Vladimir Putin’s war on the Russian oligarchs may have begun with the arrest of media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky in June, or so many Western observers hoped. Although Gusinsky was later released (after pledging to remain in Russia during the course of an embezzlement investigation against him), few in or out of Russia doubt that the Kremlin means business. After briefly bemoaning threats to “freedom of speech,” many analysts in Europe and America have begun to view Putin as a Russian Pinochet who will sit on the oligarchs and ram through much-needed market reforms.
Such wishful thinking is a source of amusement to those of us who spend our time watching the machinations that have driven Russia to the brink of collapse. In fact, Gusinsky has been the target of the “family”—the cabal of insiders who ran Russia under Boris Yeltsin—for some time. Yeltsin, however, had an odd way of pulling Gusinsky’s fat out of the fire whenever his nemesis, Boris A. Berezovsky, had drawn a bead on Gusinsky. Yeltsin preferred a certain balance among the oligarchs, preserving his role as arbiter in a den of thieves.
But Yeltsin is retired now, and the “family” did not arrange for Vladimir Putin to be elected president merely to preserve the status quo. They’re aiming at a conclusion that Yeltsin would never have permitted: Gusinsky must be crushed, preferably by seizing his property. This would open the door to the “review of privatization” that Putin promised would not take place if he were elected.
It seems that the prosecutor’s office was shocked to find that Gusinsky had privatized certain state assets using insider information. Moreover, his Media Most company, which controls the powerful NTV network, made a critical error in accumulating huge debts, setting the stage for the “family’s” takeover of Gusinsky’s assets. Meanwhile, “outsider” oligarchs who publicly defended Gusinsky may be in trouble themselves: In mid-June, Russian prosecutors opened a case involving the illegal privatization of one of Russia’s biggest and most lucrative enterprises, metallurgy giant Norilsk Nikel, owned by longtime Berezovsky foe Vladimir Potanin. And Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has also been questioned in an investigation of the city tax office.
Berezovsky has always pushed the political envelope, creating chaotic situations that inevitably redounded to his favor. It appears that he and his friends now desire all the oligarchs’ marbles—and this was the ultimate aim of “Operation Putin.” Whether those oligarchs outside the Kremlin circle can forge an effective counterattack, and whether Putin can break free of the “family’s” hold on him, remains to be seen. Whatever happens, Russia’s oligarchy, in one form or another, is here to stay.
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