Oligarchs by Day, Nascent Democrats by Night

Nato declares that relations with Russia can’t go on “business as usual.” Washington keeps demanding that the Russians leave Georgia “now.” Russia rethinks its cooperation with NATO. It is even unmasking a few Georgian spies for good measure.  All of this coincides with three Cold War anniversaries: Russia’s 1998 financial default, the coup against Gorbachev, and Prague Spring. The Cold War is suddenly back in vogue.  The glory days of the past are back!

“Cold War II,” as it’s being called, already has critics’ panties in a bunch as to what to do about Russia.  Containment? Nato enlargement? Missle “defense” against Russia, err, Iran in Eastern Europe? The desperation has resulted in some grasping for some real straws.  A good example, is Chrystia Freeland’s comment, “The oligarchs could be Russia’s best bet,” in today’s Financial Times. She writes,

Russian capitalism – and, more crucially, Russian capitalists – may be our best bet if we hope to limit Russia’s malign actions abroad. Crazy though it may sound to contemplate right now, they could even be critical to Russia’s eventual return to a more democratic path.

Well, it sounds crazy because it is.  The incorrect assumption Freeland makes is that she sees a division between Russia’s “oligarchs” (the fact that she doesn’t name a single one proves that she might not have a clue) and the Russian state.  One wonders which “oligarchs” does she mean.  Could it be Deputy Prime Minister and Rosneft magnate Igor Sechin?  Or Deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom chairman Viktor Zubkov? Millhouse LLC owner and former Chukota governor, Roman Abramovich? Or any one of the other of Russia’s oligarch statesmen?  Unlikely, since these people are the state and have benefited tremendously from its consolidation. Oh, and there’s fact that these people are, well, economic nationalists.

Oh, but not for Freedland. For her, the intimacy between the oligarchs and the Medvedev/Putin state is merely “kowtowing.”  After all, they don’t want to be the next Khodorkovsky, who’s appeal for parole was rejected. However, when sycophancy is stripped away, she maintains, you get the cosmopolitan oligarch, who is essentially “global” and profits off of “Western capital markets, western consumers, western acquisitions and even western MBAs.”  And this love for all things Western, logic dictates, is really a sign of some nascent inkling for democracy.  Isn’t it?  Keep dreaming.

The truth of the matter is that Russia’s political and business elite are one and the same. This is the beauty of it all.  And what is a better expression of the brilliance of capitalism than when the state becomes the private property of the capitalists? One would think that the free marketeers at the Financial Times would be jealous. After all, democracy just “socializes” political power.