How Putin Conquered Russia's Oligarchs

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tags: Vladimir Putin, Russian history, Oligarchs

Note: This is Part Two of a two-part Planet Money newsletter series on the Russian oligarchs. You can read Part One here and subscribe to the newsletter here.

In the summer of 2000, 21 of the richest men in Russia exited their bulletproof limousines and entered the Kremlin for a historic meeting. In the previous decade, these men had risen seemingly out of nowhere, amassing spectacular fortunes as the country around them descended into chaos. Through shady deals, outright corruption, and even murder, these rapacious "oligarchs" — as Russians had come to derisively call them — had seized control of much of Russia's economy, and, increasingly, its fledgling democracy. But now, their nation's newly elected president, Vladimir Putin, wanted to tell them, face to face, who was really in charge.

"I want to draw your attention to the fact that you built this state yourself, to a great degree, through the political or semi-political structures under your control,'' Putin reportedly said in the closed-door meeting. ''So there is no point in blaming the reflection in the mirror. So let us get down to the point and be open and do what is necessary to do to make our relationship in this field civilized and transparent.''

Putin offered the oligarchs a deal: bend to my authority, stay out of my way, and you can keep your mansions, superyachts, private jets, and multibillion-dollar corporations (corporations that, just a few years before, had been owned by the Russian government). In the coming years, the oligarchs who reneged on this deal and undermined Putin would be thrown into a Siberian prison or be forced into exile or die in suspicious circumstances. The loyalists who remained — and the new ones who got filthy rich during Putin's long reign — became like ATM machines for the president and his allies.

"These individuals have enriched themselves at the expense of the Russian people," the White House said in a recent statement announcing sanctions against over a dozen oligarchs connected to Putin. "[They] sit atop Russia's largest companies and are responsible for providing the resources necessary to support Putin's invasion of Ukraine."

Putin Shows Who's Boss

Putin came to power thanks in no small part to the original class of oligarchs, who got ostentatiously rich through crooked privatization deals during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. These oligarchs created and bankrolled what became Putin's political party, Unity, the predecessor to what is now called United Russia. They engineered President Boris Yeltsin's stunning comeback victory in the 1996 presidential elections. Without this victory, Yeltsin could have never appointed Putin as his prime minister, a position that proved to be Putin's launching pad for his presidential bid. The oligarchs helped fuel Putin's meteoric rise. Two of them, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, deployed their television stations and newspapers to turn Putin from an unknown figure into a household name.

But Putin was a shrewder politician than they initially realized. When Putin's 2000 presidential election campaign heated up, he began paying lip service to Russia's hatred of the oligarchs and the corrupt deals that enriched them. Shortly before election day, Putin was asked by a radio station how he felt about the oligarchs. If by oligarchs, he said, one meant those who "help fusion of power and capital — there will be no oligarchs of this kind as a class."

But, once in power, Putin didn't actually eliminate the oligarchy. He only targeted individual oligarchs who threatened his power. 

Read entire article at NPR

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