Democracia y Política

The Myth of the Russian Oligarchs

Moscow’s most popular joke today is unfunny: “Next year Putin, the ruble, and a barrel of oil will converge at just over 63.” Allow me to translate: The ruble will soon be trading at 63 to the dollar, or nearly double what the dollar was worth in Russia a year ago (meaning most Russians will be roughly 50 percent poorer); a barrel of oil will fall to $63 a barrel, roughly 2005-level prices, devastating the Russian economy; and President Vladimir Putin will turn 63. All three predictions are depressingly realistic: The Russian economy appears headed for disaster just as certainly as Mr. Putin will most likely celebrate his next birthday in October 2015. And more likely than not, he will still be president of Russia then.

Conventional wisdom — or conventional hope — among many of the people who would like to see the end of the Putin regime has long been that a turn for the worse in the Russian economy will make the moneyed elite turn on the Russian president. Journalists, pundits and Mr. Putin’s political opponents in Russia have predicted that Western sanctions and the economic disaster they hasten will result in a coup d’état staged by oligarchs. There is just one problem with that argument: There are no oligarchs anymore.

When Mr. Putin became acting president 15 years ago this month, Russia was an oligarchy — indeed the oligarchs, a small group of men who had grown very rich in the preceding decade, were instrumental in picking Putin out of obscurity and installing him at the helm. But within months, he made the oligarchs an offer they could not refuse: give up all of their political power and some of their wealth in exchange for safety, security and continued prosperity, or else be stripped of all power and assets.

He meant it. The media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, who rejected the new rules, was forced into exile in the summer of 2000, and uber-oligarch Boris Berezovsky followed him a few months later. When the richest man in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, refused any such bargain, he was jailed and his company was taken away. The process of destroying the Russian oligarchy was completed.

In the 11 years since Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Mr. Putin has consolidated power into what the political scientist Karen Dawisha calls “kleptocratic authoritarianism.” Its essential characteristic is all-encompassing corruption, which makes all the moneyed men of the Russian elite — and they are all men, and all moneyed — profoundly interdependent. Many of them have held public office during this time, but it has invariably been subject to three interlocking conditions: They had to pay to get into office, and though they could use the office for accumulating greater wealth, they could not use it to wield or gain political power.

Giving up any pretense of independent political action has remained a condition for staying wealthy and safe. When the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov tried, and rather modestly, to test this condition by reshaping an essentially pro-Kremlin but populist political party three years ago, he was yanked back harshly. Faced with the threat of losing his assets, he then fell back into line. In the new era of economic hardship, he has stayed in line: In his most recent demonstration of loyalty to the Kremlin, a media company Prokhorov owns has just kicked the tiny, embattled independent television company Dozhd (Rain) TV out of a temporary studio on its property.

Over these years of helping Mr. Putin solidify his regime, the Russian rich have not only become entrenched in this corrupt system, but they have lost the very ability to form and pursue a political agenda. Those who predict an imminent coup — a coup by oligarchs as independent actors who can form a coalition to pursue their economic interests — are far off the mark. Imagine, rather, a large number of spiders all living in a single web. As the economy takes a dive, they are compelled simply to hold on for dear life. As the web begins to shrink, they can kick off it some of their weaker comrades — as has already happened with two major Russian entrepreneurs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov and Maxim Nogotkov, whose companies were taken away from them by men richer and more powerful than they. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin, who still sits in the middle of the intricate system he has woven over the course of 15 years, faces no such risk.

Russia’s economic troubles probably mean that the moneyed elite will suffer, with more of its members going into exile or even to jail while their assets are redistributed. As for the rest of the Russian population, more than 140 million people, bad economic news is just bad economic news: It spells out-of-control inflation and real daily hardship. But neither the self-cannibalizing rich nor the newly poor are likely to pose a challenge to Mr. Putin’s power.

Masha Gessen is the author, most recently, of “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.”

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