Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Capitalism and the Kremlin’s high-flier

Richard Sakwa, Putin and the Oligarch: the Khodorkovsky-Yukos Affair, London: Taurus, 2014

Capitalism and the Kremlin’s high-flier
Capitalism and the Kremlin’s high-flier
Al-Ahram Weekly

“I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.” – Charles Schwab

There is such a thing as the cult of the personality. And, charisma counts. “Being a leader gives you charisma. If you look and study the leaders who have succeeded, that’s where charisma comes from, from the leading,” extrapolated American author, entrepreneur, marketer, and public speaker Seth Godin. Richard Sakwa’s Putin and the Oligarch is all about the Russian president’s perception of the limits of his own powers.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has been the President of Russia since 7 May 2012. Putin was Prime Minister from 1999 to 2000, President from 2000 to 2008, and again Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012. And, his charisma began to unravel far earlier than in 2016, but his inherent charisma climaxed in the immediate aftermath of his annexation of the Crimea. Alexey Eremenko notes that “Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, the masterworks of Russian wordsmiths adorn bookshelves around the world. And, now, yet another Russian oeuvre can be added to the list: President Vladimir Putin”. He had, after all, complete control of the toppling of financial business in Russia.

Forging contemporary Russian politics is no easy task for a sprawling country, the world’s largest, that spans nine time zones. Indeed Putin was instrumental in changing Russia’s existing time zones on 26 October 2014. “We realized that every Soviet leader — [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Nikita] Khrushchev — had their complete works out, but not Putin,” the publisher of Eremenko’s study,Vadim Rakhmanov, observed. “I think Russia is lucky to have a leader such as Putin.” Novy Klyuch, the Russian publishing house undertaking this seminal work insists that it has the endorsement of the Kremlin.

“There is great interest in a print edition from political science scholars, historians and ordinary people,” Rakhmanov extrapolates. Putin is Russia; without Putin, there’s no Russia,” first deputy Kremlin chief of staff and domestic policy czar Vyacheslav Volodin bellowed in 2014. This week, Volodin has taken leave to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on 18 September.

How many world leaders discover ancient Greek urns while diving in the Black Sea? Putin biographies have come a long way from the classic First Person translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick and published in 2000. With over 24 hours of in-depth interviews by a trio of handpicked Russian journalists: Nataliya Gevorkyan, Nataliya Timakova, Andrei Kolesnikov and memorable quotes by Putin himself. He is certainly not a cruder version of Boris Yeltsin. The Russian president has a good claim to be the most even-handed leader in the post-Soviet era.

In a fearless solo feat, Putin took to the skies in 2012 to lead endangered cranes on a migration route. And in 2010, the intrepid Russian president attached a tracking collar to a giant 507 pound polar bear. In 2008, Putin tagged a Siberian tigress, an endangered species, on a visit to the remote Barabash Tiger Reserve in Russia’s Far East.

Yet in reality, the Russian President is not quite the heavy-handed autocrat that the Western media portrays him to be. His longtime human rights commissioner Ella Pamfilova embodies his administration’s benign nature. The West, nevertheless, will stop at nothing to put Putin down. “Putin himself is a character out of fiction, an uber-macho former Soviet thug running a massive, expansionist kleptocracy. The man stages photographs riding horses bare-chested and hunting tigers. His enemies find themselves on the wrong end of radioactive poisoning,” Ben Shapiro extrapolates. 

Born in the Soviet Leningrad, today’s Saint Petersburg, the Putin story begins in modesty. The same is true of the political change he instituted in Russia. His detractors claim that however well-intentioned his policies led to the compromise of Western-style democracy in Russia, and worse, to repression Soviet-style. Putin is a political leader who knows that all is change in the Russian and international political scene, a possible disruption of the social fabric.

The videos of Putin as accomplished in instructional martial arts are amiable and powerful. His Judo:History, Theory and Practice, 2004, authored along with Vasily Shestakov, and Alexy Levitsky paints a vivid and complete history of judo, a martial art which has its origins in the ancient Japanese jujitsu. He is an accomplished ice hockey player,and hence he believes that political leadership is about the virtue and character of the leader. This belief flies in the face of Western-style democracy which is all about funding campaigns.

