The oligarchs, tycoons and powerful who run the Russian economy know the lesson: do not enter politics without permission from the Kremlin and do not contradict or question Vladimir Putin. They learned it well by watching others, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, fall when the Russian leader came to power, more than two decades ago, and began cleaning up to place his closest friends and loyal collaborators, the majority of them, in key positions. his time from St. Petersburg. It was the dispossession of an oligarchic class and the creation of another caste.
For the Russian leader, a former KGB agent, trust is key, much more than meritocracy; and he has been handing over to people in his circle – also some not so close, but to whom he has been testing loyalty – state companies or favored their entry into private ones – which in Russia would be nothing without the approval of the Kremlin —Along with a big piece of cake from the public concessions.
They are Putin’s men. For some they represent something like “the shadow government” of the country, a mix between tycoons and former security officers (known as siloviki) forged in the same intelligence quarry as the Russian leader. The tycoons handle money, but they never forget that they are subordinate to the man who, today, guarantees their presence.
People like Igor Sechin (Rosneft); the brothers Boris and Arkadi Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s youth friends and fellow judo players; Yuri Kovalchuk (Rossiya Bank), from the St. Petersburg political gang; o Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurant entrepreneur known as “Putin’s chef” and accused of being behind the farms of trolls who interfered in the 2016 US elections, or the Wagner mercenary company, which has intervened in Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela or the Central African Republic to defend the informal interests of the Kremlin. They are men who have learned the benefit of doing favors for Putin and speak his language and not that of the oligarchs – such as Oleg Deripaska (Rusal), Viktor Vekselberg (Renova) or Alexei Mordashov (Severstal) -.
From the historic group of the originals, young bankers and sharks who, with the collapse of the USSR, appropriated state assets – industrial production, mining, and oil and gas deposits – and used their finances to help Borís Yeltsin get reelected in exchange. of more money and power, only a couple remain. Perhaps the tycoon Mikhail Fridman, who lives in London, or Vladimir Potanin, who has managed to support himself. Others were stripped of their empires or a large part of them, such as Boris Berezovski, exiled and died in strange circumstances, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky, exiled after a conviction in Russia, who dared to question Putin and wanted to set foot in politics.
Putin, also driven by those siloviki that already in Yeltsin’s time, hidden, they were capturing state assets and displacing other sharks, insists that there are no longer oligarchs in Russia. But although the mechanisms have changed, the basis remains the same in all key sectors of the state, notes analyst Andrei Kolsnikov. “Much of the Government of Russia and its economic management mechanism could easily be called the Ministry of Oligarchic Industry”, ironizes the expert. From 1994 to 2000, when Putin came to power, Catherine Belton describes in her powerful book Putin’s people, Russia was an oligarchy. Today, says the journalist, who describes the system as a “hybrid capitalism of the KGB”, Russia does not have oligarchs but “rich servants” of Putin and his secret services (FSB).
These are some of the most powerful tycoons in Russia.
Arkadi Rotenberg, the king of state concessions. He manages a fortune of about 2,900 million dollars (2,436 million euros), according to Forbes. The 69-year-old magnate is, along with his brother Boris, one of Putin’s oldest friends; in childhood he was his training partner in judo and sambo (a Russian martial art). In the late 2000s, Rotenberg became the owner of SGM Group and Mostotrest, companies that today are two of the largest construction contractors in Russia. In 2015 alone, Rotenberg won $ 9 billion worth of government contracts.
He also took over the concession for the bridge linking Russia to the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine – which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 – when no other businessman stepped forward for the expensive project. This year, when a documentary film produced by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni again brought to light a lavish, multi-million dollar palace on the Black Sea allegedly owned by Putin, Rotenbert, his former sparring Judo, he said with his head bowed in an interview on state television that the palace is his. The tycoon, who also chairs the Russian Ice Hockey Federation – very important to Putin, a great fan of the sport – is, like other members of the Russian leader’s narrower circle, under US sanctions.
Alexei Miller, the Russian energy mogul. The 59-year-old oligarch is the president of Gazprom, the large state gas company, and has a solid position in the vertical of Putin’s power: he has held the position since 2001. The relationship with the leader arose in his time in St. Petersburg , when it was still called Leningrad, and Miller, who was part of a group of young economist-reformers, joined a council committee headed by Putin. There, he oversaw large investment projects and demonstrated his personal loyalty to the current head of the Kremlin.
During his tenure, the company has undergone extensive international expansion. It is believed that Miller is also responsible for the commitment to sports sponsorships that Gazprom has maintained in recent years and that has influenced Russia’s organization of the 2018 World Cup.
Igor Sechin, Russia’s chief oligarch. A former military translator in Angola, he worked with Putin in the former imperial capital. Today he is the head of Rosneft, the state oil company, one of the world’s largest oil producers. Sechin, 60, considered one of the siloviki who underpins Putin, has also held positions in the government of the Russian leader without even dwelling on the concept of “revolving door.” Under his hand, the state recovered many of the industry’s assets, such as Sibneft, which Roman Abramovich sold to Gazprom, or the assets of Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s company, which went to Rosneft. In addition, he devised a scheme whereby the majority of Russian exports came under the control of another loyal friend of Putin, Gennady Timchenko, today the sixth richest man in Russia, according to calculations by Forbes, with stakes in the gas company Novatek and the petrochemical producer Sibur Holding. Sechin, also sanctioned by the US, is currently the custodian of the Kremlin’s most valuable corporate asset.
Yuri Kovalchuk, the unofficial cashier of the Kremlin. Main shareholder of Bank Rossiya, also controls the largest holding company of Russian media, National Media Group. The US Treasury Department, which has put him on its sanctions list, called him “the personal banker of Russia’s top officials, including Putin.” Kovalchuk, 69, already worked alongside him in St. Petersburg when the Russian leader was deputy mayor; they were also neighbors of dacha. The tycoon, who also owns an insurance company and controls the country’s fourth mobile phone operator, Tele2, has a fortune of about $ 3.3 billion, according to Forbes.
Vladimir Potanin, the pioneer and surviving oligarch. Considered the second richest man in Russia, behind Alexei Mordashov, the Severstal tycoon, he is the only one of the original seven oligarchs who is still welcome in Moscow. He was the one who designed, in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the controversial “equity loan” scheme whereby Yeltsin provided stakes in some of Russia’s most valuable natural resource assets for bank loans in exchange for support. in his reelection campaign and to plug the holes in the country’s debt. Potanin, a civil servant turned businessman, did so with a 38% stake in the metal and mining giant Norilsk Nickel for just $ 170.1 million. Today he presides over the company and has a fortune valued at 27,000 million.
Potanin knows when to shake hands and also when to bow his head. He donated $ 2.5 billion to build a ski resort for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a project much sought after by Putin. And last year, when one of his plants caused one of the largest spills in history in the Arctic and a scandal broke out, the oligarch flew there, bundled up and held a video conference on the ground with the Russian president broadcast on television. state in which he humbly assured that he himself would supervise the cleaning work and ensure that it did not happen again; He also stressed that he would not appeal the record $ 2 billion fine to his company for the environmental disaster.