I first learned from Andy over at Siberian Light about the press brouhaha over Putin’s alleged $40 billion tucked away in banks in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. Intrigued, I set my sights on said press accounts for the story.
Claims of Putin’s hidden money bags comes from an interview Stanislav Belkovsky recently gave to Die Welt. There Belkovsky perhaps spells out the true nature of “Putinism,” a nature that harks back to Andrei Pointkovsky’s claim that Putinism is “the highest stage of robber capitalism.” Indeed, except Russian capitalism is more like collective thievery. Under Putin’s tenure, says Belkovsky, “all the interest groups are represented in the Kremlin. The people who sit there are the direct advocates and co-owners of large enterprises.” Nothing new here. What is new is the claim that Putin himself has reaped the spoils of Russia’s economic might. “Putin is a big businessman. He control 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz stock, which has a market value of $20 billion. In addition, he contols 4.5 percent of Grazprom stock. In the oil firm Gunvor Putin holds 50 percent more than its founder Gennady Timchenko.” In an interview with the Guardian, Belkovsky claims that Putin’s stake in Gunvor is as high as 75 percent. However, the numbers are mostly speculation since the paper trail confirming Putin’s stash has yet to be found.
If the estimates of Putin’s wealth are believed, the $40 billion he has tucked away would instantly make him Europe’s wealthiest man. Moreover, if true, then the comparisons between Mexico under the PRI and Russia under United Russia might gain whole new resonance. Putin’s fortune simply makes him a Slavic caudillo equipped with all the benefits the office bestows. As Robin Leach used to say in his signature accent, “With champagne wishes and caviar dreams, these are the lifestyles of the rich and famous!”
The real question is why now? Why is Putin’s wealth not only being revealed, but also discussed? For this we have to turn to Luke Harding’s take on the matter. According to him, the reason for why what was once taboo is now suddenly out in the open has to do with the machinations of those damn siloviki. Harding explains,
Discussion of Putin’s wealth has previously been taboo. But the claims have leaked out against the backdrop of a fight inside the Kremlin between a group led by Igor Sechin, Putin’s influential deputy chief of staff, and a “liberal” clan that includes Medvedev.
. . .
Insiders say the struggle has little to do with ideology. They characterize it as a war between business competitors. Putin’s decision to endorse as president Medvedev – who has no links with the secret services – dealt a severe blow to the hardline Sechin clan, they add.
. . .
Critics say the wave of renationalisations under Putin has transformed Putin’s associates into multimillionaires. The dilemma now facing the Kremlin’s elite is how to hang on to its wealth if Putin leaves power, experts say. Most of its money is located in the west, they add. The pressing problem is how to protect these funds from any future administration that may seek to reclaim them.
True. Multimillionaires they be. Sechin, as Chairman of Rosneft, might be the next carcass for the Kremlin vultures to feast from. He’s been hit, and hit hard over the past several weeks. So does this mean that a battered and beleaguered Sechin is going to the mattresses? Is the leak of Putin’s alleged wealth simply a black PR hit against the Don? Stay tuned, dear reader. Stay tuned. Because the siloviki war might have just been ratcheted up a notch.
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By Sean — 7 years ago
I knew that calling Vladimir Putin a liberal would make liberals shutter. After all, they’ve been convinced that the only liberals in Russia are the hapless oppositionists who are the frequent targets of Putinist “repression.” What I didn’t expect is that the objection would come from a prominent blog like Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish.” For that, I am truely honored.
In a short post, Zach Beauchamp accuses me of “playing word games” in calling Putin a liberal. He writes:
Liberals believe broadly in three things: political democracy, individual rights, and capitalism. If “Russian liberalism” accepts the latter and reject the former two, isn’t it really just “authoritarian capitalism” with good branding?
Indeed, liberals do believe this things. However, since the 1970s it has been harder and harder to reconcile them in practice. If anything, capitalism has proved to be the sacred mantra that the other two must kowtow. So in response to whether Russia is really just “authoritarian capitalism” with good branding, I would say that the only thing liberalism has left is good branding. Because when the veneer is rubbed away, neoliberalism is making a mockery of democracy and individual rights on a global scale.
That said, Beauchamp left one very important tenet of liberalism out: the sovereignty of the law. It is upon the sovereignty of law that democracy, individual rights, and capitalism ideally rests. I say ideally because, again, the sanctity of the law, like the other principles, has come under increasing threat as it has become another weapon in neoliberal capitalist accumulation.
