Opinion

John Lloyd

Boris Berezovsky: An oligarch who lost his status

John Lloyd
Mar 25, 2013 18:22 UTC

Among the initial wave of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was the first among equals, and among the last.

By the mid- to late 1990s, he had become the most powerful figure, after the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. A mathematician and engineer of ability, Berezovsky leveraged an early success as a car salesman at a time of rampant inflation into huge wealth and control of media, auto, aviation and oil assets.

He strongly backed Vladimir Putin for president after Yeltsin’s resignation; indeed, he was his main promoter. In Putin, the apparently modest and amiable former KGB officer, Berezovsky saw somebody with self-discipline. He also saw somebody with the need for financial and intellectual support from somebody who had much of both – somebody like Berezovksy.

It was a huge misreading of Putin, a man well-trained to appear bland. In 2000 the new president summoned the oligarchs to the medieval fortress of the czars and told them they could keep their wealth if they left the politics to him. Three oligarchs ignored the order: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in a Siberian prison colony; Vladimir Gusinsky, in exile; and Berezovsky, who died this past weekend at his Berkshire estate.

These men, whose Jewishness had kept them out of the Soviet establishment for much of the Communist period, were brilliant, bold and ruthless. They were forces of nature who created the first draft of capitalism in the ruins of a completely socialized economy. They built it the only way possible, through expropriation, state capitalist corruption and a wholesale disregard for the rules ‑ permitted to do so by the Yeltsin governments in the ’90s, which, though often chaotic, held to the belief that even corrupt private ownership was better than the party-state version from which Russia had just emerged.

A free press without total freedom

John Lloyd
Mar 19, 2013 21:52 UTC

Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.

Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.

Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.

Bureaucracy will set you free

John Lloyd
Mar 13, 2013 19:37 UTC

Two movements, fundamentally opposed, are at work in the world: corruption and anti-corruption. The marketization of the economies of China, India and Russia in the past two decades has exacerbated the corruption in those countries. Businesspeople and politicians, often hardly distinguishable, become billionaires in tandem.

But corruption is falling out of favor in more and more countries as more and more governments realize that while it may get things done in the short term, it corrodes everything in the long term. As public anger rises everywhere against the grossest inequalities the modern world has seen, it provides the fuel for future fires. Bribes, the most common form of corruption, are a crime not just against the law but against the public. Those states now climbing the wealth ladder will risk worse than poverty if they do not grasp that truth.

What do they need? A good bureaucracy, that’s what.

For two centuries, disparaging bureaucracy has been a major component of our freedom myths. Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, George Orwell rynd Alexander Solzhenitsyn all made the bureaucrats  villains in their work. In Dickens’ 1857 masterpiece, Little Dorrit, an inventor, Daniel Doyce, goes gray attempting to register his invention at the Circumlocution Office ‑ a tragicomic institution dedicated to squashing all private initiative. He gets a final judgment that:

Cult of personalidad

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2013 19:09 UTC

Hugo Chavez’s popularity was not confined to Venezuela; it was a global phenomenon. He pulled together a coalition of forces into a kind of “Chavez International,” an alternative to Western hegemony. It was an amalgam of allies whose comradeship was historically weird – communists, Islamists, Soviet holdovers, Western idealists and far leftists – but politically potent. And in the end, irrelevant.

Chavez’s first, closest alliance was with Fidel Castro. It was unconditional devotion on the part of the younger man; on Fidel’s side, it was admiration coupled with a canny estimation of the benefits of Venezuela’s loyalty in a post-Soviet era. Cuba got billions of dollars’ worth of oil; Venezuela got thousands of Cuban medical staff, engineers and other experts. More than that, Fidel gave Chavez an ideology of sorts, or as Francisco Toro writes, “a kind of cosmic morality play pitting unalloyed socialist ‘good’ in an unending death struggle against the ravages of ‘evil’ American imperialism.”

The “American imperialism” was the glue that bound Chavez International together. It united him with a range of world figures eager to court him for his oil wealth, and happy to join with him against a West ‑ and an Amerika (with a “k:), in particular ‑ that was either their active or potential foe. Chavez visited, and loudly proclaimed the virtue, of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the late Muammar Gaddafi, the even later Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Many of those were given the “Order of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s highest honor, though most of these figures were or are deeply abusive of human rights, and some – such as Saddam, Mugabe and presently and most brutally, Assad – waged war on sections of their own population.

Richly deserved

John Lloyd
Mar 6, 2013 14:14 UTC

The tale of two worlds – the fabulously rich and the increasingly poor – is a defining narrative of contemporary life, and it continues to throw up vivid reminders, at once doleful and grimly hilarious.

One of the latest examples was told by the writer and provocateur Matt Taibbi, famed for having described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

In a recent Rolling Stone blog post, Taibbi related a confrontation between Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and the analyst Mike Mayo of Credit Agricole Securities during an investor conference call earlier this year. These calls are where analysts get to question the masters of the financial universe about their actions. Mayo asked Dimon if investors would not prefer a bank – he offered UBS as an example –that had a higher capital-to-debt ratio. The exchange then went:

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