Did Oleg Deripaska Really Order the Murder of a Journalist?

helmer011210.jpgI first saw the news come across my alerts around the New Year that three men had been arrested by the Russian police for the attempted murder of the journalist John Helmer.  The story was broken on Jan. 2 by a South African outlet called TIMES Live, but because details were sketchy and I had never heard of the news outlet, it slipped past me.

Though it has taken a couple of weeks, the news of the attempted hit on Helmer and new allegations that Rusal and Oleg Deripaska were behind it, have gone viral.  On Jan. 9th, the Australian (where Helmer is originally from) published a new angle, which indicated that the attack was averted only because the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs shared intel with the journalist that the hit was coming his way.  The Australian article got picked up by Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger over the weekend (who probably has interest in the news as related to NJ Nets buyer Mikhail Prokhorov), and since then the it has been picked up by the highly visible political blogger Matt Taibi, an old friend of Helmer.

A few questions come up.  What exactly did Helmer write about Deripaska and Rusal to provoke such an alleged assassination plot?  Could this come at a worse time for the billionaire, right when the WSJ is slagging him, and company fends of “misconceptions” before the debut of its $2.6 billion Hong Kong IPO?  It doesn’t really make sense.

Like many other Russia news junkies, I’ve been a frequent reader of Helmer’s columns and blog postingsfor many years, which although are meticulously detailed for a very small niche audience, I often find the antagonistic editorial tone to be a bit of a turn off.  He reserves his sharpest criticism for the business elites, and as aknowledgeable reporter on mining and energy industries, he appears tohave cultivated some deep sources with good information, distilledthrough a New York Post-style sensationalist humor (he calls DmitryMedvedev “Captain Oblivious,” though he is much gentler with Deripaska’s main business partner, Vladimir Putin). 

He wasn’t exactly the human rights crusading type like Anna Politkovskaya, involved in the Caucasus like Magomed Yevloyev, or even a defense expert like Ivan Safronov, but as we saw from the murder of Paul Klebnikov, reporting on business is just as dangerous as the above mentioned beats.  Really, unless you are working for the state news service, there’s no such thing as a safe journalist in Russia.

According to the news reports, three armed men with forged credentials were arrested outside of Helmer’s home by police around Dec. 29, 2009 (the exact date is still unclear to me).  The hitmen look as though they were clumsy and unprofessional.  They were apparently carrying a photo of Helmer, a hand-drawn assassination plan, and a print out map of his home office which even had the word “Rusal” written in the upper right hand corner.  Upon interrogation by the police, the would-be killers confessed that they had been sent on the job by a subsidiary of Rusal.

The only problem is that all of this information comes only from Helmer himself, who has posted a photographed image of the dossier they were carrying to his website, which he was allowed to take when he visited the police station.  I guess he was also allowed to attend the interrogation of the suspects?  All I am saying is that it would be good to see the police go on record or some other third party statements on the incident.

Helmer reported intensively and critically on the topic of Rusal and Deripaska, so it would be hard to identify any one single article which would have set somebody off.  Most recently, however, on Dec. 17th, about two weeks before the assassination attempt, Helmer published an article titled “Deripaska Loses UK Court Appeal” in the Asia Times Online, commenting on the longstanding lawsuit by U.K.-based Michael Cherney over his alleged ownership of 13% of Rusal, which could of course dramatically change the Hong Kong IPO.  In the article, Helmer goes right after all the financial institutions which have accepted Deripaska’s presentation of the company’s ownership structure, though it has been rejected by the London courts:

These banks, including those listed as underwriters for the Hong Kong sharesale – Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas, and Bank of China International Holdings -are now placing themselves in the position of making unsubstantiated warrantiesin Rusal’s Hong Kong share prospectus that are the subject of an imminentinternational trial. Goldman Sachs reportedly withdrew from the IPO underwriterlist in November.

Because of the Cherney lawsuit, the $16.8 billion in debt, and the perpetual risk of being nationalized by the Russian government (which probably wasn’t helped much by the Pikalyovo scolding), the buyers were running away from the Rusal flotation “at any price,” writes Helmer, until suddenly the state-owned banks Vnesheconombank (chaired by Vladimir Putin) and Sberbank promised to buy 3% of the offering at $670 million, which helped support the company’s murky valuation at $22 billion.  Helmer also speculated that nobody really knows who controls Rusal, especially after Deripaska negotiated quick and easy credits for such a staggering amount of debt.

Here’s why the story is still so weird.  So if nobody knows who controls Rusal at this point, or if the company is actually under the executive stewardship of the Kremlin at this point, than how can we be so sure that they were the ones behind this bumbling assassination job?  Why wouldn’t such a wealthy business group have paid off the federal security service and local police with bribes like they did in the Politkovskaya job?  There seemed to be a suspiciously high level of evidence available to pin this on the company … I mean seriously, who goes out to do something like that and carries a dossier with the company’s name on it??  Furthermore, could the timing have been any worse?

Something just doesn’t quite add up here, and perhaps it is just the fact that we have gotten so used to murdered journalists in Russia, that this one foiled attempt didn’t even make the headlines for several weeks.