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By John Helmer. Moscow

Alisher Usmanov (lead image, left) has announced that the Russian oligarchs have almost died out.

Not counting himself, he claimed in a television interview on the weekend there is only one oligarch left. “I think we have one passenger in this car, it is already empty, and he sits alone — still rolling along. He is an oligarch. And he knows that about himself. He lost everything but one company, which is why he stays in it. And there are no more oligarchs.”

Asked whether he meant Roman Abramovich or Oleg Deripaska, Usmanov said they are “big businessmen, leading businessmen, the best businessmen, talented businessmen, and so on, and so on.” 

Another oligarch said through his spokesman that “for sure” Usmanov was speaking of Vladimir Potanin (lead image, right).

Almost every Russian in the land believes Usmanov is lying. According to a nationwide poll  in April, 94% said they consider there are oligarchs in Russia; 3% said there are not; and 3% said it was difficult for them to answer.

A poll of the leading business editors and reporters in Moscow this week, plus bankers and the staffs of the oligarchs themselves, also found it difficult to identify whom Usmanov was referring to as the last oligarch. These sources mentioned so many names that the poll demonstrates the opposite of what Usmanov is claiming. But none of the journalists wished to be named themselves. This reveals not only that they believe the oligarchs continue in wealth, but also that they are powerful enough to attack any reporter whose remarks they don’t approve of.

The Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) polled a nationwide sample of Russians in April on whether they identify the oligarchs as a group with a combination of economic and political power in the country. In the survey release almost half of those who recognize the oligarchs said they are a force for harm; 9% said they are a force for good; and 36% said the oligarchs do both.  Men were more hostile than women; rural residents more than urban ones; the poor more than the well-off.


Key to column listing: Roman Abramovich (Evraz); Oleg Deripaska (Rusal); Mikhail Prokhorov; Vladimir Potanin (Norilsk Nickel); Anatoly Chubais (Rusnano); Alexei Miller (Gazprom); Alisher Usmanov (Metalloinvest, Megafon, Mail.ru); Boris  Berezovsky (deceased); Igor Sechin (Rosneft); Mikhail Khodorkovsky (exile). The survey sample was asked to name up to five oligarchs whom they recognized. The score is the name recognition percentage for each oligarch,  according to the number of respondents who said they believed there are oligarchs in Russia. Of the nationwide sample of 2,000,  94% said yes; 3% said no; and 3% said they found it difficult to answer. The survey was conducted by telephone on April 7 and 8. Source: https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=9042

The VTsIOM survey reconfirms earlier polling results showing the oligarchs remain  among the most recognizable groups wielding power in Russia.  Last December, for example, the independent Levada Centre reported that a third of Russians identify the oligarchs as having power over President Vladimir Putin; that percentage was more than double the percentage identifying the oligarchs in December 2003, weeks after the arrest of Khodorkovsky.  According to Levada’s new poll, only the larger and more diffuse grouping of the siloviki is thought by Russians to be more powerful, and Putin more beholden to them than he is to the oligarchs.

(Respondents could choose more than one answer; scores are percentage totals ranked in descending order)

Source:  https://www.levada.ru/ For analysis and more detail, read this story. 

Putin himself displays the oligarchs as a group at a Christmas roundtable meeting he hosts every year at the Kremlin, followed by supper. Counting the totals at the table since 2014, and distinguishing between those who have been the president’s regular guests and those who have been dropped, the number of oligarchs, as Putin recognizes them,  runs to between 40 and 60. The conversation between the oligarchs at these dinners has been chronicled by the court jester Andrei Kolesnikov, a Kremlin pool reporter employed at Kommersant. Asked this week whom he thinks Usmanov meant as the last oligarch standing, Kolesnikov was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. 

For analysis of the numbers and identities at each of Putin’s oligarch dinners, read this.  The names missing from VTsIOM’s latest oligarch name-recognition poll  — names rated by oligarch staffs and Kremlin sources as exercising equal or more influence over the President include German Gref (Sberbank), Suleiman Kerimov (Polyus), Gennady Timchenko, Arkady Rotenberg, and Sergei Chemezov (Rostec).  Mikhail Fridman (Alfa, Vimpelcom) used to be more influential before he moved to London.

In each of Russia’s major industries the names of the oligarchs who dominate and tell Putin what they want, are well–known. In Usmanov’s branch of the metals sector, for example, some reporters believe the oligarch to whom he was referring was his business rival, Vladimir Lisin (Novolipetsk Steel). The oligarch who is identified by every citizen of Chelyabinsk and who has persuaded Putin to allow him to continue polluting the air, water and ground of the city,  is Igor Zyuzin. 

The domestic political opposition has also depended on patronage from the oligarchs,  including Berezovsky, Khodorkovsky, and Chubais. So too the presidential campaigns of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev; among his financiers there have been Ziyavudin Magamedov, an oligarch now in jail, and a group of men whose fortunes were delivered by Chubais when he arranged the privatization of the state electricity system.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition figure backed by Chubais against Putin, said in a Moscow radio interview this week he doesn’t know whom Usmanov was referring to as the last oligarch. “But I’m sure [it was] not the President, because he’s an accurate person. It’s unlikely he would blurt out like that.”

At the Echo Moskvy radio studio (left) Vladimir Ryzhkov and (right) interviewer Yevgeny Buntman. Listen to Ryzhkov’s discussion of Usmanov’s last oligarch at Min.31: https://echo.msk.ru/

Ryzhkov defined  the oligarchs by their power over Putin in policymaking. “When necessary, they have a very short path to the Kremlin offices; when necessary, they get into them. When necessary, they receive preferences. Naturally, they know how to justify them. They say it’s different here at our plants in Krasnoyarsk, in Khakassia – they will be closed,  there will be  social tension, and the budget will receive less taxes. And so we are not just billionaire oligarchs, but we are socially significant entities. They always find arguments. There is money for Deripaska. I am sure that Usmanov also receives some preferences. And so on.”

“The fact is that this is a very important part of the system. First, they are loyal…Deripaska also said ten or twelve years ago, in my opinion in the Financial Times,  when he was asked by the correspondent of the  Financial Times: ‘Well, you are the owner?’ ‘The owner,’ he says. ‘But if the state demands its return, will you give it back?’ ‘I will’, [Deripaska] said, ‘without hesitation.’ ‘But you are the owner?’ ‘The owner.  But I will give back without hesitation.’  These are the oligarchs.”

“That is, it’s a fact that they are temporary holders; that their property is such temporary property, conditional property. Behold. They’re useful. Because when you have to build the Olympics, they build at a loss. When you have the World Cup, they make a loss to do something. When it is necessary to organize something there in Macedonia, [they have the] means,…in neighboring Ukraine, they do, too.”

“In other words, this is part of this authoritarian system, monopolistic state capitalism which  we have built. This system is absolutely uncompetitive from an economic point of view. Totally ineffective. Under this system, the country’s economy is not developing; our long-suffering people are suffering, because all of this help for [the oligarchs] — it comes at our expense. Because we save the banks at our expense, we will also save Deripaska at our expense.”


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