The Russian billionaire at the heart of world cycling

Who is Igor Makarov, and how deep does his influence in cycling go? 

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As the world reacts to the unprovoked Russian attacks on its neighbour, Ukraine, awkward questions are being asked about the influence of Russia beyond its borders. Avoiding the turbulence thus far is one of cycling’s most powerful figures – Igor Makarov, a Russian oil and gas billionaire with hefty influence around the globe, from the dictatorship of Turkmenistan to the UCI management committee.


It has been six days since Russia invaded Ukraine – a brief eternity that has seen an escalating cavalcade of horrors. The international response to the invasion has been largely unified in support of Ukraine, with each day bringing the announcement of new measures targeting Russian interests, in the hope of forcing Putin’s hand.

Boycotts, divestments and sanctions have steadily whittled away Russia’s financial might beyond its borders, with the rouble falling to historic lows as a result. The SWIFT payment pipeline has been blocked. EU and US airspace has been closed to Russian planes – including the private jets of oligarchs. Even neutral Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. And the IOC – that bastion of depoliticisation of sport at all costs – has recommended that sporting federations block Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from competing. 

Sport does not exist in a vacuum, and that statement equally applies to cycling. As the world turns its eye to the soft and hard ways Russia wields its power beyond its borders, it’s time for cycling to look inward. 

Igor Makarov and David Lappartient shake hands at the 2017 Team Katusha Alpecin launch. Makarov was the team owner. The Stavanger Stallion looks on, smiling cryptically. (Photo: Tim De Waele.)

The kingmaker

In the present day, Russia is not the powerhouse of world cycling that it once was – no Soviet-era behemoth – but it remains politically influential. At the nucleus of many of those relationships is one man, Igor Makarov. He’s a long-time member of the UCI Management Committee, the holder of a swathe of Russian and Belarussian honours, a former track cyclist, and honorary president of the Russian Cycling Federation.

He also served as actual president of the Russian Cycling Federation – a role in which he was an intermediary between the Russian government and the UCI. An internal communication leaked to CyclingTips reveals that sometimes government influence went to the top: Vladimir Putin himself requested a Tour of Russia from then UCI president, Hein Verbruggen (ed. prior to Makarov’s presidency of the Russian Federation). In 2013, the proposal eventually fell over – to the UCI’s chagrin, unsurprisingly, seeing as CyclingTips understands the UCI would have pocketed a €5.5 million fee per annum. 

Attentive CyclingTips readers may also recall that Makarov was one of two UCI officials – Lappartient the other – who was on a now-notorious video conference, presenting Turkmen dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov with the organisation’s highest honour. That award, “in recognition of [Berdimuhamedov’s] commitment to our sport through world-class competitions, mass participation events and the promotion of cycling for all”,  came after Ashgabat was awarded the 2021 World Track Cycling Championships, to be held in the city’s Olympic village – a lavish complex that Makarov’s company helped construct.

Peekaboo!, with Makarov at the bottom. (Screenshot: Altyn Asyr)

Apart from his business interests, Makarov is widely regarded as the ‘kingmaker’ in international cycling, and one of its most powerful figures. Around the turn of the last decade he was elected to the European Cycling Union (UEC) – soon after a million dollar donation was announced from Makarov – and from there to the UCI Management Committee in 2013. 

Makarov stepped out of the shadows to destabilise Pat McQuaid’s presidency in 2013 in the lead-up to the UCI Presidential Election, in turn helping anoint Brian Cookson as president that same year. 

Also in 2013, Makarov helped orchestrate David Lappartient’s candidacy for presidency of the UEC via what l’Equipe calls “a well-oiled strategy” that involved “soliciting voting members by promising all kinds of wonders to each federation.” Weeks after Lappartient became president of the UEC, the sponsorship by Makarov’s business Areti allegedly increased five-fold. Lappartient’s stepping stone toward the UCI Presidency was assured.

In an unexpected landslide, Cookson was replaced by Lappartient in 2017, with the Frenchman becoming UCI president in 2017. “Lappartient is elected first of all president of the Europe Federation with huge assistance from Makarov, then elected president of the UCI with again huge assistance from Makarov. So Lappartient is in the palm of Makarov,” a source later told CyclingNews.

