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The Attack on the Oligarchs

Russia's former "oligarchs": V. Gusinsky, R. Abramovich, and B. Berezovsky

During the first term of his presidency, in his efforts to recapture the state Putin pursued a two-pronged strategy, in which the measures to subdue the local princes were combined with an attack on the entrenched interests of semi-criminal financial and industrial magnates, the so-called oligarchs.

The oligarchs’ unholy alliance with senior members of the Yeltsin regime had allowed them to fuse power and capital and achieve control over the lion’s share of the national economy. Their dominance, especially over banking and the extraction of raw materials for export, had cost the state immense revenues. More importantly, their omnipotence and monopoly played a critical role in preventing the emergence of a working free market and in discouraging foreign investment in Russia.

In effect, Putin faced the daunting task of dismantling the system of “robber capitalism,” that thrived on Russia’s insider privatization, allowing a handful of politically well-connected tycoons to manipulate the post-Soviet sell-off of state assets to their personal advantage. The dimensions of the challenge that the oligarchs, organized crime, and corruption posed to Putin’s leadership can hardly be overestimated.

The situation in Russia demanded that Putin be an independent actor, and it was not at all certain whether he would be his own man or a mere puppet of Yeltsin’s entourage, beholden to the same oligarchy that captured the Yeltsin regime. In the three months from January to March 2000, while he was acting president, Putin appeared to follow a fine line of honoring his former boss while simultaneously reinforcing his own independence: on the one hand, he signed a decree immunizing Yeltsin from future prosecution on any corruption charges; on the other, Putin fired from the Kremlin staff Tatiana Diachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter and a target of corruption allegations. Her dismissal sent a signal that, whatever loyalty he felt, he was now the acting president.

Finally, his election as president at the end of March 2000 gave Putin a popular mandate, a political base, and supreme institutional power as Russia’s chief executive.

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"Deprivatizing" the State

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