: "They are all afraid."

The Kremlin has a reputation for cracking down on outspoken critics of President Putin with the content on Russian news channels controlled. Unauthorised protests have also been banned in the country since 2014.

Mr Mints said "any person" who openly criticises Putin "has grounds to worry about personal safety".

However, in an interview conducted over email, he told the BBC: "I have no intention to live in a bomb shelter, as Mr Putin does."

The 64-year-old, who built his wealth through investment company O1 Group, which he founded in 2003 and then sold in 2018, said that in Russia the "usual way" to punish a business owner for their "intolerance" towards the regime was to "open a fabricated criminal case against their business".

"Such criminal cases will affect not only the business owners themselves, but also their family and employees," he said.

"Any business leader independent from [Putin] is seen as a threat as he or she may be capable of financing opposition or cultivating protest - as such, those people are seen as Putin's enemies and, therefore, as enemies of the state," he added.

'Inevitable imprisonment'

It is a situation Mr Mints has first-hand experience of, having first spoken out publicly against President Putin's policies in 2014 after Crimea was annexed from Ukraine.

Mr Mints felt he needed to leave Russia in 2015 for the UK "in the context of growing crackdown on political opposition", with Boris Nemtsov being shot dead that year.

Mr Nemtsov was a fierce adversary of President Putin. His murder in 2015 is the highest-profile political killing since Mr Putin came to power. The authorities deny any involvement.

Two years later, Mr Mints' former investment company O1 Group "found itself in an open conflict against Central Bank of Russia", he said, with legal proceedings starting across several different jurisdictions.

"When things like this start to happen, it is a clear signal that one should leave the country immediately," he said.

He remains the subject of current legal action by the Kremlin.

It is because of such action that Mr Mints suggests the "bravest step available" for wealthy Russians who dislike Mr Putin is to "go silently into exile", citing the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia's wealthiest man, but was jailed for almost a decade on charges of fraud and tax evasion which, he says, were politically motivated.

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Image caption,
Boris Mints worked for Boris Yeltsin's (right) government, but was sacked by Vladimir Putin (left) days into his tenure

Two of the country's most prominent oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska stopped short of direct criticism of Mr Putin when they made separate calls for peace in Ukraine.

Mr Mints called President Putin's actions "vile", saying the invasion was "the most tragic event in recent history, not only of Ukraine and Russia, but globally".

He also compared it to Adolf Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939.

"This war is a result of madness and hunger for power of a single person, Vladimir Putin, supported by his inner circle," said Mr Mints, who was chairman of one of the largest pension asset managers in Russia until 2018.

The BBC has contacted the Kremlin for comment.

'Sacked the day after we met'

Mr Mints was first introduced to Mr Putin in the early 1990s but only properly spoke with him on 2 January 2000, two days after Mr Putin was appointed acting president of Russia.

Mr Mints, who worked under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, was keen to discuss his plans to reform local government to grow Russia's democracy into the 21st Century.

"Mr Putin listened to my suggestions without commenting or arguing. The following day, Putin sacked me," he said.

He knew then that Mr Putin's vision for his country was "miles away" from the previous administration's.

Leaving politics, Mr Mints started a stock brokerage for individual clients three years later.

Mr Mints has not been sanctioned by the UK government, unlike other Russian businessmen who have been identified as having close links to the Kremlin.

However, his name did appear on a so-called "Putin list" released by the US in 2018. Out of 210 names, 114 of them were listed as being in the government or linked to it, or key businessmen.

The other 96, which included Mr Mints, were listed as oligarchs apparently determined more by the fact they were worth more than $1bn (£710m) at the time, rather than their close ties to the Kremlin.

The father-of-four made Forbes' world billionaires list in 2017 with a total wealth of $1.3bn, before he dropped off in 2018.

Image source, BMI
Image caption,
Boris Mints has criticised his country's invasion of Ukraine

But he dismissed suggestions that he was an oligarch.

"Not every Russian entrepreneur is pro-Putin, and likewise neither is every wealthy Russian person an 'oligarch'," he said. "In Russia, the term means a business leader who is very connected to Putin and most of whose wealth, or the profits of their businesses, depend on co-operation with the Russian state.

"Russia is not only an oilfield with an aluminium mine in the centre," he added. "It is a country of 140 million people. People there as everywhere else have their needs and these needs are not at all different from those here in the West."

Now living in the UK, Mr Mints, a keen art collector, feels comfortable without the need for extra security to keep himself and his family safe in Britain, and has no current ambition to move back to Russia.