Sakwa’s is one of the latest works detailing certain aspects of Putin’s Russia. “The Strongman,” by Angus Roxburgh, and “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin,” by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, were earlier attempts to explain the man who has ruled Russia for the past two decades. Roxburgh, a longtime correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and the BBC, puts it bluntly: The Strongman. And, unlike the “The Man Without a Face”, a psychological profile of sorts, Sakwa profiles Putin through the Russian president’s dealing head on with a notorious Russian tycoon. Putin’s deep capacity for empathy shines throughout the book, though.

Putin is proof that political leadership does not necessarily metamorphoses from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s tantrums at the United Nations. Putin would never deliver a speech as Khrushchev did at the General Assembly of the United Nations on 13 October 1960.

Then there are the unanswered questions. Few countries are as refined as Russia. Defenders of the Russian model might retort that a few bad apples do not spoil the bunch. The secret of contemporary Russia’s success is precisely that it is such an open-ended saga of Eurasian genius.

If the required level of support proves unattainable, the saga’s future could prove to be a lot longer than its past. Luke Harding’s Mafia State, published in 2011, is typical of Western critics of Putin and Putin’s Russia. Disaffection with the new Russia is growing, and the yearning for the old Soviet Union is fast gaining ground even among Russians who were born after Perestroika. Many Russians blame Mikhail Gorbachev the eighth and last leader of the Soviet for the demise of the Soviet Union, and Putin incongruous manner embodies the very best of the pre-Perestroika days.

Putin personifies something celestial, ethereal, albeit intangible. He is a child of the Soviet Union, and yet he stands for a brand new Russia. “I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in Russia, unlike in one third of the world’s countries, being gay is not a crime,” Putin notes.

Glastnost, openness, was the hallmark of Gorbachev. And, so was Perestroika, literally “restructuring” in Russian. Glasnost meant that newly autonomous Russian, at the time Soviet, business organisations were encouraged to seek foreign investment. It is against this backdrop that the Khodorkovsky Yucos affair unfolded years later to be precise.

As head of the School of Politics and International Relations, at the University of Kent, and erstwhile professor of Russian and European politics, Richard Sakwa is an authority on Russian affairs. As Mark Galeotti, professor of Global Affairs at New York University notes:”Sakwa’s superb study is not only the best account yet of Khodortkovsky’s rise, fall and metamorphosis, but also uses his tale to explore the contradictions of Russian capitalism and governance”. 

“If people don’t like Marxism, they should blame the British Museum,” Gorbachev mused. “I paid too heavy a price for Perestroika,” he would confess later in life. “It is better to discuss things, to argue and engage in polemics than make perfidious plans of mutual destruction,” he ruminated concerning the Cold War.

Yet, as Sakwa’s seminal work reveals Putin and Gorbachev have little in common. They are somewhat antipodal, and diametrically opposed ideologically. Russians are wary of the West, and NATO in particular. It is constantly inching closer to Russia’s border in a most menacing manner. But Putin is cocksure when it comes to NATO. He is confident in Russia’s military might, even though the Kremlin dispenses with only one tenth of what the United States spends on arms. “NATO was built to counteract the Soviet Union in its day and time. At this point there is no threat coming from the Soviet Union, because there is no Soviet Union anymore. And where there was the Soviet Union once, there is now a number of countries, among them the new and democratic Russia,” Putin stresses.

“The market came with the dawn of civilization and it is not an invention of capitalism. If it leads to improving the well-being of the people there is no contradiction with socialism,” Gorbachev expounded. 

“Imagine a country that flies into space, launches Sputniks, creates such a defense system, and it can’t resolve the problem of women’s pantyhose. There’s no toothpaste, no soap powder, not the basic necessities of life. It was incredible and humiliating to work in such a government,” he remarked. 

Russia’s military and economy is worth watching. The country is no longer a socialist or state capitalist nation. Contemporary Russia is a fully-fledged market economy. “The market is not an invention of capitalism. It has existed for centuries. It is an invention of civilization,” the last Soviet leader mused.

“We need business to understand its social responsibility, that the main task and objective for a business is not to generate extra income and to become rich and transfer the money abroad, but to look and evaluate what a businessman has done for the country, for the people, on whose account he or she has become so rich,” Putin deliberates.

Russia’s leaders, Putin not excluded, engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their subjects and with the corporate world in Russia. In its infancy, the Russian capitalist class cheered as the Kremlin assiduously set to fulfilling capitalism’s promise of prosperity. And, many in Russia prospered. Indeed, Moscow has more billionaires than New York. 

