May 16, 2003
ARE THE OLIGARCHS AIMING TO TAKE THE HELM?
An interview with political analyst Igor Bunin
Author: Vladimir Ignatov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF TALK LATELY ABOUT OLIGARCHS WANTING TO GO INTO GOVERNMENT, BUT THE REAL SITUATION IS SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT. RUSSIAN MAGNATES ARE PREPARED TO SPONSOR POLITICAL PARTIES AND INDIVIDUAL CANDIDATES, BUT THEY RARELY THINK OF TAKING UP PUBLIC POLITICS PERSONALLY.
More and more frequently, especially since the merger of the oil empires of YUKOS and Sibneft, the media has speculated that Russia oligarchs are no longer satisfied with their role as "power brokers", and that they will soon launch an attack on Duma seats, Cabinet portfolios, and probably even higher positions... How real is the prospect of business leaders going into government and public politics? Igor Bunin, well-known political analyst and president of the Political Techniques Center, considers these questions.
Igor Bunin: Russia is not Ukraine. It is Ukraine where oligarchs are key figures in politics, where they can head a party's electoral list and organize deputy groups. But in Russia, business and public politics are two incompatible things. Business leaders in this country have only remained in politics for brief periods, as a rule. For some time, the unforgettable Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was active in executive and legislative government bodies; but eventually he quit the Duma and went to London. Konstantin Borovoi has also suffered from politics. He headed a very substantial financial group in the early 1990s; but he got so carried away with party battles and the fiery speeches of Valeria Novodvorskaya that he has now slipped to the level of an insignificant peripheral politician. Potanin has not been in government for very long either...
Question: But what about the famous "seven bankers" who controlled the executive branch in Russia in 1996?
Igor Bunin: Times have changed now, and the president is completely different. But even in 1996, business leaders helped the state at the invitation of the state itself. At present, oligarchs are prepared to compile party electoral lists, facilitate victories for their proteges in single-member constituencies, and donate money; but they are not prepared to go into politics themselves. So far, the business elite has not shown any great willingness to secure Duma seats. The only area of politics where they have succeeded are elections for regional leaders. A governorship is a real mechanism of managing a region that is of interest to a company. It is clear that governors Roman Abramovich and Alexander Khloponin are by no means impoverished.
Question: There has been much talk lately about the political activity of the YUKOS oil company, especially that of its head Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Igor Bunin: In my view, this is what is actually happening: YUKOS shareholders have started to invest in various political parties, as the elections approach. They are donating to the Union of Right Forces (URF), Yabloko, and United Russia. Even the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has received some money. But it is out of the question that any senior YUKOS executives might run for office in the upcoming elections. Oil corporations are investing money in the party structure which already exists.
There is another way for oil magnates to influence politics, which was tested successfully on a large scale at the elections of 1999: investing in single-mandate district candidates. Such sponsorship helped many candidates win in their districts. The "reciprocal favors" system. I believe oligarchic groups will actively invest money in "passable" single-mandate district candidates this time as well. It is important for them to maintain approximately the same balance of factions and forces in the new Duma as in the present one.
Question: Our sources in the Duma claim that these single-mandate district candidates for whom "favors" are done could form a basis for a new alliance of Duma members, provisionally called the New Democratic Party. Are business leaders seeking some insurance against pressure from the ruling party?
Igor Bunin: Frankly, I do not believe in the "autonomy" of oligarchs too much. I believe that any strategic initiatives coming from them will have been coordinated with the Kremlin first. The energy and oil barons will interact, but not engage in confrontation with each other in the lead-up to the federal elections, both parliamentary and presidential. No one will be willing to clash with the Kremlin directly.
Question: The Union of Right Forces positions itself as the party of big business within Russian politics. Why don't oligarchs focus on funding only this party, which is close to them in terms of ideology? Why are they donating to all parties represented in the Duma, even the Communist Party?
Igor Bunin: The Union of Right Forces brings together people with a pro-Western orientation, those who are best adapted to the complex paths of reforms. Such people make up around 5-6% of the Russian population, no more. No matter how much funding it gets, there is a limit to what the Union of Right Forces is capable of achieving. Thus, investing large amounts of money in a party with limited capacities is simply impractical - it is not cost-effective.
(Translated by P. Pikhnovsky)