Mel Brooks was right: It’s good to be the king. And it’s even better if you rule a country full of metals, diamonds, oil, and gas. But the size of the country matters as well as its history. The first tells you how much is up for grabs. The second suggests a strategy to keep the population calm and controlled. On both counts, Vladimir Putin has every reason to be a very happy man.
Publicly, bureaucrats in Russia call him Vladimir Vladimirovich. This is not just because all Russian men have middle names ending in -
vich, but to show the utmost respect, emphasize their subordinate position, and demonstrate their fear of angering the Ruler.
We know Putin is King – or Tsar, or, in his current position, prime minister -- from the thunder and lighting he and his Kremlin associates have hurled at their own erstwhile comrades. This is how the King keeps his court on good behavior. As the Russian saying goes: Beat your own so that others will fear you.
Last year, according to stories told in hushed tones in Moscow, Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian general to conduct a quiet investigation of the FSB’s (former KGB’s) Economic Crimes Department. Within months, the general found himself behind bars by presidential mandate. The lesson was clear for both the FSB and the general’s men – the king has something on everyone.
This Byzantine approach extends beyond the king’s immediate entourage. The intelligentsia, even though it was among the first to hail the new chief, from time to time feels the grip of the Tsar. Not long ago, a well-known Russian director celebrated his birthday with a group of local celebrities in a Moscow restaurant. One of his friends, a noted tippler, had knocked back more than a few by the time Vladimir Putin joined the festivities.
The tipsy gentleman, as the story was told, stood up and walked over to the Tsar. “You should do something about traffic jams in Moscow that your movements around the city cause,” he said. “When your motorcade is on the way to or from the Kremlin, the police stop traffic for two or more hours, making it impossible for people,” the brave man greeted Mr. Putin.
As the President listened to this litany of complaint, another gentleman, a famous actor, passed by. Hearing part of the conversation, he turned to Mr. Putin and said loudly: “You should confess, Vladimir Vladimirovich.”
I don’t know whether the last line was a joke or a suggestion, but a movie director tried to strangle the actor that same night after the president left. The actor survived, but he was put on a stop list by the Russian TV for a month or so.
This story reminded me of a misfortune that befell the famous Russian poet and singer, Alexander Gorodnitsky. He was blacklisted during the Soviet times for an innocent song, “The French Ambassador’s wife.” The communist leadership decided that he might be willing to defect if allowed to travel because he sang about falling in love with the imaginary spouse of an equally imaginary French Ambassador.
The impact of Vladimir Putin’s rules of the game on business has been much graver. In the best-known case, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the oil company YUKOS, is now serving 10-year prison term in the God-forsaken city of Chita in the Russian Far East.
There is still disagreement in the West and in Russia about why Mr. Putin and his comrades went after Mr. Khodorkovsky. A majority of experts presume that the main problem was Khodorkovsky’s active involvement in politics, and his desire for independence from the President’s team. Many have said the mogul financed both the ruling and the opposition parties, endangering the balance created by the Tsar.
This sounds right, but I think that greed also played a significant role in the Kremlin’s decision making process. In 2003, when Mr. Khodorkovsky was still the head of Yukos, he was negotiating a merger with Exxon Mobile. If it had happened, the merger would have created the second-largest oil company in the world, something capable of undermining Mr. Putin’s power. Thus, the Kremlin decided to strip Khodorkovsky of his company, at the same time calculating that the proceeds from YUKOS oil exports would be enough for them to share without Exxon Mobil.
The path chosen by the Kremlin was painful for the President of YUKOS, but presumably profitable for the Tsar’s inner circle, one Russian source told me few years ago. Although there is no evidence of Putin’s direct involvement in the ensuing scam, it was the King himself who made confusing announcements about the fate of Khodorkovsky and YUKOS at the height of the conflict. His statements sent the company’s shares skittering up and down, presumably enabling knowledgeable people to make tens of millions of dollars.
The Russian business community quickly got the message and started to line up to show their support for the Tsar. Earlier this year, one prominent and very pro-Putin mogul managed to have a meeting with the President. After it was over, Mr. Putin’s “servants” told him that the President was very unhappy with his behavior. But why, asked the oligarch as goose bumps rose. He saw an attempt to be independent in your presentation, the answer came, and you should give this serious thought.
The Khodorkovsky case was the turning point of Mr. Putin’s presidency, a major victory that enabled him to stave off significant internal obstacles. It set the path for Russia to walk while he assumed the premiership, anointing the weak Medvedev to be the new President of Russia under the watchful eyes of Mr. Putin’s comrades still on the Kremlin team.
The Russian anecdote to prove the point has a waiter in a Moscow restaurant asking Putin and Medvedev what they would like to have for dinner. “I’ll have steak,” the Tsar responds. “And the vegetable?” the waiter inquires. “The vegetable will have steak, too,” Putin says quickly, nodding his successor.
It cost Mr. Putin enormous efforts to achieve such amazing results during only two presidential terms. “For eight years I worked like a galley slave, from dusk till dawn… I’m satisfied with the results of my work,” he was not too shy to admit at his last press-conference as the president of Russia on February 14, 2008.
He has every reason to be proud. In those eight years he became the King of Bureaucracy, overseeing an unprecedented expansion of officialdom even as he complained about the size and ineffectiveness of this ever-growing group of money-sucking clerks.
“Vasily Piskayrov, a senior official at the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's office, has said that corrupt officials siphon off close to a third of the government's annual budget,” Forbes Magazine reported on June 6, 2008 quoting the Russian wire agency Interfax. According to Forbes: “that’s almost $120 billion, using the $376 billion set aside for 2008.”
Mr. Putin likes the way the population treats him. Despite all their problems and hardships, the majority of people like him, no matter what he does. They believe in the Great Russia slogan the Tsar’s team has offered for their consumption, though the centuries have so tired them that they don’t seem to understand that they will never see it if current trends continue.
Since 2000 when Mr. Putin came to power, he was, and still is, in charge of the 6,5-million-square-mile country with a rapidly diminishing population and vast energy and mineral resources. According to the 2002 Russian Census, the population of the country was 145,166,731, and overwhelmingly concentrated in the Western European part of Russia. By 2008, the number of citizens came down to 142,008,838, based on data made public by the Russian State Statistics Service. If the pattern continues, in 60 years it will be difficult to find somebody responding in Russian to a phone call coming from Moscow to a place beyond the Ural Mountains, assuming there is a land line or cell connection.
Whatever programs were announced to overturn the situation have failed as a result of incompetence and stealing. The same fate, incidentally, befell the so-called national projects Mr. Medvedev was in charge of while he was deputy prime-minister of Russia. Centuries-long incompetence and stealing are two major problems afflicting Russian bureaucrats and the Kremlin itself. The other two, as Russian literary wisdom would have it, are “fools and roads,” a quotation attributed to various 17th- and 18th-century Russian writers.
Still, it’s good to be a King, even if your nation is shrinking in size and drowning in corruption. After me the deluge (“Apres Moi le deluge!”) Louis XVI once said sharing centuries old wisdom with present and future generations of Royal and self perceived royal colleagues in power.