But on to liberalism, Putin and Russia. I don’t know how much Beauchamp knows about Russia. (I assume the Rainbow Stalin video (which, I admit, is hilarious) accompanying his post is supposed to suggest that Putin is merely Stalin with good branding. If so, then I venture that Beauchamp knows little about Russia, and even less about Stalin and Putin.) But one common mistake Beauchamp makes is evaluating Russia’s political traditions according to how they do or don’t mirror the (imagined) West. Russia has its own history, and while ideologies like liberalism were originally imported from abroad, their Russian practitioners adapted them to their nation’s particular conditions. Liberalism means many things in Russia as its Russian wikipedia page suggests. And if the Russians consider Mikhail Speransky and the Reforms of Alexander II part of the Russian liberal tradition, then by god, so is Putin.
I have no doubt in my mind that Putin also believes broadly in political democracy, individual rights, capitalism and the sovereignty of the law. The extent he practices what he preaches is another thing entirely. But for Putin the sovereignty of law is fundamental, in concert with the Russian tradition, he also views a strong centralized state as vital to its security. In Putin’s Russia this has meant elevating the state to its own raison d’état. The belief, rightly or wrongly, is that without a strong state, instituting the rule of law is merely a pipe dream. This is at least the lesson Putin and his people took from the 1990s.
Still one must be careful by what one means by the sovereignty of law in the Russian context. In Russia, as I said in my post, this means a Rechsttaat or legal state. The concept of the legal state has a long history, beginning with Catherine II, to Speransky, and to its transformation into a political program by the Russian liberal V. A. Maklakov. It also has conservative and radical variants. Conservatives want legality to facilitate state power. Radicals want the state’s interests to be subordinated to the rule of law. After a 70 year communist interlude, the conservative variant (which has always been the dominant one) has reemerged to define what the President of the Russia Constitutional Court Valery Zorkin called in 2003 the “ultimate goal.” He wrote:
Becoming a legal state has long been our ultimate goal, and we have certainly made serious progress in this direction over the past several years. However, no one can say now that we have reached this destination. Such a legal state simply cannot exist without a lawful and just society. Here, as in no other sphere of our life, the state reflects the level of maturity reached by society.
I believe that for Putin and his ilk, there is a sincere and wholly naive belief that a legal state will ultimately bequeath a Russia that respects democracy and individual rights. It is this belief that for me places Putin squarely in the Russian liberal tradition, albeit on the conservative end. In a way, one might think of Putin’s relationship to liberalism the same way Russian communists regarded communism. The CPSU never declared Soviet Russia communist; communism was always in becoming. Granted, Putin doesn’t call himself a liberal, but this is because liberalism is a dirty word in Russian politics. But when you look at what Putin (and Medvedev) ultimately aspire to it is a liberal Russia. They regard it as a historical necessity. They are just going to manage its development. This is why Putin, and Medvedev for that matter, speak of Russia’s modernization as a process. This is not to excuse all the truly horrible and disturbing things that happen in Russia in regard to human rights, etc. An honest engagement with these problems will only supplement Russia’s positive development. I’m sure most will see Putin and Medvedev as cynical. While a dose of cynicism is healthy, I would also urge that their rhetoric should nevertheless be taken seriously if we really want to understand what is going on there.
Whatever the plan is for Russia’s modernization, Zorkin’s statement contains an inner contradiction that has made the “ultimate goal” elusive for 300 years. As Zorkin rightly states, “a legal state simply cannot exist without a lawful and just society.” However, a society can’t be lawful and just without a legal state already in place. The problem is that in Russia sovereignty rests in two contradictory, and often arbitrarily interchangeable and sometimes overlapping places: the individual sovereign–a Tsar, general secretary, and now a president–and the law. Given that Russians believe, for a number of historical and cultural reasons, that the law is violable, the person of the sovereign has had to serve as the chief guarantor of a lawful and just society. Guarantor because only he has power to curb the arbitrariness and feudalism of what Alexander Radishchev called the “hundred headed monster,” i.e. the bureaucracy. However, being the sole guarantor of the law easily slips into also becoming its chief violator. Because the sovereign can’t rely on anyone to follow the rule of law, he often has exercise his personal power and influence in order to run the damn country. This inevitably undermines the very legal procedure he desires. Moreover, the more the sovereign centralizes the state as a means to control it, he neuters any nascent local legal and independent political structures that would facilitate liberal development.
