Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Putin- The True Russian Oligarch

Was it not the other day when Putin made a comment about his wealth? He said in his usual terse manner that he was the wealthiest man in Russia. In his own words, "It is true. I am the richest man not only in Europe, but in the world: I amass emotions and am rich in the sense that the Russian people twice put the trust in me to rule such a great country as Russia. I count this as my biggest wealth. What concerns various rumours concerning my financial situation, I have seen some documents on this issue. This is simply gossip, which there is no reason to discuss - mere nonsense."

Of course he is rich..I mean rich in use of his macho strong man image to strong arm otherwise recalsistrant gongo capitalists that seized the Russian economy after the fall of the Soviet Union, and rendered his once powerful and equally popular predecessor(Boris Yeltsin) a political impotent. Putin refused to play this game with the Oligarchs, otherwise called the "Seven Bankers" i.e. Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Khordorkovsky, Potanin, Vinogradov, Smolensky and Friedman-Aven (pp. 328, The Oligarchs, Wealth & Power in the New Russia (2001;2003)). There will be an eight, who will be an ultimate winner in Putin's chess power play i.e. Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. But this Yeltsin inside man was hardly the focus of David H. Hoffman's tale. They all nearly had something in common: rare ambition, uncommon courage, and feeling of being outsiders at the onset. Untold greed also characterize their voracious appetite for both financial and political control which ultimately became their undoing in Putin's Russia sans the new millennium when Yeltsin left town. Indeed, of the original seven, five had one or more Jewish parents (less Potanin & Vinogradov. See pp. 359) . What a coincidence? Well, it is notable! In this set up, one of them was always prefect: Berezovksy 

In his book, Hoffman a journalist in the post-Soviet Russia traces the rise of the intellectual heft (read Anatoly Chubais) and the inner city machine (read Luzkhov) as well as a natural politician (read Boris Yeltsin) and how the intersection of their passion for Economics, Politics & Power shaped the emerging Russian Federation. By Exploring the exploits and power plays of these three men, and their insistence on destroying the old Soviet Union structures and from the ashes of that union create a new liberal democracy of Russia while quickly undoing the vestiges of the old sets a telling tale of betrayal, scuffle, gerrymandering , posturing, intrigues and ultimately unlikely triumph. 

In this tale, the Oligarchs are not power brokers as they are often made to be, they are mere players. That is my conclusion. Today, one is in Jail. Two are in exile. One is virtually unheard of (though not bankrupt, but definitely nearly as rich and definitely powerless), while 3 of the original thrive in less fashion while the potential eight learned quickly and cow-towered to the new Sherriff in town i.e. Vladmir Putin; the true successor to the combined legacy of Luzkhov, Chubais and Yeltsin. Hoffman focused on 2 power players as character witnesses (Luzkov and Chubais) and 4 capitalists. He explored less the impact Putin had on the entire complex, which came in the last half of the last chapter and is largely uncelebrated. The fact that Putin will let Roman thrive is no coincidence, or even the fact that the media empire that Berezovsky and Gusinsky had no impact on his electoral ambition is the tell tale sign of the political astuteness of the man. He will not betray yeltsin, he had dirt through his FSB years on the Oligarchs and clearly intended not to share power and play hard ball with them to clearly get the message. Gusinsky was made an example of, Berezovsky quickly took a page from that drama (the stripping of NTV from Gusinksy); but Khordo..of Yukos fame learned the wrong lessons and is today cooling his feet in a Serbian jail for tax evasion charges- Nobody messes with Putin! 

To the author's credit, the book is focused, engaging and hard to put down. However, the less curious justice done to Putin's character, and the two major winners in this rule of the jungle capitalism i.e. Potanin and Abramovich, probably calls for a book two hundred pages longer, and probably four years published earlier than it should. In Putin's Russia where he is still Prime Minister, and President in waiting, no other center of political power will be tolerated. In Putin's Russia, his rule demands and espouses the grandiosity of Chubais vision of a developed economy, the "doer" view of Luzkhov political machine in Moscow, and the Yeltsinoistic appetite for political gamesmanship and brinkmanship on the national stage as well as a near astute feel for the political temperature on the street and how to use the security services to keep the lid on the ambitious new capitalists. 

In 2009, perhaps the last paragraph of this tale is yet to be written. Will the dog bite, or will the fox haunt? Will his pawn, President Medvedev play ball? I remise to say in Russia, things never appear as they seem. Perhaps a second revised edition, or a third is necessary;  because in Putin's Russia the question the then newly elected President asked Berezovsky in 2000 is prescient, "You, you were one of those who asked me to be president. So how can you complain?"

Classically was a joyful read. I give is a four star. 

The Putin Era Oligarchs..gone awry
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