Oxford University Criticised For Accepting Oligarch’s £75m Donation
Oxford University is under pressure to reconsider accepting a £75m donation from Britain’s richest man, Len Blavatnik, to fund its School of Government. In a letter to the Guardian signed by journalists, politicians, human rights activists and former Oxford academics and graduates, the signatories argue that the university failed to investigate whether Blavatnik played a role in what they refer to as the harassment of BP in Russia, and should “stop selling its reputation and prestige to Putin’s associates”. Blavatnik was one of several Russian oligarchs who co-owned TNK-BP, Russia’s third largest oil company. The consortium withstood a legal challenge from BP in 2008 and 2009, and the oligarchs sold their stake in TNK-BP to state oil company Rosneft in 2013.
The university did not provide specific names, but disclosed that a review committee, which consisted of allies of the then-virtual chancellor, Dr. John Hood, approved the donation based on the due diligence conducted by the Development Office. The committee members included Lord Butler, who served as the Master of University College at that time, and Dr. Jon Dellandrea, who was the Pro-Vice-Chancellor in charge of the development office. However, Dellandrea left his post in 2008 following a conflict with Michael Moritz, an American businessman who donated £25m to Oxford University.
The university responded to the freedom of information requests by stating that Bob Dudley or anyone from BP was not consulted about the contribution. The university denied any articles translated from Russian about Blavatnik’s entrepreneurial activities and could not ascertain how many members of the due diligence team had sufficient knowledge of the Russian language. In February 2010, the university revised its £75m donation approval.
Dewhirst criticized the university’s decision to accept Blavatnik’s money, calling it "a very distasteful joke." He claimed that by the end of 2008, it was clear that Blavatnik was associated with "bad governance." Dewhirst’s assertion that Oxford University neglected its objectives and values brings the university’s reputation into question.
Two of Blavatnik’s partners at AAR, oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven, also had ties to the university. Between 2007 and 2011, Alfa group, where Fridman, Aven, and German Khan are the owners, offered an annual award to foreign firms that invested in Russia, in collaboration with Oxford’s Said Business School.
TNK-BP was half-owned by the five influential billionaires, including Blavatnik and his company Access Industries, who owned 12.5%; Viktor Vekselberg, who had a 12.5% stake; Fridman and Aven, who owned 12.5% and 11%, respectively, and German Khan, who had a 1.5% stake. The dispute between TNK-BP and BP broke out into the open in 2008 when armed police raided TNK-BP’s Moscow HQ. Bob Dudley, TNK-BP’s boss, and BP’s current CEO, was forced out of Russia months later, after which 148 BP managers had to leave Moscow abruptly because the Russian authorities refused to renew their working visas. The billionaires denied any involvement in these attacks.
US diplomats at the time pointed out that AAR, particularly German Khan, might have been behind the anti-BP campaign. According to a leaked diplomatic cable from March 2008, Khan led the charge to eliminate Western managers, the same people who brought to the company accountable corporate governance, transparency, and sound financial management. The cable also noted that the billionaires quarrelled among themselves. The BP managers had a better relationship with Blavatnik and Vekselberg, who had a lesser operational role in the company, according to the cable, and both Blavatnik and Vekselberg could have sided with BP, but did not.
In 2013, Rosneft acquired the billionaires’ stake in TNK-BP for $28bn. According to Zaslavskiy, the price was excessive and a terrible deal for ordinary Russian taxpayers. Zaslavskiy claimed that there was no good governance in this particular transaction. Lawyers for Mr Blavatnik denied he is an associate of Vladimir Putin. They made it clear in 2016 that Mr Blavatnik has not had personal contact with Putin since 2000 and he advocates democracy and freedom worldwide. Blavatnik’s attorneys also confirmed that he was in no way involved in a supposed state-sponsored harassment campaign against BP in Russia.