Every Russian ruler has been a victim to this conundrum, even if they play a key role in their own victimization. Hell, regional secretaries even thumbed their nose at Stalin. Given this, does anyone honestly think that it wouldn’t happen to Putin? Despite all of Putin’s supposed godlike power, regional bureaucrats still flout his orders. So what does Putin do in response? Exactly what his forefathers did: reaffirm the vertical power of the state, squash independent political initiative, and manage reform from above.
Like it or not, such a reality turns even the most sincere liberal into an autocrat.
By Sean — 12 years ago
The deputy head of Putin’s administration, Vladislav Surkov gave a rare press conference this week. His comments touched on energy geopolitics and Russian democracy. The latter topic has generated the most press as critics have tried to ascertain the meaning of Surkov’s use of “sovereign democracy” versus “managed democracy”. For the latter he gave this definition: “By managed democracy we understand political and economic regimes imposed by centres of global influence – and I am not going to mention specific countries – by force and deception.” Of course Russia doesn’t try to install “managed democracies” on its borders. Yeah, right. In this sense, Russia does what every power currently does. It uses the rhetoric of democracy as a tool of geopolitical maneuvering.
Take Surkov’s democratic rhetoric as an example. His definition of “managed democracy” is a direct reference to America’s view that the only democracy is American democracy or at least the only viable democracy is one that conforms to American interests. Surkov made these comments in the context Dick Cheney’s hypocrisy in labeling authoritarian states “democracies.” “When [Cheney] was in Kazakhstan after criticizing our democracy, he gave the highest rating to Kazakhstan’s democracy. The Kazakh people are our brothers. But I will never agree that Kazakhstan has gone further in building democracy than we have.” I’d have to score one to Surkov here. For Cheney to suggest that Nazarbayev’s regime approaches anything close to a democracy should evoke rancorous laughter. The point however is Russia is itself playing the “democracy” game by measuring others and itself against imagined, and self-referential idealism about its own democracy.
In contrast, western critics use the term “managed democracy” to describe Russia as “backsliding” into authoritarianism. Surkov essentially turned the Western usage on its head. According to Surkov, “managed democracy” is given to states that are under the American neo-imperial umbrella. So Karzai’s Afghanistan, Musharaf’s Pakistan, Mubark’s Egypt, and Iraq are democracies, while Russia is not. “They [the West],” charged Surkov in specific reference to American attempts to dominate the globes energy resources, “talk about democracy but they’re thinking about our natural resources.”
Instead, Russia is what Surkov calls a “sovereign democracy”—a democracy which acts in its own national interest and, (this got the goat of many Western reporters) is no different than democracy in Europe. “It [sovereign democracy] means we are building an open society, that we do not forget we are a free society, and that we do not want to be directed from outside,” said Surkov. In his view, Russia is moving away from the “managed democracy” of the 1990s, when Russia was racked by American influenced “shock therapy” and rule by oligarchs. “What are we backsliding from?” he asked rhetorically. “We are moving further and further away from this non-democracy.”
This semantic game was not lost on Sergei Roy, who had this to say in a recent commentary on the “managed” versus “sovereign” democracy:
Consider the controversy concerning “managed democracy” vs. “sovereign democracy.” Certain “purists” insist that either you have democracy or you don’t, that real democracy comes without any adjectives, that any additions to the concept make it less of a democracy or no democracy at all. Well, those purists should pay attention to the frequency with which the phrase “effective democracy” is used in the US ideological environment and, still more, to the practice of imposing this “effective democracy” throughout the world — most notably in Iraq, of course. Surkov’s, and quite a few other people’s, insistence on sovereign democracy means, quite simply, that to have a democracy in Russia, there must first be a Russia, recognizable to its people as their birthplace with a thousand-year history and a certain future as a single, indivisible country. A sovereign country. No wonder this term, sovereign democracy, is so virulently attacked by the said purists, for whom there can be only one kind of democracy the world over — American democracy. We see only too clearly, however, that American democracy abroad is democracy for Americans abroad and at home, not for the peoples of that “abroad.” Countries like Georgia and Ukraine are too close to Russia for us to miss the effect of the loss of sovereignty on democracy. To the US, these lands may appear to be beacons of freedom and democracy. At closer range, they look more like what the irreverent French call bordel de Dieu, the brothel of Our Lord. They are not even managed democracies, as Surkov calls them. They are mismanaged pseudo-democracies.
