Berezovsky Was Not the Last of the Oligarchs

He and other elites have been vanquished, but the oligarchy remains. Just the names have changed.
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Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky speaks to members of the media after losing his court battle against Roman Abramovich, at a division of the High Court in London on August 31, 2012. (Olivia Harris/Reuters)

The oligarch is dead. Long live the oligarchy.

Boris Berezovsky's death in London last week has been called the end of an era, and in some ways it sort of was.

The man who once controlled swaths of the Russian economy and was called everything from the "Godfather of the Kremlin" to a modern-day Rasputin pretty much defined and dominated Russian politics for the first decade following the Soviet collapse.

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At the height of his power, he was the master of political intrigue, had Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin hardwired, and could reportedly bring down governments on a whim.

He is widely believed to have handpicked Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's successor and engineered the ageing Kremlin leader's shock resignation on the eve of the millennium that put the then-obscure KGB veteran in power.

And since being forced into exile in late 2000, Berezovsky has been the perfect foil for the current regime -- a symbol of the corrupt oligarchy and wild capitalism of the 1990s that impoverished Russia and which Putin claims to have banished.

If Putin didn't have Berezovsky, he would have had to invent him.

But there is something wrong with this narrative.

The mood music and optics of the Putin regime are dramatically different from the chaotic system Berezovsky lorded over in the 1990s, to be sure. It also, of course, has less patience for democratic niceties.

But many of its essential elements -- the constant subterfuge and intrigue, the fierce clan battles, and the primacy of informal networks over formal institutions, the absence of the rule of law -- are nearly identical.

Then -- as now -- the public spectacle of politics was a facade obscuring that fact that real decisions were made by a small clique of insiders. In the 1990s, the oligarchs and the so-called Family comprised the core of Russia's Deep State. Today it is the siloviki and Putin's informal "Politburo."

Then -- as now -- power was gained and kept by balancing and manipulating the interests of competing clans.

Then -- as now -- law enforcement was used to as a tool to settle political and commercial scores.

The media was, of course, nominally freer in the 1990s than it is now. But it was far from an objective seeker of truth without fear or favor. Much of it was, instead, the plaything and tool of various oligarchs who used it -- effectively and often ruthlessly -- to advance their interests and smear their opponents.

After banishing the man who in many ways made him, Putin essentially fine-tuned, centralized, and brought order to the system Berezovsky once dominated -- and helped create.

It had a rougher edge, sharper teeth, and far less tolerance for dissent. But the essence of its internal workings remained.

Pliant oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Potanin were co-opted. Troublesome ones, like Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were dealt with in one way or another, and their assets redistributed to Putin cronies.

The old oligarchs were thus vanquished, but the oligarchy remained. Just the names have changed.


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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