“Big business began to transform itself from morally dubious ‘oligarch capitalism’ into respectable national capital.As oil prices and exports rose, Khodorkovsky in October 1999 announced an ambitious investment programme. Most major Russian oil companies launched a transparency drive, with the notable exception of Surgutneftgaz. Khodorkovsky was in the vanguard of this transformation, changing Yukos from one of the most ruthless and predatory companies to a symbol of a more open and transparently managed enterprise,” Sakwa expounded.

That businesses do not have to declare a lofty nationalistic purpose so as to enjoy the privilege of incorporation is not a crime in contemporary capitalist Russia. The Communism of yesteryear is no longer the ethos of the Russian Federation as state capitalism was in the Soviet Union.

Nor are oligarchs the paragons that the Western media conjures up concerning contemporary Russia. Open-endedness reflects the realities of the Russian corporate world. This all sounds very enlightened, but there is something of the Soviet mindset that still lingers on.

It is against this melodramatic backdrop that Richard Sakwa’s seminal study on Putin and his focus on the Khodorkovsky affair comes to light revealing a most intriguing aspect of contemporary Russia. “In March 1993, Khodorkovsky was appointed deputy to the fuel and energy minister, Yuri Shafranik, as well as acting as an adviser on finances to Chernomyrdin. In a meeting in the Kremlin at the time Khodorkovsky called on called on entrepreneurs to go into industry since it was shameful, he claimed, to make money out of trade”.

The Western media, nevertheless, is replete with pernicious and even noxious charges of Putin’s alleged Machiavellian machinations such as the obsession with the widely publicized ruling of British judge Sir Robert Owen’s concerning Putin’s supposed sanctioning of the nuclear murder of one-time ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko by contemporary Russia’s FSB security agency.

According to The Economist, Putin’s choreographed return to the presidency and vote tampering in parliamentary elections tarnished his image. His approval ratings at the time fell to 63 per cent, his lowest in over a decade. But after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, those ratings soared to nearly 90 per cent and have not come back to earth since. “Putin has been quietly distancing himself from his party, United Russia, which enjoys considerably less support than he does” The Economist categorically stated.

Putin is not nostalgic about past glories of Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union, and yet he has a knack for standing up to Russia’s historical rights, whether in the Crimea or Ukraine in face of fierce Western opposition. “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain,” Putin expounded.

Ironically, the Russian President has the most peculiar of allies. “He is a strong leader. He’s making mincemeat out of our president,” United States presidential hopeful Donald Trump conceded. But then Trump is not the most President on December 31, 1999, succeeding Boris Yeltsin, and then won the 2000 presidential election. In 2004, he was re-elected for a second term lasting until 7 May 2008.

The West accuses Putin of social engineering utilizing uncouth coercive measures. “With the most offensive political of the oligarchs out of the way, a period of quiet ensued in relations between the state and big business,” Sakwa muses.

Yet, Putin claims otherwise. He sees his Russia as less overbearing than the United States, and he has a point. “At least in Russia, you cannot just go and tap into someone’s phone conversation without a warrant issued by court. That’s more or less the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism,” Putin elucidates.

Russia-watchers cannot afford to ignore this bestseller by Sakwa. The insights into the inner workings and dynamics of the Russian political system and the ramifications concerning its economy and society are exposed as the author offers a compelling critique of Putin’s Russia. “We’re no longer in the Cold War. Eavesdropping on friends is unacceptable,” the Russian President is highly critical of the United States attempt to eavesdrop on alleged terrorists.

“Terrorism has once again shown it is prepared deliberately to stop at nothing in creating human victims. An end must be put to this. As never before, it is vital to unite forces of the entire world community against terror,” Putin elaborates.

“We need business to understand its social responsibility, that the main task and objective for a business is not to generate extra income and to become rich and transfer the money abroad, but to look and evaluate what a businessman has done for the country, for the people, on whose account he or she has become so rich,” the Russian president jacks up.

Sakwa, no defender of Putin, paints a rich, accessible, and provocative masterstroke that sheds light on the momentous legacy of the Russian president. Putin is no Stalin. “Stalinism is linked with a cult of personality and massive violations of the law, with repression and camps. There is nothing like that in Russia and, I hope, will never again be,” he winds up.

Needless to say, I read Sakwa’s Putin and the Oligarch with rapt attention.

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