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#20 - JRL 7243
World Press Review
July 2003
A Conspiracy of the Oligarchs?
Russia: The Enemies of the People Project

The battle against the oligarchs is the main point of the presidents election campaign. There isnt anything else to offer at the moment.... Pavel Voshchanov, Novaya Gazeta (liberal semi-weekly), Moscow, Russia, June 9, 2003

The funny thing about President Putins approval ratings in the polls, which in the past four years have gone up several points every month and have finally reached fantastic proportions, is that they could turn out to be a great embarrassment if the outcome of the 2004 elections isnt as impressive.

So how to consolidate society and achieve universal support for a failing series of policies? How, indeed, if the Chechen terrorists, according to the Kremlins own reassurances, have already been routed? Theres no longer any hint of an external threat, as evidenced by the love fest with the powerful and successful of this world at the celebration of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. There is only one way of saving the situation: a conspiracy of the oligarchs.

Without exception, all the past elections were based on fear. This fact can be verified by numerous examples. For example, in 1993, the public was frightened with the prospect of civil war, and supported the October Coup and a constitution that turned parliamentary rule into an outright parody and made the bureaucracy even more omnipotent [In October 1993, President Boris Yeltsin ordered the army to attack the home of the legislative assembly after restive MPs barricaded themselves insideWPR]. In 1996, fear was instilled into the hearts of Russians that if Yeltsinwhom they disliked and even openly mockedlost, then the most unpleasant features of pre-reform life would return to plague their daily lives: lines, shortages, and ration cards. No one except the most refined intellectuals, who were also the most removed from real life, believed in the return of the Gulag. In the last parliamentary elections, fear of another type was exploited: People were convinced that Russian fascists could come to power.

This gave the right-wing neo-liberals [such as the Union of Rightist Forces and Yabloko] obvious electoral advantages over the left-wingers [such as the communists and agrarians], who had placed great emphasis on patriotism and the primacy of Russias national interests. Putin also owes his victory in the presidential elections of 2000 to fear: The bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow [on Sept. 13, 2000] and Volgodonsk [on Sept. 16, 2000] forced disenchanted people to forget that Putin was a protg of Yeltsin and the Family, and to trust implicitly that only he, a former KGB agent, could save the country from Chechen terrorism. Fear became the chief instrument in political PR.

Some say Putins team represents the new, modern generation of the Russian bureaucracy, a bureaucracy marked above all by its ability to make innovative decisions with positive outcomes, even in the most complex of situations. Unfortunately, this is all an illusion. Everything that is going on now in the Russian government is largely just a repeat of what has happened before. The ability of the new leaders to give polished speeches and behave with a certain superficial luster in publicall of this means absolutely nothing. The essence is what is important, and it is far from what we imagine. If you take a close and impartial look, youll see that all current policy follows the contours outlined during the Yeltsin era. Nothing essentially new has been put out. The most striking evidence of this is how the government manipulates public sentiments before and during elections. Just as before, they are banking on the fear that torments our society. It is the government that engenders the unconscious desire to support the leader and his team, despite whatever dissatisfaction with the governments performance or the accumulated emotional grievances it has inflicted.

So what are Russians being frightened with this time? We can be fairly certain that its the oligarchs. They are the villains who have pocketed all our property and who are now plotting to grab political power as well, so they can lord it over everybody and everything. Of course, you might find such speculation dubious, perhaps even delusional. But then youd have to ask the question: Why is it that suddenly reports are surfacing in the Russian and Western press about the political ambitions of the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky? First, we were told that Khodorkovsky is planning to fund the election campaigns of the political opposition. Then we were told of his hidden desire to use his billions of petrodollars to become president of Russia. Interestingly, this information comes from sources close to the government and our special services.

An oil baron trying to grab power is an ideal scarecrow for any electoral contest: Heres who youll get if you dont support our dear candidate!

