The past week saw more intrigue involving Slavneft, one of the last majority state-owned Russian oil companies. This latest round began May 8, when word leaked that the Interior Ministry’s economic crimes department had opened a criminal investigation into alleged “abuse of power” by two Slavneft vice presidents, including Yury Sukhanov, a reputed ally of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and Roman Abramovich, the Chukotka governor and the power behind the Sibneft oil company. Sukhanov, a former Sibneft executive, was seeking to replace Slavneft’s ousted president, Mikhail Gutseriev (whose brother, Khamzat Gutseriev, was disqualified from Ingushetia’s presidential race last month). He was also challenged for the post by Anatoly Baranovsky, first vice president of Rosneft, another state-owned oil company. During an extraordinary shareholders meeting held earlier this week, Sukhanov defeated Baranovsky and became Slavneft’s president.
According to various Russian observers, the battle for Slavneft’s presidency was in anticipation of the auctioning later this year of a 19.68-percent stake in the company. The rival presidential candidates were backed by two powerful rival oligarchic coalitions. Politkom.ru, the website of the authoritative Center for Political Technologies, named these clans as: (1) Bolshaya MADAM, or Big MADAM, the second word being an acronym derived from the initials of five leading oligarchs–Urals Mining and Metals Company chief Iskander Makhmudov, Roman Abramovich, Siberian Aluminum chief Oleg Deripaska, EvrazHolding chief and steel baron Aleksandr Abramov and MDM Bank board chairman Andrei Melnychenko; (2) BMP, standing for Rosneft president Sergei Bogdanchikov, Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller and Mezhprombank founder and Federation Council member Sergei Pugachev. The first group overlaps with the group of Yeltsin-era oligarchs sometimes referred to as the “Family.” The second overlaps with the St. Petersburg special service veterans known as the “Chekists.”
In any case, Sukhanov’s election as Slavneft’s president marked a victory for the Family/Bolshaya MADAM group generally and for Prime Minister Kasyanov specifically. Many observers, however, believe that it was only a temporary win and that the BMP/Chekist faction is preparing its revenge. Indeed, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov’s attack this week on the State Customs Committee (GTK) for alleged involvement in shady foreign trade operations, among other things, was widely seen as an indirect attack on the prime minister, given that the GTK’s head, Mikhail Vanin, is a long-time Kasyanov ally.
What was important about the Slavneft imbroglio, however, was less its murky and tortuous twists and turns than the degree to which it resembled an episode straight out of the Yeltsin era. Indeed, it may be no surprise that Vladimir Putin’s promises to crush the oligarchs have been replaced by his denunciations of terrorists at home and abroad. He may have concluded that he has more hope of winning a war against the latter.