Prince Kentski, a 320,000 gift from an oligarch… and talk of him becoming Russia's new Tsar
01:00 GMT, 19 May 2012
The occasion is bound to follow the traditional path of kisses and handshakes.
But the 70th birthday in six weeks’ time of Prince Michael of Kent is the object of a mischievous new guessing game in London’s smarter drawing rooms: just who will be sending him presents
The revelation this week that, for six years until 2008, he was receiving what one close friend describes as a ‘stipend’ from colourful London-based Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky was embarrassing enough.
But it has inevitably provoked the question: was Berezovsky, who gave him 320,000 ‘as a friend’ in 56 separate transactions from offshore accounts, the only rich Russian supporting our pauper prince, who receives nothing in the Civil List
Frequent flyer: Prince Michael of Kent In Moscow, where he has links to Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky
Intriguingly, Prince Michael, who has visited Russia more than 50 times in the past 20 years, and rubbed shoulders with some of their most controversial oligarchs, declined to say this week.
Nor would he comment on Berezovsky’s version of events, in which he told a Russian radio station that the prince asked for help.
‘I have known him since the mid-Nineties,’ Berezovsky told Kommersant radio, a business station owned by another oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, who also owns a large slice of Arsenal football club.
‘He is my friend,’ Berezovsky said of the prince. ‘I cannot say we see each other every day, but previously we met quite often. And he turned to me asking for help. I was glad to provide this help for him.’
The arrangement was kept secret because the money was paid through a company run by the prince’s private secretary, Old Etonian former soldier Nicholas Chance.
In Britain, the disclosure is viewed in royal circles as an unfortunate and awkward episode so close to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but hardly one to damage the Queen’s fondness for her first cousin.
She has helped him out liberally over the years, notably paying his 120,000-a-year rent to live at Kensington Palace.
But in Russia Michael’s carefully cultivated popularity has taken something of a beating.
‘Prince Michael For Rent’ ran one headline. Another article talked of Berezovsky ‘feeding up’ the prince, and yet another took the opportunity to mock the Royal Family for ‘going through rough times’.
In Russia, of course, buying influence close to the centre of power is the rule rather than the exception.
Both Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich and Berezovsky openly said so in their recent London court clash over disputed shares worth 3.5 billion, on which judgment is expected soon.
Everyone in Russia recognises that Prince Michael has no real power, but his lineage from the Tsars has given him enormous cachet, and his striking resemblance to his ancestor Nicholas II — his grandmother’s cousin — has made him an iconic figure. Added to which, he is a fluent Russian speaker.
At a glamorous ball in St Petersburg during Vladimir Putin’s earlier spell in office, the president rose from his seat and pointedly strode across to the table where Prince Michael was sitting with others.
The president smilingly extended his hand, and the prince rose to shake it. This was more than a courteous gesture.
Putin, the inheritor of the Tsar’s despotic power, was tapping into the deep nostalgia that many Russians still feel for the murdered Romanovs, whose blood runs in Michael’s veins.
As recently as 2005 the distinguished political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky floated the idea of ‘Kentski’ — as the prince is known there — being placed on a dusted-down throne which would remain above the country’s tempestuous and corrupt politics, rather like our own.
Russian look: The glamorous Princess of Kent attending a charity dinner
This throws up a glorious image of an imperious ‘Tsarina’ Marie-Christine, Michael’s statuesque Czech-born wife, who has European royal ancestry and is said to see herself as ‘more royal than the royals’.
Although the prince has admitted they spend ‘a lot of time apart’ and each has faced unsubstantiated rumours of affairs, Princess
Michael, 67, sometimes accompanies him to Russia.
The prince has acknowledged he has ‘Russian blood in me and great empathy with the Russian people’. But he describes talk of a resurrected throne as ‘very hypothetical . . . even if the monarchy was restored, there are others with better claims than I have.’
Nonetheless, it is hardly surprising that Russia’s aggressively competitive businessmen have yearned to harness Michael’s unique status, so there have been countless business opportunities for the prince.
He has for years — with the Queen’s blessing — had his own company, Cantium Services, offering international commercial advice. It has never done very well, however. Last year’s profit was a mere 69,000.
Bulmer Investments, on the other hand, the similar company run by his private secretary Nicholas Chance, with his wife Anne as fellow director and their Fulham home as its registered address, has done rather better. The company, to which Berezovsky paid the money for the prince, made a profit of 601,000 last year.
Yet the Prince has never wavered from a firm insistence that his links with Russia are spiritual and emotional, but never financial.
