Russian, Ukrainian tycoons pledge half fortune to charity

Russia's Vladimir Potanin and Ukraine's Victor Pinchuk pledged Tuesday to give half of their fortunes to charity, becoming the first tycoons from ex-Soviet Union to join a global drive by the world's richest people to share their wealth.

Russian industrial magnate Potanin, 52, and Pinchuk, the Ukrainian metals and media tycoon, also 52, said that by joining the Giving Pledge initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett they hoped to inspire other rich people to share their wealth.

Potanin and Pinchuk are among a dozen rich people who joined the initiative on Tuesday, bringing the total to 105, including Indian tycoon Azim Premji and Britain's Richard Branson.

"Giving to good causes is no less fun than making money," Pinchuk told AFP.

By pledging to give at least half of his fortune to charity, Pinchuk said he wanted to send a signal that his philanthropic activities were not a hobby.

"This is my commitment for a lifetime and beyond," he said by phone. "If someone can be inspired to do the same, then this would be right."

Potanin, co-owner and chief executive of Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest palladium and nickel producer, said he hoped others in the country would follow his example.

"I hope my example will inspire people in Russia and other countries and will demonstrate to the world that the Russian traditions of philanthropy are coming back."

He added in a statement released by his charity foundation that he also wanted to protect his children from "burden of the extreme wealth, which may deprive them of any motivation to achieve anything in life on their own."

The Giving Pledge initiative announced in 2010 was launched by Microsoft founder Gates and investment guru Buffet who want to convince the richest people to give 50 percent or more of their fortunes to charity.

Both Potanin and Pinchuk did not say how much they would be committing to charity but the Russian edition of Forbes magazine estimates Potanin to be the fourth-richest Russian with a fortune of $14.5 billion.

Forbes' Ukrainian edition put Pinchuk's wealth at $3.7 billion (2.7-billion-euro), making him Ukraine's second-richest man.

The move by the two men from the former Soviet Union to join the initiative by Gates and Buffett is rare in the countries where oligarchs have preferred to plough money into football sides, opulent real estate and yachts.

According to Forbes, Russia had nearly 100 dollar billionaires as of last year, while there are nine dollar billionaires in Ukraine.

According to a separate list released by Russian magazine CEO this month, the number of billionaires in the country grew by 11 people to 131 now.

That development, observers say, highlights the growing inequality in Russia whose capital city Moscow is often called the world's billionaire capital.

Unlike many of their counterparts, both Potanin and Pinchuk have preferred to be seen spending on cultural and philanthropic enterprises.

Like many others, Potanin built his fortune through the hugely controversial loans-for-shares privatisation deals in the 1990s.

In 1999, he established a foundation with an annual budget of about $10 million to support education, culture and philanthropy.

Pinchuk, a former Soviet engineer who built his fortune in metal pipes business, is married to the daughter of Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's president between 1994 and 2005, and is a proponent of Ukraine joining the European Union.

A prominent patron of the arts, Pinchuk counts former US President Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair among his friends.

A Jew, Pinchuk also supports Jewish communities and worked with Steven Spielberg on a film about the Holocaust in Ukraine.

Other prominent pledgers include Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "Star Wars" director George Lucas and Ted Turner, the founder of the CNN news channel.