And the statistically average Russian, forgetting his grievances, will inevitably support the dear candidate, since there is nothing more unpleasant for him than any oligarch. Without a doubt, Khodorkovsky is ambitious, but hes not crazy! That means either hes willingly playing an assigned role, or he is simply being forced into such a role. For the country, however, it doesnt make a difference. Its important only that people believe in the reality of the threatthat hateful oligarch has so much money!and theyll choose the lesser of two evils, just as they have before.

And the thought that the oligarchs could seize political power is gradually seizing the masses. Almost every day there are reports about what cunning intrigues [controversial Russian businessman] Boris Berezovsky is cooking up against the president. Still, this does not produce the desired effectit palls, somewhat. Not so long ago, a colleague of mine famous for his proximity to the special services brought me (and I dont think I was the only one) a list of the prominent Russian businessmen who had visited the out-of-favor oligarch Berezovsky in London, broken down by month. He also brought another thing: a list of those who had telephoned Berezovsky from Russia. Now theres something new! Looking at the papers, you could come to only one conclusion: Our own native bourgeoisie, overcoming their mutual antagonism, have decided to join forces in order to change the rulers in the Kremlin! From another source there was suddenly a leak. Supposedly many of the oligarchs had suddenly taken an interest in visiting Boris Yeltsin at his suburban Moscow residence after years of indifference. When they met there, the oligarchs supposedly found Yeltsin supported their putsch. The old man yelled and stamped his feet for joy. And recently the Council for National Strategy, which has many distinguished Russian academics, issued a sensational warning: The country is on the threshold of a creeping oligarchic coup.

The same conclusion was confirmed in a recently published list of the 100 leading Russian politicians. It turns out that 10 of the first 20 names are representatives of major capital. We know how such spots are determined. But this time, theres got to be a reason why the political lineup looks so absurd. For example, Khodorkovsky and Roman Abramovich, the oil governor of remote Chukotka, occupy fifth and sixth place, respectively. The speakers of the two houses of the legislature, Gennadi Seleznyov and Sergei Mironov, occupy 37th and 40th place, respectively. Will wonders never cease!

Wherever you go, its like the Soviet patriotic song, Rise Up, Oh, Great Nation! And why we must rise up is obvious: to fight the oligarchs to the death and to defend the president from those hateful bloodsuckers. In case anyone was doubting the threat, the revelations of one of the leaders of the Popular Patriotic Union of Russia [the national-patriotic oppositions umbrella group] came just in time to open the eyes of the electorate even wider.The president no longer suits the business elite for some reason, so they needed their own emissary in politics, an emissary who would be prepared to take the reins of government, first as prime minister, then as president.

In the last few months, Ive counted about 40 long and short articles on visits to the Kremlin by various representatives of big business. Aleksander Khloponinthe director general of Norilsk Nickel who was elected governor [of Krasnoyarsk Territory in Siberia] in 2001has probably broken the record for visits to the Kremlin. Political analysts say Khloponin was first groomed by Vladimir Potanin, Norilsk Nickels controlling shareholder, in the Taimyr Autonomous District and then nominated in Krasnoyarsk Territory with an eye toward becoming one of the candidates for the throne in the Kremlin in 2008. Khloponin did not disappoint these expectations, but he didnt confirm them, either. He limited himself to vigorous expressions of fealty to the current government. Thats not so surprising, but what is curious is that the Kremlin, which always keenly reacts to the slightest display of disloyalty, did not pay any attention to the conversations about the political future of the young governor from Krasnoyarsk. Why is that? Because Khloponin, unlike Berezovsky or Khodorkovsky, doesnt provoke the necessary negative emotions in the average man on the street. In a strategic sense, he undoubtedly a more serious potential threat to Putin, but today, hes just not the right target. They will pile on later, when the current president already has his own designated successor (and he will appear sooner or later). Only then will the Nornickel candidate really be in the way. But thats such a long way off, and the next presidential elections are right around the corner.

