cynic might deduce that when Russian leaders hit a dead end in their bid to reform the country, they start attacking officialdom. And while this is a minority view in the case of Putin, whose popularity rating remains steady at around 70 percent, it is still difficult to ignore.
One among this minority, Pyotr Aven, president of Alfa Bank and a former foreign trade minister, critiqued the status quo in unequivocal terms during last week’s Russian Economic Forum in London. Providing one of the few sour notes in an otherwise upbeat event, Aven declared that no economic liberalization whatsoever was underway in Russia. “I am sure that the majority of those present in this room hold accounts in foreign banks, that many have real estate abroad, and that under Russian law all of us are criminals,” he told the audience, which included the leading lights of Russia’s political and business elite. Russian banks, Aven added, account for only 3 percent of the country’s domestic investment. “What is the largest portion of Russian banks doing if they are not fulfilling their main function–crediting?” he asked. “They are involved in money laundering.” He also lashed out at Russian government spending, saying that it amounts to 33 percent of the country’s gross domestic product–“a huge burden on Russian business and a brake on economic growth.” By way of invidious comparison, he noted that government spending in China accounts for only 13-17 percent of that country’s GDP.
While Aven is himself a major beneficiary of oligarchic capitalism and no one would ever mistake him for Mother Theresa, he has frequently been refreshingly straightforward about post-Soviet Russia’s economic realities. In 1994, for example, Aven declared that in Russia, millionaires were “appointed” by the state. In 1999, he wrote a devastating critique of Yeltsin-era economic reform, noting, among other things, that the country’s largest enterprises had been “purchased with government money” and that the privatization of one aluminum factory alone had been “accompanied by twenty murders.”