And I should not be too contemptuous of Georgia, Ukraine or the like. Just a few years ago, Russia was no better, with “democrats” like Gusinsky, Berezovsky, Nevzlin, Khdorkovsky, not forgetting the Family or Mr. Chernomyrdin (aka Schwarzmordekhai), ruling the land in collusion with the IMF, tearing the country apart, snarling at each other over the more succulent chunks of its assets, and stashing away the proceeds of plunder in foreign securities. That was the type of democracy in Russia that suited the West to a T. Like Surkov said, “If cannibals came to power in Russia and gave away certain things to certain people at once, they would be recognized as a democratic government.” Recall how fervent Mr. Cheney was in praise of Kazakhstani democracy on his recent visit there. Kazakhs are no cannibals, thank God, but they have given away their oil fields to Chevron — and were elevated to the status of arch-democrats by the US vice president. One might have asked what the Kazakh opposition had to say on this score — if there was any opposition worth the name to be found, for love or money.
However, while Roy agrees that Russia needs a Putin (which he refers to as “Putin A”) to move Russia away from domination by outsiders, Russia also needs a “Putin B” to act as counterweight, “otherwise the whole structure is a bit out of kilter and prone to dangerous instability.” This dangerous instability is seen in United Russia’s one party dominance over Russian politics.
What or who does Roy wish this until now non-existent counterweight to be? “A leader of the currently totally disorganized and apathetic masses, a leader who would unite these masses around a trade unions platform somewhat along the British trades union lines of the pre-Blair era. That is what the country needs — a “labor party” and a strong labor party leader, to kick the excreta out of the rotten, currently all-powerful yet incompetent bureaucratic machine and the grasping capitalists who are now exploiting and generally manhandling the proles any damn way they please.”
Roy’s comment echoes the hopes of Boris Kagarlitsky. Kagarlistky also muses on the fact that something is missing in Russian politics. And that “something” is none other than social democracy. Though much of Europe is in the hands of social democratic parties, social democracy as it was known in the early and middle part of the 20th century has all but collapsed. Social Democrats have further reconciled themselves to the Thatcherite slogan, “There is no alternative” to neo-liberal capitalism.
For Russia, however, social democracy has been bankrupt much longer. The ineffectiveness and political stupidity of the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1917 along with its branding as the ideology of “enemies of the people” in the Soviet period, has relegated any social democratic hopes thoroughly in the hands of the equally moribund Communist Party. These folks, in Kagarlitsky’s eyes, are much worse than the Third Wayers in Western Europe. At least the Blairites and Schroederites bare some resemblance to a social democracy now past. Gennady Zyuganov’s “Communists” are nothing more than conservative nationalists wrapped in the red flag of working class emancipation.
It is because of this that Kagarlitsky’s (and Roys’ for that matter) hopes for the development of a Western style social democratic alternative to United Russia are only that, hopes. A substitute will come along to challenge United Russia in the political duel for Russia’s “sovereign democracy”. It just won’t be a force with a social democratic face.
So what does this all have to do with Surkov’s concept of Russia’s “sovereign democracy”? It seems that it has strange bedfellows. Roy’s doesn’t reject the notion. I doubt Kagarlitsky would either. Russian democracy should be a contest that has Russian interests in mind. It should be a sort of nationalist democracy. (And here I use nationalist to mean that it should be conducted without outside influence.) The differences are that Surkov’s democracy looks fine without an opposition to Putin/United Russia. Democracy under the helm of these two powerful forces, though not without problems, is sailing along just fine. For Roy and Kagarlitsky, this smooth sailing is only a dream vacation cruise that is steeped in ideological smoke and political grift. The real journey will undoubtedly hit some rough and choppy waters that will inevitably veer Russia’s “sovereign democracy” into the oncoming rocks.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Putin must love it when a plan comes together. With around 85 percent of precincts reporting, United Russia has captured an albeit predictable landslide. The numbers break down as follows:
- United Russia: 63.2 percent
- Communist Party: 11.7 percent
- Liberal Democratic Party: 8.4 percent
- Just Russia: 8 percent
- Other Parties: 8.7 percent
The percentage scraps leftover went to parties like Yabloko and Union of Right Forces who didn’t garner the needed 7 percent to make the cut. And while the losers will scream foul, the winner, United Russia, will be able to take their victory as a sign that the population supports their consolidation of power. For Russia’s fledgling liberal parties, the election engenders the old Leninist dictum: What is to be done?
