Sergei Guriev, a liberal economist who fled Russia after being interrogated by police in April, was re-elected to the supervisory board of state-owned Sberbank on Friday, underscoring the strong support for him in Russia’s liberal business and political circles.
Mr Guriev received the most votes from Sberbank shareholders – 22.7bn out of a possible total of 367bn. This was even more than for the bank’s chairman.
The result comes a day after the economist began detailing the pressure he had been under from Russian law enforcement officers as they questioned him as a witness in a criminal case.
In April, investigators interrogated him and seized five years of his email correspondence, apparently seeking information about testimony he gave in defence of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a 2010 trial. Mr Khodorkovsky has been in prison since 2003 – widely viewed as political retribution for challenging President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Guriev’s links to opposition figures are thought to be the main reason that he has invited the attention of Russia’s law enforcement agencies, who have been cracking down on dissidents since Mr Putin began a third presidential term in May 2012.
Mr Guriev told Ekho Moskvy radio on Thursday that he made the decision to leave after Mr Putin had made known that he would not interfere with the investigation against him.
“I respect that position. I think not in every case should one be asking the president of the country to intervene,” he said. “But on the other hand, I have a preference for living in a country where I am not threatened.”
He added that he did not foresee returning home in the near future: “I don’t see in what way there could be guarantees that I would not lose my freedom.”
German Gref, Sberbank’s chairman, said the bank would seek to have Mr Guriev serve on its supervisory board from abroad, despite the fact the economist had submitted a letter of resignation after voting was already under way.
“Sergei [Guriev] is a very effective person,” said Mr Gref. “He is very professional, very tough and does not compromise. I really hope that we have not lost him.
“Anything is possible – I hope that he will continue to work with us, and the circumstances that led him to take this decision [to resign] are not final.”
Mr Gref said Mr Guriev had already received 6 per cent of the total vote when he sent his resignation letter, and would therefore be elected to the board and allowed to participate in meetings from abroad, possibly via teleconference. Candidates must resign 70 days in advance of the annual shareholders’ meeting, while Mr Guriev submitted his letter only two days beforehand.
Reached in France, Mr Guriev said he would continue to serve on Sberbank’s board if the group’s lawyers and the market regulator allowed it. “I am grateful to all who voted for me and will do my best to serve the shareholders interests,” he told the Financial Times.
The central bank, which owns a 50 per cent plus one share stake in Sberbank, did not vote for Mr Guriev, central bank chairman Sergei Ignatiev said on Friday.
Mr Guriev was elected to the supervisory board alongside Mr Gref, former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and Mr Ignatiev, as well as Alexei Ulyukaev, the deputy central bank head who has been tipped to be Russia’s next economy minister.