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On The Money: Eying Russia’s Economy
As the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum approaches, economists are assessing Russia’s prospects. Does Russia have an optimum growth strategy?
Russian Godfathers – The Fugitive
An elite group of entrepreneurs amassed vast wealth, huge influence and bitter enemies in the fall of the Soviet Union. Andrew Mueller examines the gilded misery of the oligarchs.
Russian politics,” declares Boris Berezovsky, “is Russian roulette.” So, he might have added, is Russian business – although, given the considerable overlap between Russian politics and Russian business, he probably thought it unnecessary. Berezovsky, the archetype of the post-communist breed of Russian businessmen known – both admiringly and derisively – as the oligarchs, has survived several assassination attempts, including a 1994 car bomb which decapitated his driver.
Berezovsky makes this splendidly melodramatic declaration at the beginning of episode one of Russian Godfathers, an excellent new BBC series by Patrick Forbes, director of the acclaimed The National Trust. Russian Godfathers examines how, in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state-owned assets and resources of the superpower were snapped up by a tiny group of smart, ruthless, ambitious and well-connected men, who abruptly joined the ranks of the very richest people in history.
Russian Godfathers also examines their very mixed fortunes since coming into their preposterous wealth, which is a bold enterprise in itself. The rise of the oligarchs was one of many grotesque results of Russia’s transformation to capitalism – a shift managed so ineptly that many Russians ended up nostalgic for communism. The oligarchs, idiotically rich in a country that was largely poor, and given to parading their wealth in a manner that makes American hip-hoppers look like an especially reticent community of Amish farmers, could certainly have given any former Soviet citizen pause to wonder, as he queued for beetroot, what the proletarian revolution had been for.
The oligarchs, not content with buying companies, villas, yachts, planes and the most beautiful of Russia’s beautiful women, also bought power. In 1996, they connived to engineer the re-election of the politically and physically ailing Boris Yeltsin. In 2000, they helped steer Yeltsin’s successor into power – Vladimir Putin, a saturnine former spook with the KGB, and its descendant organisation, the FSB. This, as Russian Godfathers demonstrates, may have been the moment at which the oligarchs out-clevered themselves.
Putin, able to see matters rather straighter than Yeltsin, realised two crucial things about the oligarchs: that they were potentially more powerful than him, and that they were about as popular with your average Russian as a man idly burning bundles of £50s outside an orphanage (according to one 2004 poll, only 18% of Russians opposed wholesale renationalisation of the country’s resources). In a country in which anti-semitism never quite went out of fashion, the fact that many of the oligarchs are Jewish makes them an even more tempting target for a populist like Putin (after the arrest of arch-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin’s already high approval rating was measured at 80%).
Viktor Vekselberg is now the richest man in Russia. The founder of Moscow-based Renova Group, a closely held conglomerate that controls investments in energy, construction and mining, added $1.5 billion to his net worth yesterday after OAO Rosneft, Russia’s state-controlled oil and gas operator, agreed to pay $54.8 billion to acquire TNK-BP in the third-biggest oil acquisition ever.