Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 56

Acting President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his rhetoric concerning Russia’s so-called “oligarchs,” vowing they will cease to exist “as a class” after his expected victory in this coming Sunday’s presidential election. In an interview with Mayak state radio, Putin declared that his administration will work together with “all layers of society,” including representatives of big, small and medium-sized businesses and trade unions. But he said that if the term “oligarch” is understood as groups or representatives of groups who are merging or trying to merge “the authorities and capital,” then “there will be no such oligarchs as a class.” If he and his team do not create “equal conditions for everyone,” Putin said, “then we cannot pull the country out of the condition it is in today.”

“We have before us several large-scale main tasks,” he continued. “It is the fight against poverty and against crime. These are the two main tasks. Within the fight against crime there are two sections. One of these is fighting against corruption. In this sense there will be no oligarchs of any kind” (RTR, March 19).

Putin’s statements concerning his possible future relationship with the oligarchs were his strongest to date. His phraseology–that they will cease to exist “as a class”–is redolent of statements made about, for example, the kulaks (private farmers) by Lenin or Stalin, and could be interpreted by the oligarchs as a serious threat. On the other hand, he may simply have meant that the tycoons will no longer have the special access to the Kremlin that they enjoyed under Boris Yeltsin.

It is also possible that Putin’s tough words toward the oligarchs was little more than campaign rhetoric–in particular, a response to comments made by one of his rivals, Samara Governor Konstantin Titov. Titov said in an interview published on March 17 that the upcoming presidential election, while taking place “in accordance with the Russian constitution,” was a “dynastic transfer of power” which had been “clearly thought out by the oligarchs and prepared by experts.” The Samara governor said that a political model was emerging in Russia under which “the oligarchs will prepare successors and move them on to the political stage,” while the people “as always, remain silent.” Titov, however, suggested that the jury was still out on whether Putin intends to “continue the construction of a democratic society” or to serve “those who put him in at the helm of power” (Financial Times, March 17).

While Putin’s rhetoric vis-a-vis the oligarchs has grown tougher, he has not availed himself of the opportunity to attack the most powerful of them directly–in word or deed. Earlier this month, Putin ordered Ilya Yuzhanov, Russia’s antimonopoly minister, to investigate the reported take-over of several large aluminum plants by companies controlled by two top oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. However, Yuzhanov soon afterward announced that the sales of the stakes in the aluminum factories had not violated any antimonopoly laws (see the Monitor, March 10). These takeovers reportedly gave the Berezovsky-Abramovich clan control of 60-70 percent of Russia’s multibillion-dollar aluminum business, and Yuzhanov’s seal of approval suggests that the two oligarchs remain extremely powerful politically. Last year, Berezovsky and Abramovich were widely believed to be behind the replacement of the head of the state oil company Transneft, which was carried out when Putin, who was then prime minister, was out of the country. Putin let that action stand as well (see the Monitor, September 17, 21, 1999).