| President Vladimir Putin, in interviews given to foreign
journalists just before and after his recent trip to the United States,
offered his most detailed comments to date on the ongoing Yukos saga and,
more broadly, on the relationship between the state and business. Taken
together, the comments provide a valuable insight into the president's
mind-set and the so-called Putin "power vertical." A couple of
passages should suffice:
First, Putin talks of the oligarchs as state-appointed billionaires
who "got the impression that the gods themselves slept on their heads,
that everything is permitted to them."
Second, and most strikingly, Putin speaks of Yukos' reported funding
of the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko as follows: "One of the
key persons in the Union of Right Forces is Mr. Chubais. And had there
been any wish to wipe him off the political stage, Mr. Chubais would no
longer be there, would not be the CEO of RAO UES. Who is supporting him?
"Very often I don't agree with what they [Yabloko and SPS] say
or do, but I am convinced that these forces should be represented on the
political stage. And if Yukos finances them ... fine, go ahead."
In his enthusiasm to project the image of an enlightened ruler, Putin
(no doubt inadvertently) ends up portraying himself a modern-day tsar,
in whose gift it is to decide: who should be represented on the political
stage and who not; which political parties should be funded and which
not; and -- would it be stretching things too far to say -- which state-appointed
billionaires should feel the heat of the prosecutor's office and which
In the case of Anatoly Chubais, as state-appointed head of UES, it is,
of course, well within the president's competence to initiate his dismissal.
Less clear, are the legal means whereby Putin could "wipe him off
the political stage."
And as regards state-appointed oligarchs, the legal mechanisms for removing
those who provoke the tsar's wrath are far from obvious and clear-cut.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as far as we are aware, cannot be dismissed as CEO
of Yukos by presidential decree, even if he does do things that Putin
disapproves of (whether it be buying seats in the State Duma or failing
to grovel to the president before merging with Sibneft and trying to sell
a strategic stake in the merged entity to a foreign oil major).
Has Putin not provided us with his own rather candid vision of the "managed
democracy" that claims does not exist in Russia? And could the actions
of the prosecutor's office not be the fulfillment of the will of a frustrated
tsar who feels that certain state-appointed billionaires have got a little
too big for their boots?
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