According to l’Equipe, Makarov was observed after the 2017 vote “furtively accompanied by his court of suitors”, “boasting as if he himself came to be elected president. ‘It’s also my victory,’ he laughed mischievously, knowing that his place on the management committee gave him an ideal position.” 

Lappartient has since been reelected, unopposed, as UCI president in 2021. This month he was elected a member of the IOC, foreshadowing a lucrative career in sports governance for many years to come. 

A pleased David Lappartient at the 2017 UCI Congress. (Photo: Simon Wilkinson)

Some background 

Makarov, who was born in Turkmenistan when it was part of the Soviet Union, made his start on the velodrome. On his personal website he is still described as “a member of the USSR Olympic national cycling team”. [A spokesperson for Makarov has previously conceded to CyclingTips that he never, in fact, competed at the Olympics.] 

From cycling, he began trading jeans and food, eventually working his way up the social ladder to, by the early 1990s, assume a lucrative position as an exporter of Turkmenistan’s gas to Ukraine, via his company Itera International Group of Companies. Per the company’s website – before an edit in the last 24 hours – “from 1998 to 2013 the Group was the biggest private oil and gas company in Russia.” With that came wealth: Makarov’s personal fortune has been estimated at over US$2 billion, with the requisite superyachts and private jets that come with that. 

According to leaked diplomatic cables, Makarov’s fine taste in yachts extended to the alleged 2008 purchase of a €60 million superyacht called “Galkynysh” (“Revival”) – which was presented to Berdimuhamedov as a gift from Itera when the former dentist became Dictator President of Turkmenistan. [Representatives of Makarov haves previously declined to comment on this allegation.]

Itera was under scrutiny around the turn of the century due to its cosy relationship with state-owned Russian gas titan Gazprom – now sanctioned by the EU and US due to the Ukraine conflict. That was before the remaining stake in Itera was sold to Rosneft, another state-owned energy company – likewise sanctioned – in 2013, for a reported US$3 billion.

By 2015, Itera was reborn as Areti – Itera backwards – now once again a Makarov-owned venture. That’s an international business group that Makarov remains president of, which has extensive business operations in Turkmenistan, along with a range of other countries. Makarov was identified in the Pandora Papers as having set up a trust in the US tax haven state Wyoming, nesting other companies based in the British Virgin Islands inside it.

Igor Makarov in 2016. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

Itera – and now Areti – have offices around the world, including Cyprus, another tax haven. Itera’s offices in Florida were raided by the FBI in 2006 in connection with a possible bribery attempt on a congressman and his daughter. [Representatives for Makarov have previously noted that “​​Neither Mr. Makarov, Itera or anyone associated with the company were charged, prosecuted or publicly accused by authorities of bribery or any similar crime.”]  

In 2017, Makarov was named on a US Treasury Department list of Russian Oligarchs close to the Russian government. As of this week, in a Politico feature about moves to freeze Russian assets in Canada, Makarov’s name came up as a “billionaire who runs in Putin’s circles” and a one-third owner of a Canadian natural gas producer.

When contacted by CyclingTips, a PR firm acting for Makarov vigorously denied any connection between Makarov and Putin, and stated that the Treasury Department list has since been discredited.  

Makarov’s PR representative disputed Makarov’s categorisation as either an ‘oligarch’ or a ‘Russian oligarch’. Those terms are widely understood as referring to business people of the former Soviet republics who rapidly accumulated wealth via privatisation after the collapse of the USSR, and built political influence.

[Makarov became a billionaire through the privatisation of the gas industry in Turkmenistan – a former Soviet republic where Makarov is an “expert to the Advisor to the President” in the fields of oil and gas, and cycling. Representatives of Makarov have said that his advisory role “yields no salary, payment or preferential treatment” and was “short term”; recent Turkmen media suggests otherwise.]

As for activities outside of Turkmenistan, representatives of Makarov said that he and Areti had “no business operations” in Russia or Ukraine. A follow-up asking if Makarov has operations in Belarus went unanswered.

