Dealing with the oligarchs is a central test of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. He came to office vowing to “eliminate [the oligarchs] as a class.” He promised a “dictatorship of the law” that would end cronyism and ensure that the same rules apply to all in the same way. He also promised, however, not to try to overturn the Yeltsin-era privatizations that created the oligarchy in the first place. They stole it, he seemed to be saying, fair and square.
The oligarchs are the tiny group of men who grew rich on inside deals that gave them control of state assets in energy, mining and other basic industries and allowed them free run of an unregulated financial system that could multiply their profits and spirit them abroad. Each of the oligarchs had connections to political figures who could offer him protection. But many of those political figures are now gone from center stage, pushed aside by Putin’s formidable presence.
The oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, for example, had ties to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, even keeping an office in Moscow’s city hall. Luzhkov could count on support from Gusinsky’s Media Most outlets (NTV television, Segodnya daily, Itogi weekly), and Gusinsky could profit from handling Moscow’s municipal accounts in his Most Bank. But Luzhkov’s coalition lost decisively to Putin’s Unity movement in last year’s parliamentary elections, and the mayor, once touted as Russia’s next president, needs to husband his political capital to keep himself and his wife ahead of the bailiff. He is in no position to help the beleaguered Gusinsky.
Similarly, the oligarch Vladimir Potanin stayed close to Anatoly Chubais, who as deputy prime minister set up a scheme to let Potanin’s now defunct Oneksimbank take control of Russia’s giant ($2 billion in sales) Norilsk Nickel for a net cost of $80 million. Chubais is out of favor now, and Potanin is under pressure.
Boris Berezovsky, the most visible and politically active of the oligarchs, reputedly joined Gusinsky in funding Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential campaign. Berezovsky may also have funneled millions of dollars into the pockets of Yeltsin’s relatives. So what? Yeltsin today is ghosting his memoirs.
Berezovsky is also credited with arranging the selection of Putin as prime minister a year ago, and his television and print properties were totally supportive of Putin’s election. But regardless of the good Berezovsky can do him, Putin apparently refuses to become Berezovsky’s patron.
Putin’s first actions against the oligarchs have used the law against them, but hardly in an open and evenhanded way. Gusinsky, for example, was raided in May and arrested in June, jailed for five days and charged with fraud. Then in July the government offered to drop the charges and allow Gusinsky to travel abroad if Gusinsky would sign an agreement to sell his share of Media Most to gas monopoly Gazprom for $300 million in cash plus cancellation of $473 million in debt. Gusinsky signed, left the country and later reneged on the deal. He is now facing an investigation into whether he placed Media Most assets abroad (in Gibraltar) to hide them from Gazprom, and Gazprom has asked the Moscow Arbitration Court to sequester Gusinsky’s shares.
Vladimir Potanin has been told to pay another $140 million for Norilsk Nickel or face a review of the 1995 transaction in which he acquired the company. Anatoly Chubais, once considered Potanin’s protector, is still the chairman of United Energy Systems, a holding company that controls about 80 percent of Russia’s nonnuclear power grid. But UES is under investigation by the Audit Chamber (an executive branch watchdog) in connection with stock sales to foreigners, and by the tax police for delinquencies of around $115 million. Chubais, meanwhile, has left Russia to take a month-long course in management at a Swiss business school.
Boris Berezovsky has been told to transfer his 49-percent stake in ORT television to the state-owned media holding company VGTRK to discharge ORT’s debts to the government; Berezovsky has so far refused. Last week an alliance of companies controlled by Berezovsky and oligarch Roman Abramovich lost a bid to acquire 85 percent of Onako, a state-owned oil company. The winner of that auction was Yevrotek, a firm connected to the Tyumen Oil Company that belongs to oligarch and Putin supporter Pyotr Aven. The winning bid of $1.08 billion was close enough to the Berezovsky-Abramovich bid of $1.00 billion to arouse suspicions that the auction was rigged, though the price was fair. It also arouses suspicions that rather than eliminate the oligarchs as a class, Putin may manage only to replace Yeltsin’s oligarchs with his own.