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Oleg Deripaska (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Oleg Deripaska (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

At home with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska Add to ...

The event played well in recession-racked Russia, but may have been staged political theatre. There no longer appears to be any friction between the two men. "I believe Russia recognizes Oleg's major role in building a renewed economic base in a broad range of domestic businesses and rejuvenating ailing companies and infrastructure," says Tye Burt, the Kinross Gold chief executive officer in Toronto who knows Mr. Deripaska.

Back from the brink

After a tumultuous two years, Basic Element seems more or less stable in its somewhat diminished form. After a disastrous start on the stock market, Rusal shares are up about 50 per cent in the last six months. Norilsk is worth about $50-billion, putting the value of Rusal's stake at more than $12-billion. Gaz, whose production lines came to a virtual halt during the crisis, is pumping out cars again. "Gaz is producing five times more vehicles than we used to produce during the Soviet Union [era]" Mr. Deripaska says..

The one looming threat, other than double-dip recession, is a nasty legal dispute with Michael Cherney, also known as Mikhail Chernoy, the Uzbekistan-born Israeli businessman and veteran of the aluminum wars who claims Mr. Deripaska cheated him out of a 20-per-cent stake in Rusal.

Mr. Deripaska denies he owes Mr. Cherney anything. He claims he was forced to work with Mr. Cherney and that Mr. Cherney extorted money from him. In 2008, a British judge ruled that Mr. Cherney's claims could be heard in British court. The case is to begin in April, 2012. In the meantime, Interpol is seeking the arrest of Mr. Cherney for alleged money laundering in Spain.

Mr. Deripaska is back in expansion mode and the one area that seems to excite him most, other than preparing Basic Element's Sochi airport and the Olympic village for the 2014 games, is hydroelectric power. EuroSibEnergo, Russia's biggest privately-owned hydro company, which is headed to the Hong Kong stock market next month, is emerging as Basic Element's potential growth champion. "I believe that this company will double its capacity in next 20 to 25 years," he says.

He believes that only hydro and nuclear power can save the planet from a carbon-dioxide fuelled inferno. "Hydro causes a lot less environmental damage that coal," he says. "Look at China; 3.2 billion tonnes of coal burned a year. Massive emissions into the atmosphere, massive ash on the ground."

But what about solar and wind power, and biofuels? Wind and solar are power, he says, will never been more than niche power sources while turning food like corn into fuel like ethanol is "definitely a mistake" because it puts upward pressure on food prices.

Which leaves nuclear and hydro power. The problem with nuclear is the exceedingly long time, sometimes decades, between concept and production. Building hydro plants takes fewer years and, if properly constructed and maintained, can last for centuries.

Enter Hydro-Québec. Basic Element and Hydro-Québec have been holding exploratory talks for several months about forming a technology and construction partnership to develop international power projects, possibly in Latin America. Mr. Deripaska is meeting Hydro-Québec's top executives in Montreal Monday to see if a formal partnership can be launched.

China is his other obsession. Mr. Deripaska doesn't buy the argument that China might be a bubble economy. "They have real demand for everything, for cars, for apartments and kitchen appliances," he says. "I just can't see anything that can stop them from growth. They just need it. It's not like the real estate market in Tokyo. That was artificial."

Russia in general and Basic Element in particular are poised to feed the Chinese tiger with everything from aluminum and hydro-power grids to uranium and rail cars. The potential is vast, he says, and will shift Basic Element's focus to the east, overhauling Russia's economy in the same way that Australia is thriving from its role as China's offshore storehouse of resources wealth. "China's reflection in Australian GDP is 20 per cent," he says. "In Russia, it's still less than 2 per cent."

Rusal, he says, is in a particularly good position to supply China because soaring Chinese energy costs will push down domestic aluminum production (making aluminum requires vast amounts of electricity). Imports will fill the gap. "Over time, I am very optimistic that China will import aluminum and steel," he says. "This will create opportunity for Rusal. Rusal will build another 1.5 million tonnes of capacity and become a six-million-tonne a year company."

The stay-at-home oligarch

Late in the evening, when the lights on the ski hill have been turned off and only the faint outline of trees against the snow is visible, I try to steer the conversation away from business and markets and statistics.

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