Who are the Russian «oligarchs» and do they really exist?

The United States imposes more and more sanctions against the so-called Russian oligarchs every time, and many in Moscow are scratching their heads and wondering if such people really exist.

Seems like a misunderstanding. Russia and the West have different ideas about who considers themselves «oligarchs.»

You remember Robbie Williams’ 2016 song «Have Fun Like a Russian» which shows wealthy Russian billionaires dancing with beautiful ballerinas in palace interiors.

The oligarch eats buckwheat, boiled eggs and syrniki in huge museum-type apartments.

This reflects how most Westerners see the so-called Russian oligarch, a powerful rich man with a dubious reputation and the ability to buy anything. In fact, everything is a little more complicated.

On March 5, 2018, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov answered questions about new US sanctions imposed on «Russian oligarchs.» He said: «We believe that the phrase ‘Russian oligarchs’ is inappropriate … there are no oligarchs in Russia, and the times when there were are long gone.»

Strictly speaking, not every newly rich person with a yacht and a bunch of gold credit cards can be called an oligarch.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an oligarch as a member of an oligarchy — «a government in which a small group exercises control, mainly for corrupt and selfish purposes.» So, if you are an oligarch, you are not only rich, but also have a significant influence on government policy.

Professor Maria Golovanivskaya, a Russian specialist in relations between the state and business, agrees with this. “The oligarch is not just a rich man who is content with his glamorous life full of yachts and diamonds,” she said. “The important thing is that he or she is involved in politics.”

However, in the modern world, no one pays attention to precise definitions. As the American comedian Stephen Colbert jokes: «Oligarch in Russian means a rich man — without asking where he got his money from.» And this is similar to how people in Russia and in the West understand this concept. In 1998, for example, Russians referred to anyone they considered rich as oligarchs, from bankers to then-president Boris Yeltsin.

The golden age of the oligarchy

In the 1990s, Russians had reason to think so; the oligarchs are (literally) thriving and deeply involved in politics. The oligarchs came to power in questionable ways, and many of them succeeded after buying state-owned enterprises for pennies during privatization.

“Oil and gas resources have begun to be distributed among people close to the government,” said Jeffrey Sachs, an American economist who is helping to privatize Russia. On the other hand, many Russians still believe that big business manipulated the government; for example, that a group of oligarchs helped Boris Yeltsin win the 1996 presidential election.

The Kommersant newspaper recalls that one such oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, «named seven people who controlled more than 50% of the Russian economy and together influenced the most important domestic political decisions in Russia,» according to an interview with the newspaper. financial times. Among them are Berezovsky himself (committed suicide in 2013), Mikhail Khodorkovsky (in prison in 2003, released in 2014) and five other business magnates.

“Berezovsky, like some other businessmen, believed that Yeltsin succeeded in 1996 thanks to their efforts, and now the authorities should pay for it,” wrote Peort Aven, a Russian businessman and banker, in his book “Berezovsky’s Time. Working with Berezovsky. However, Aven noted that «business was nowhere near as influential when it came to political decisions as everyone used to think.»

In the early 2000s, real oligarchs were forced out of the political arena, and today, when the authorities say that there are no oligarchs in Russia, they mean that no businessman can influence politics. Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said: «In the 2000s, the term meant ‘entrepreneur’ who influences political decisions.» We don’t have that today.»

Dmitry Drize, a columnist for the newspaper Kommersant, commented: “It is natural for the authorities to talk about the absence of oligarchs. Their expulsion from Russian politics is seen as one of the main achievements of the authorities since the 2000s.” At the same time, as Dries notes, this term has not disappeared over the years, and Russians still tend to define all rich people close to power as «oligarchs.»

“Our companies have their own idiosyncrasies,” Drize said. “The authorities do not want to depend on business, but they have no problem doing the opposite.” Technically, while stating that the businessmen and entrepreneurs on the new list who are under sanctions by neo-oligarchs, as well as high-ranking Russian officials, do not deny that they are rich or powerful, but say that they simply do not control the government.

This gives us the opportunity to look at the situation from the other side — now that they do not have to worry about influencing politics, the “oligarchs” have enough time to “have fun like Russians” because no one asks where they get their money from.

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