You dont have to be a brain surgeon to predict that a record number of people from Russias big business will constitute the next Duma. Thats why the capitalists and their hirelings in Parliament will definitely be one of the main topics after the December elections. It wont only be the leftists who will raise it, either. This will benefit the Kremlin. On the eve of the presidential elections, the voter will sense that these half-hints and information leaks about the conspiracy of the oligarchs are far from groundless. Then hell forget about Chechnya, about the fruitless talk of military reform, about the relentless growth of prices for electricity and public services, and the self-satisfaction of those numerous buddies Putin met during his days in St. Petersburg. The main motif of the election will be anything but that. So what if Putin turns out not to be what we thought he was five years ago? Its obvious that in 2000 people saw in him what they wanted to see. Just so long as there isnt one of those Yeltsin oligarchs in the Kremlin.

Are there any so-called Putin oligarchs? In the early days of the presidency, there werent any, and then they began to appear: Aleksei Miller, installed in Gazprom; the bankers O. Kogan and S. Pugachev; the Baltyka beer brewer Teimuraz Baloev. There are others, less public, keeping to the shadows. Whether there are a lot of them or a few isnt the main point. Whats important is that they are all still aspiring to reach the level of Yeltsins oligarchs, at least in terms of the capital they control and the influence they wield over the economy. And thats the weakness of Putins present position. Its for that reason, and not for some ethical considerations, that he is forced to treat his predecessor and the members of his family with exaggerated piety. Thats why he cant send many of the people he inherited in the government into retirement. There hasnt been a war against the oligarchy as such, nor is there now. Whats happening is a process of a different type: the attempt of a new ruler to create his own oligarchy to replace somebody elses borrowed oligarchy.

Thats why capital from St. Petersburg is finding its way into all aspects of high-yield Russian business. For example, quite a few branches of St. Petersburg banks have appeared in Moscow in recent years, and construction companies from the banks of the Neva River get one contract after another. There have never been such a huge number of migrs from St. Petersburg working in the federal government economic-affairs offices as there are now. The homeboys from St. Petersburg rise through the ranks quickly, skipping over not one, but even 10 bureaucratic ranks. This is the sign of the times.

Still, I dont think the Kremlin will come to the point of waging open warfare against the empires that emerged during the Yeltsin era. First, they are too powerful. Second, they are absolutely loyal. As Vladimir Potanin said in 2000 in an interview with [Berlins conservative] Die Welt, Putin is Russias fortune! And Potanin still holds to that thesis. Recently, he has even come on stronger, evidently motivated by the need to smooth over the awkwardness after the rumors around Khloponin [the rumors that Potanin was grooming Khloponin for a presidential bid]. And why does Khodorkovsky need a conspiracy? I dont think he has any illusions that if he got mixed up in political intrigue, he could lose everything (the story of what happened to Berezovsky and Gusinsky is very instructive). And he does have something to lose. Any Russian oligarch takes into account that Russia is a country in which any personal interest of the ruling bureaucracy is higher than the interest of the state. If you get in somebodys way, perhaps youll lose your money and your comfortable life. Perhaps your business will be confiscated. Theres no doubt about that. For oligarchs of the old school, these current rumors about their conspiracy are alarm bells reminding them that the rulers dont like strangers, even very wealthy strangers. If the powers-that-be need a conspiracy, theyll make up one without much difficultytheres no shortage of aides to do the job. Those who were in one way or another connected to the previous government but who are not beholden to the current one will be found among the plotters. That is the ancient Russian tradition.

Should we be alarmed that many figures from big business are migrating to big politics? Maybe, in fact, that is the sign of a conspiracy of oligarchs?

Not at all. It is a natural and lawful process. Throughout the whole world, two-thirds of the political elite comes from business and one-third from the intellectual milieu. Why should it be any different in our country? We do not believe that the government should actually be ruled by an uneducated cook. Of course, our big businessmen raised their capital through corruption and right here in Russia and abroad. But what can you do? They are what they are. Moreover, intellectuals today arent exactly penniless. You can count on your fingers the ones who havent milked the government for one thing or another. You must understand that this talk about the oligarchs taking over big politics is from the devil. Its just PR, plain and simple, the purpose of which is to get universal support for the current president. They havent thought of anything better and they wont. It is the only thing that will cause the voter, who has fallen into apathy, to grab his head and vote with his heart. Just as he did in 1996.

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