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Humbling the Oligarchs

For a national leader wishing to cement a hold on power—especially a would-be autocrat—nothing beats war. Turning the children of the common folk into soldiers and sending them to do battle with a feared or hated enemy tends to unite those folk in support of whoever is in charge, no matter what the actual reason for the fighting. It works in any country.

So it was with Putin and Chechnya. Although the breakaway republic wasn't exactly a foreign country, to most Russians it might as well have been. So they fell right in line behind their aggressive new president and his Chechnya campaign.

Putin is always ready for the next move, the zag after the zig. He recognized that as quickly as war wins the population over to your side, the advantage can just as quickly be lost. The longer a war goes on, the more likely people are to turn against it. Lose a war, and everyone decides they were against it all along. So to gain from a bloody conflict, a leader needs a swift, decisive victory.

The First Chechen War had left Russians with a sour taste in their mouths. It went on for two years and ended with their well-equipped, modern army failing against a posse of back-country guerrillas—a replay of Afghanistan in Russia's own backyard. No one was in the mood for more of the same.

The people rallied behind Putin because they detected his willingness to do whatever it took to get the job done. What else would you expect from an ex-KGB officer?

Predictably, Putin went at the Chechens with maximum firepower and subdued them with minimum loss of Russian lives. After that, Russia's lingering troubles with the republic hardly mattered. The war had ended quickly, and it had ended in victory, a demonstration of Putin's strength for all to see. No more wishy-washy leaders in the Kremlin. A real man was back at the helm. The people cheered.

Disposing of an outside threat was important as a first step toward Putin's goal of reestablishing Russian might, with himself as the revered leader. It was the relatively simple part, however.

Next, he had to deal with his political enemies. Some were easy to identify. The drifting policies of the Yeltsin years had fostered a small class of crafty and often violent billionaires, a wild bunch known as the oligarchs.

In the words of a former deputy chairman of Russia's central bank: "All Russian oligarchs are fiendishly ingenious, fiendishly strong, malicious, and greedy—tough customers to deal with."

Land of Opportunity

During the 1990s, the country was struggling to adopt the ways of a free-market society. After 70 years of enforced collectivism, suffocation by central planning, and the quashing of individual initiative, Russia's freedom makeover wasn't going smoothly.

The transition from centralized command and control to free markets was hindered by a massive flight of domestic capital, foreign investors deserting the country, a sharp rise in unemployment, widespread failure to meet payrolls for those who actually held jobs, and a precipitous drop in the foreign-exchange value of the ruble (which hit its all-time low in late 1993). Before the early 1990s, there wasn't even a stock market.

Three generations of Russians had toiled under the threat of communism's gulags and been trained to look to Moscow for decisions in all matters. And that was after three and a half centuries of submission to czarist rule. Suddenly, people were thrown into a situation they weren't prepared for and had no experience with. That they were overwhelmed by their first whiff of freedom was hardly a surprise.

Most were utterly lost, but not all. As state control of enterprises withered, a few crafty individuals saw they could exploit what was happening. Some were already wealthy, whereas others simply seized the opportunity to start a fortune. What they all had in common was an aptitude for business that was in such short supply in Russia.

The best that can be said of the oligarchs is that they were ready for economic freedom when almost no one else was. They certainly helped with the transition to a market economy. But in a society where cronyism, bribery, extortion, and murder for hire are normal, it would be a stretch to argue that these newly minted billionaires came by their fortunes in an honest way.

They were utterly ruthless. But they would soon learn that someone else was even more so: Vladimir Putin.

 
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