Russia: Mogul Horde

Mikhael Khodorkovsky
Russian business magnate Mikhael Khodorkovsky in Moscow, Oct. 6, 2003 (Photo: Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP-Getty Images).

On Sept. 7, the election campaign for the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament officially began. This campaign has been distinguished from previous ones in that “the hunt for votes,” as one newspaper described it, is taking place during a different but no less vigorous hunt—by state authorities against the Russian business class, or oligarchs. As in past elections, the Russian press is hardly playing a dispassionate, watchdog role. Embattled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the chief executive of  Yukos Oil, underlined the media’s function as propaganda tool when he purchased the liberal weekly Moskovskie Novosti in early September. He appointed Yevgeni Kiselev, a veteran TV journalist and strident critic of President Vladimir Putin, the paper’s new editor in chief.

In July, an associate of Khodorkovsky’s, Platon Lebedev, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The prosecution of Lebedev has been interpreted as a warning by the Kremlin against Khodorkovsky’s expressions of interest in electoral politics. By purchasing Moskovskie Novosti, Khodorkovsky expands his holdings in media properties, a segment of the economy previously dominated by the exiled oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky. Rather than trying to make peace with the powers that be, Khodorkovsky seems to be raising the level of hostilities.

Writing in Novoye Vremya (Sept. 14), Aleksandr Kustarev commented: “The Yukos affair has caused concern among committed libertarians, practicing businessmen, and property owners, and it has awakened the hopes of levelers.
Again rumors run rampant of expropriation and dekulakization [the elimination of “kulaks,” or rich peasants, as a class]. Again the image has been revived of the Russian state as an enemy of the property owner. These fears and hopes, alas, are hardly realistic.” According to Kustarev, the aim isn’t expropriation; it is a populist spectacle to influence the elections.

For his part, Berezovsky, though in London, hasn’t given up on attempting to make his mark at home. “The very rare proximity of the Earth and Mars continues to have a bellicose effect on well-known Russian personages,” Argumenty i Fakty noted (Sept. 3). “Berezovsky, it seems, has finally decided to run for a seat in the State Duma. Not just anywhere—but in St. Petersburg, the birthplace of the president. He doesn’t have to gather signatures for this purpose. All he needs to do is make a cash deposit. The aim of this is apparently to prove something or to drive Vladimir Putin mad. It is known that after Sept. 8, when the pro-Berezovsky party Liberal Russia holds its congress, this party will create a series of history-making scandals against the Ministry of Justice. And it’s known that the latter refused to register the party.”

The pro-presidential United Russia party is the front-runner in opinion polls, followed by the Communist Party. The drama awaiting spectators, according to Vremya Novostei’s Natalya Rozhkova and Kseniya Veretennikova (Sept. 8), is whether the Communist Party will overtake United Russia, whether the liberal Union of Rightist Forces will be represented in the next legislature, and, indeed, whether the turnout in the Dec. 7 ballot will reach the necessary 25-percent level.

Putin is the unspoken reference point for all party programs, even if the presidential race isn’t until March 2004, according to Izvestiya’s Yekatarina Grigoryeva and Natalya Ratiani (Aug. 29): “It seems that there is an unspoken taboo against using Putin’s picture in [election] ads. Even United Russia, the most obvious claimant to the title of ‘main party of power,’ does not try to exploit him in any way. Meanwhile, most [other] parties try to associate themselves at least with the presidential program, or if not with the presidential program (some kind of Putinesque reforms), then with a ‘presidential mood.’  Today, such a mood in society is understood as patriotism, a strengthening of order, the fight against corruption, some kind of abstract ‘strong state,’ and a bit of longing for ‘what was good in the Soviet Union.’ ”

A businessman-turned-politician like Berezovsky or Khodorkovsky can hardly compete with the likes of Putin. Commented Novoye Vremya’s Kustarev: “It’s not hard to imagine what would happen if such a candidate for president were to win. It would mean the complete merging of  big capital and the political structure. Berezovsky, who dreams of an oligarch president, idealizes this figure in the guise of Rockefeller. In fact, it would be [Silvio] Berlusconi. Russian capitalism, which arose on the basis of a privatized or corrupted state sector with active mafia participation, is typologically closer to the Italian [than to the American] model. If Russia gets its Berlusconi, it will finally turn into Italy. Is it worth it? Russia won’t get warmer, and oranges won’t grow.”