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Toni Schönfelder
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Toni Schönfelder
A lifetime of innovation

RUSSIA: Arresting oligarchs

There may be an element of poetic justice in Vladimir Gusinsky, exiled member of the Russian oligarchy, becoming ensnared in Greece, the country that gave us this term for ´rule of the few´. There may also be an element of the accidental if, as some reports suggest, Greek airport police initially held the former media mogul because they still had a cancelled Interpol arrest warrant for him in their computer. Russia looks set on exploiting its extradition treaty with Greece; its public prosecutor is now preparing charges against Mr Gusinsky for a Greek court to hear. But such a move, coinciding with the current judicial onslaught on the Yukos empire of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia´s richest oligarch, risks undoing the improvement in the country´s investment climate and its fragile democracy for little or no political gain for President Vladimir Putin. There was an international outcry three years ago when the state ousted Mr Gusinsky from control of the one independent media group that was ready to criticise Mr Putin and his conduct of the war in Chechnya. The move seemed to epitomise Mr Putin´s intolerance of political dissent When Mr Gusinsky fled to Spain, the Russian government pursued him with charges of embezzlement and fraud. When a Spanish court dismissed these charges as the basis for extradition, the Moscow authorities came up with an accusation of money-laundering against Mr Gusinsky. Interpol decided this was ´predominantly political´ and cancelled its arrest warrant for the man Living abroad since then, Mr Gusinsky has become a rather forgotten figure in his homeland. It is thus puzzling why Mr Putin might want him hauled back to Russia. Certainly, bashing the oligarchs and promising to redistribute their wealth would be popular. But Mr Putin is riding high in the polls, with nearly 80 per cent popular approval, in advance of parliamentary elections this December and the presidential vote next March. It is hard to see how this rating would be much improved by a show trial - and in the long run, Russian civil society would be weakened. It is quite possible the real instigators of moves against Mr Gusinsky, and for that matter Mr Khodorkovsky, are the men from the security services whom Mr Putin has planted in much of his administration. If so, the president should rein them in. For the unearthing of such accusations as murder as well as fraud and tax evasion against Yukos, dating from the 1990s privatisation era, is rocking investor confidence. Russia´s economic oligarchs will have to change; but the best way is to bring in new competitors against them and to force them to pay taxes. Ideally, Mr Putin should be focusing his political energies on economic liberalisation of such sectors as banking and utilities. He may feel this is too sensitive an agenda to push in the immediate run-up to elections. But he certainly does not need an anti-oligarch vendetta to secure political victory.
Financial Times, August 27, 2003

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