However, as of 1 March 2022, on the website for Areti, Russia was prominently mentioned in a list of countries in which the company has business interests, along with a paragraph detailing the rich history of Itera’s involvement in Russia, plus a mention of Mr. Makarov’s role as Honorary President of the Russian Cycling Federation. 

A day later, any mention of Russia had been removed:  

Before
After

That seems to be part of a strategy to create distance between Makarov and Russia, now an international pariah. However, in Makarov’s register of business interests for the UCI – which lists his role as a member of the Russian Cycling Federation – he declares his nationality as Russian. That declaration was signed in Moscow. An investigation released late last year by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, probing Makarov’s use of tax havens, described Makarov as a “Moscow billionaire” and an “oligarch”. 

CyclingTips asked if Makarov planned to make a statement on the Ukraine invasion, and was told that he would be making no comment. Makarov’s PR firm did, however, provide the following on-record statement, which reads – in full – as follows:

“ARETI is an international company based in Switzerland. Like many international companies, ARETI maintains offices in numerous business centers around the world, including Switzerland, Cyprus and Russia. At this time, the company is not engaged in any energy or business projects within either Russia or Ukraine. Neither ARETI nor Mr. Makarov are or have ever been the subject of any governmental sanctions.”

Latest developments

Late on Tuesday, the UCI announced that it would follow the lead of the IOC in sanctioning Russia and Belarus, with measures including banning Russian and Belarusian national teams from UCI events, stripping UCI status from professional teams from both countries, cancelling UCI-sanctioned events in both countries, and banning sponsorships from Russian and Belarusian companies, among other measures. It was legitimately, as the UCI described it, a swathe of “strong measures” agreed upon “unanimously” by the management committee. A list of attendees at the “extraordinary session” was not published.

Among the teams and athletes affected by the UCI ban are Gazprom-RusVelo, a ProTeam that as recently as five days ago told CyclingTips that “we are certain that there will be no difficulties” for “its riders of various nationalities” to “continue their professional type of activity”, despite sanctions against its naming rights sponsor. 

The Russian Cycling Federation – which is sponsored by currently sanctioned bodies including Russia’s state ‘defense’ body Rostec and Transneft, along with as-yet unsanctioned Areti – was contacted by CyclingTips with specific questions about the impact of the war on Russian cycling, the financial impact of sanctions, and the influence of honorary president Igor Makarov. Their enigmatic response was, in full, “we will be able to return to these issues in 10 days.” 

In a statement following the UCI ban, the Federation said that it “regrets” the decision and will “strengthen the internal Russian calendar and work out the issue of holding races deprived of international status in the format of Russian starts.” 

Makarov rides with Viatcheslav Ekimov – then Katusha team manager, now Russian Cycling Federation president – in 2016. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

The European Cycling Union – which, until a downed commercial jet, held firm last year to its plans to hold the continental track championships in Minsk, despite sustained questions around Belarus’s human rights record for several months – has gone a step further than the UCI in removing Belarusian and Russian management committee members from its upcoming congress.  

The UCI, meanwhile, has not responded to repeated requests for comment (it’s kinda their thing). For what it’s worth, the most recent email from CyclingTips included the following question:

“Does the UCI anticipate A) any practical issues with Mr. Makarov fulfilling his management committee duties due to travel and financial sanctions in Russia, and B) any moral issues with Mr. Makarov continuing to sit in the management committee?” 

Although we didn’t receive a response – which is, I suppose, a response of its own – that question has somewhat been addressed in the UCI’s recent press release, which stressed it “remains a politically neutral organisation”. 

“Concerning the Russian and Belarusian National Federations, and in line with responses given by the IOC this morning during the meeting with International Federation Presidents, it is not necessary to suspend these because they are not implicated in the violation of the Olympic Truce. In the same vein, concerning Russian and Belarusian members of UCI bodies and commissions, the UCI has chosen to act in line with the IOC’s position presented this morning, which means that they may continue to serve as long as they are not directly implicated in the violation of the Olympic Truce; indeed the priority of the measures taken today is to ensure the integrity and security of sporting competitions.”

Via his representatives, Igor Makarov – cycling kingmaker, unsanctioned Russian billionaire, don’t-call-him-an-oligarch – offered no comment on the UCI decision.

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