Nevertheless, one of his early friends there in the Nineties was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that time Russian’s richest man, whose contribution to the restoration of Somerset House in London led to a room being named after him.
In the summer of 2001, Khodorkovsky was trying to distance himself from the seamier side of Russian business and denying U.S. Congressional claims that he was engaged in ‘an elaborate scheme to launder billions of dollars’.
At around this time, the prince invited a handful of prominent journalists from Britain and the U.S. to join him on a champagne-fuelled trip by private jet around Russia.
Battle: Boris Berezovsky appearing at the High court in London for his dispute with Roman Abramovitch
He took them to an oilfield owned by Khodorkovsky’s Yukos company, which later merged with Abramovich’s Sibneft oil firm.
The prince told his media guests he had to thank Yukos for the ‘great treat’ of the visit — waspishly known to Moscow correspondents as the ‘plane of shame’.
But the purpose of the trip He explained: ‘My aim . . . was this: I’ve often felt that the way the media report things Russian can be unhelpful, even negative. So I thought we could do something to put this right.’
Yukos joyously posted his words on their website. But when a British newspaper suggested the prince had a ‘business link’ to Khodorkovsky, it was made to apologise in the High Court. The prince had led the trip to help Russia, not himself.
His private secretary Nicholas Chance told London’s Evening Standard at the time: ‘There are completely and utterly no business reasons . . . there is no payment whatsoever.
It is somehow impossible to make people understand that his commitment to Russia is that he passionately believes in its people.’
It is presumably a source of distress for the prince that Khodorkovsky is now serving nine years in Moscow for a variety of charges, all of which he claims are trumped up.
But, of course, Khodorkovsky is not the only very rich Russian with whom Michael is on excellent terms. In 2002, Berezovsky — who had by then fallen out with Putin and become an enemy of the Kremlin — arrived in Britain.
Within months, he had set up the financial arrangement to help the prince, which emerged only this week.
A year, later Berezovsky was granted political asylum. Since then British authorities have refused requests for him to be extradited to Russia where, in absentia, he has been convicted on fraud charges, which he claims were politically motivated and trumped up.
So just how close was this friendship between the prince and Berezovsky
‘Very close,’ according to a mutual friend. ‘Boris was typical of wealthy Russians who come to London and want to replicate the influence they enjoyed at home, especially being well-connected with people at the top — they see the royals in this context.
Sued: Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich was taken to court by Berezovsky over shares in oil company Sibneft worth billions
As he’d known Michael in Russia, this wasn’t difficult. He’s an intriguing man, Michael enjoyed his company.’
As for the money, one of Michael’s closest friends insists the prince did nothing in return.
‘Michael has never appeared on any platform on Boris’s behalf and has never spoken for him’ — a reference, in particular, to the Russian’s successful asylum application, for which the support of people of integrity can be crucial.
Equally, Berezovsky’s solicitor said last weekend, when the payments were revealed, that he ‘has never sought or obtained any benefit or service from his friendship with Prince Michael.’
And yet the friendship, like the handing over of the money itself, was conducted clandestinely, mainly over dinners at Kensington Palace.
‘At times the discretion was almost laughable,’ says a close figure.
‘On one occasion they discovered they had both had been invited to the same shoot. Michael said he would stand down, but Boris told him there was no need because he didn’t shoot anyway, so he’d decline.
So Michael was able to accept the invitation.’ And what of Putin How does the reinstalled Russian President view his highly-visible handshake with Prince Michael now After all, Berezovsky remains his arch-enemy.
On the prince’s side, it seems clear that keeping the payments below the public radar was as much to hide them from Putin as from Michael’s vigilant critics in Britain.
When the payments were disclosed, it was even suggested that Michael’s financial link with the businessman could make it ‘almost impossible for the prince to visit Russia again’.
That is to seriously underestimate Prince Michael’s survival instincts, or his popularity there.
Far from keeping his distance from the country he loves, the prince was to be found on Thursday back in his favourite city, St Petersburg. He was receiving an honorary doctorate from the city’s Humanitarian University of Trade Unions.
And, despite the flak, several people pointedly went up to him to tell him not to worry and to thank him for his respect towards the Russian people.
The official Kremlin seal of continued approval could be seen sitting prominently among the 1,500 audience of great and good — powerful foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, a close and long-time ally of Putin.
As the university, Alexander Zapesotsky said: ‘We choose only the most outstanding people for honorary doctorates. Prince Michael of Kent has done much for the development of Russian-British relations. We admire his attitude.’
As, it seems, do some very wealthy supporters.