The liberals will certainly try to postpone dealing with this question until after the Presidential Elections in March. But after that it seems that they will have to honestly evaluate their political future. Will they continue as before? Will they make a strategic merge and pool resources and constituencies? Or will they decide that once again liberalism has no future in Russia and for the time being, it might be better to grease the system from the inside. If the latter course is taken, some will certainly abandon political principle and join United Russia. Others will piggyback on Just Russia and hedge their bets that the Kremlin created opposition party has a political future ahead of it.The Communists of course have the most to lose in all this. In response to the polls, Gensek Gennady Zyuganov claimed that the “direct helpers and sidekicks of United Russia”–the Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia–siphoned off his party’s votes. There may be an element of truth in that. Plus it seems that Zyuganov plans to challenge the election results in court. “This is not a parliament, but a branch of the Kremlin, a department of the government,” he asserted. The Party’s lawyer Vadim Solovyev stated that the “barrage of violations exceeds all acceptable norms.” This of course makes one wonder what electoral corruption looks like when it falls within acceptable norms.
And electoral corruption there was. Despite the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) Central Asian rep Kimmo Kiljunen’s insistence that there would be no “ballot rigging.” “I see law and order and I see people going to vote,” he said. Well, in a sense he’s right if you consider the elections he normally monitors in Central Asia. Russia’s elections must looks like shining beacons of the democratic process compared to those.
Still, even if Kiljunen’s special perspective is considered, there can’t be any denial of electoral malfeasance. The press was flooded with incidents over the last week. To make sure everything went as planned, the last day of campaigning was coupled with the police seizure of the entire press run of Arkhangelskii obozrevatel. The Central Electoral Commission claimed that the paper violated electoral law because it published voter surveys in its Friday addition. Election law forbids the publication of polls five days before voting. According to the paper’s editor Oleg Grigorash the seizure was spearheaded by Arkhandelsk mayor Alexander Donskoi “so that all information about the disgraced governor and also materials about the upcoming Duma elections were not revealed to the citizens of Arkhangelsk.” In Kransodarsk, police raided the offices of SPS. SPS activists barricaded the door to save them from the police. Why did the police storm the offices? They never found out. I wonder if these kinds of incidents are what the Moscow Times means when it claims that “regional committees were ordered to resort to any means necessary, including fraud, to ensure that United Russia won 70 to 80 percent of the vote.” If the electoral returns now cited are any indication, once again the regions did not fulfill the plan. They should have all followed Ramzan Kadyrov’s lead. United Russia scored 99 percent of the vote in Chechnya.
But now its all over. And no one was happier than Putin himself. “Thank god the election campaign is over,” he told reporters after voting with wife in tow around 1 pm. Turn out was high. Around 60 percent of the 108 million registered voters cast votes. Two voters, however, took the opportunity to nullify their ballots. Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, amid a crowd of reporters, crossed out their ballots and wrote in “Other Russia.” “I voted against all because the authorities deprive the citizens of Russia their constitutional rights,” Kasparov said after dropping his self-disqualified vote in the ballot box. I’m sure in this instance that the authorities were happy to see Kasparov and Limonov do their job for them. What’s next for the dynamic duo? Another protest, of course, today 3 December, whimsically titled “The Funeral of Elections.”
Of course, Nashi’s exit polls lacked any surprise. 20,000 pro-Kremlin youths calculated that 61.88 percent of vote went for United Russia, almost pegging the official count to the number. With accuracy like that , it’s no wonder then never managed to erect those tents to fight off would-be colored revolutionary scoundrels.
Lastly, I think this Putin joke sums up the whole mess:
Putin calls his mother on the phone and says: “Hello mama. It’s me, Vladimir. I won the elections”. Putin’s mother responds:
“Really? Honestly?”. “Mama,” Putin answers. “Can you please not nag me about that.”
Just think. This election was just a dress rehearsal for March. Then, the gloves will really come off.