Rich and powerless: How Putin controls Russia’s wealthy oligarchs

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When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the outside world viewed those Russians known as “oligarchs” as men who whose vast wealth, ruthlessly amassed, made them almost shadow rulers. A “government of the few,” in the word’s etymology.

The term has persisted well into Putin’s rule, broadening in popular usage to refer to almost any Russian with a substantial fortune.

Despite the blows to their assets as a result of the Ukraine war, most of Russia’s ultra-wealthy have stayed quiet about the conflict or offered only mild, token criticism of Vladimir Putin’s government.Credit: AP

How much political power any of Russia’s uber-rich now wield, however, is doubtful.

A few hours after Putin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, a televised meeting he held in the Kremlin with top industrialists and entrepreneurs showed how the dynamics had changed: Putin simply told them he had no choice but to invade.

Despite the harsh consequences to their wealth that the tycoons could expect from the war, they had to accept it; the power was his, not theirs.

The original oligarchs

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, astute businessmen who had already begun building operations as government controls loosened under Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika” reform policies took advantage of the privatising of state industries to quickly establish vast holdings.

Fast-talking mathematician Boris Berezovsky epitomised the breed, becoming the largest dealer for Russia’s largest automaker and managing to buy the vehicles at a loss to the manufacturer. He took over the management of the Sibneft oil company, the national airline Aeroflot and gained control of Russia’s biggest TV channel, then known as ORT.

Somewhat less-colourful than Berezovsky but still prominent figures from the era included media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, whose NTV channel made him highly influential, and oil tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Roman Abramovich.

Putin’s new deal

Upon taking office, Putin was well aware of the widespread resentment ordinary Russians felt for the ultra-wealthy who thrived while millions struggled through the economic changes. In the summer of 2000, Putin met in the Kremlin with about two dozen of the men regarded as the top oligarchs. The meeting was closed, but reports later said he made them a sternly clear deal: Stay out of politics and your wealth won’t be touched.

Mikhail Fridman, a co-founder of Russia’s largest private bank, was a critic of the Ukraine war and left the country but has reportedly returned to Moscow.Credit: AP

“The guarantee … was that all the riches amassed before his presidency could be kept by their owners, and this has never changed,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst Alexandra Prokopenko wrote in a commentary this year.

“Loyalty is what Putin values above all else.”

By then, Berezovsky had already begun criticising Putin. Within months, he left Russia for the United Kingdom and was granted asylum in 2003. Ten years later, he was found dead in his home; a disputed post-mortem examination said he appeared to have hanged himself.

Gusinsky, whose media holdings were critical of Putin and even satirised him, was hauled into jail amid an investigation of misappropriated funds; within weeks, he agreed to sell his holdings to an arm of Russia’s state natural gas monopoly, and he left the country.

Khodorkovsky, regarded as Russia’s richest man at the time, lasted longer, establishing the Open Society reformist group and showing increased political ambitions. But he was arrested in 2003 when special forces stormed onto his private plane and spent a decade in prison on convictions of tax evasion and embezzlement before Putin pardoned him and he left Russia.

The oligarchs’ future

Despite the blows to their assets as a result of the Ukraine war, most of Russia’s ultra-wealthy have stayed quiet about the conflict or offered only mild, token criticism.

Banking and brewing entrepreneur Oleg Tinkov was a rare exception, denouncing the war and calling its supporters “morons.” He left the country in late 2022 and later renounced his citizenship.

Former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich was one of the original oligarchs. Credit: AP

Mikhail Fridman, a co-founder of Russia’s largest private bank, called the war a tragedy and for the “bloodshed” to end. He holds Israeli citizenship and had lived in Britain, but reportedly returned to Moscow after fighting between Israel and Hamas began.

“Even as the elites grumble, they continue to show loyalty,” Prokopenko wrote.

But she and other analysts suggest that loyalty had not been enough for Putin and that he wants to create a new cadre of hugely wealthy figures who are beholden to him by distributing the assets that the state has seized from foreign companies exiting Russia and through invalidating the privatisations from the 1990s.

Analyst Nikolai Petrov of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs wrote that Russia is engaged in deprivatisation “intended to redistribute wealth to a new generation of less-powerful individuals and shore up the president’s own position.”

“A new group of quasi-owner state oligarchs is being created, with wealth and control redistributed from the ‘old nobles’ to the new,” he said.


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