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.

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:

In Russia, unheeded cries of corruption

John Lloyd
Dec 18, 2012 17:34 UTC

In Moscow last week at a conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the outdoor worker in a hard climate ‑ in his case, the Chuvash Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.

Mochalov’s story is that when thieves stole some of his cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation. Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow’s Red Square with a placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued justice, his farm went untended.

And so he turned to journalism. “I had no choice. The whole administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them with words,” he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe). It comes out most months, and it’s replete with investigations and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some 20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely outpaces supply.

Wanted: Equitable capitalism, profitable socialism

John Lloyd
Oct 23, 2012 16:26 UTC

Socialism – real, no-private-ownership, state-controlled, egalitarian socialism – has been off the political agenda in most states, including Communist China, for decades. The mixture of gross inefficiency and varying degrees of repressive savagery that most such systems showed seems to have inoculated the world against socialism and confined support for it to the arts and sociology faculties of Western universities. But what was booted triumphantly out the front door of history may be knocking quietly on the back door of the present. The reason is inequality.

Pointing out inequality is a political attraction these days, and as good a dramatization of that as any is in the comparison between what Tony Blair, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, said about it in 2001, on the eve of his second election, and what Conservative leader David Cameron said about it in a speech in 2009, soon before the 2010 election that made him Prime Minister. Blair, questioned about rising inequality, responded that while he was concerned with poverty and its alleviation, he didn’t lose sleep about the rich being rich. “It’s not”, he said, invoking Britain’s most popular sports figure, “a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.”

Cameron, referring to the recently published The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – a detailed argument that inequality is bad for everyone, even the rich – said the book showed that “among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality-of-life indicator.” That left and right should so switch places marks the shift that has taken place in the past decade, from living in societies where the tide of growth lifted all boats to one where most fear they’ll soon be sinking (assuming they already aren’t).

Changing the Moscow rules

John Lloyd
Aug 6, 2012 20:48 UTC

Around the time Vladimir Putin started his first term as Russia’s president in 2000, a man named Gleb Pavlovsky appeared on the Moscow scene. Pavlovsky was a former dissident in Soviet times who called himself a “political technologist”, a highfalutin term for spin doctor. That isn’t to diminish him: Spin doctors in different administrations all over the world are among the most interesting political figures of contemporary times, because their job is to give a narrative about the government and the leaders they serve.

In doing so, they help give the narrative to the leaders themselves, who may not have worked out quite what they were going to do with power, since they were too busy getting and keeping it. They are the necessary middlemen between political power and the media. The media need a big story, and the spin doctors, or political technologists, are there to provide it.

Vladimir Putin, the man chosen by former President Boris Yeltsin to succeed him, didn’t know what to do when he arrived. At the time Pavlovsky moved into the Kremlin as his aide, the new president was – as Pavlovsky later said – consumed with anxiety that he would not succeed in imposing his will on a Kremlin still full of aides who were not his choice. Putin, remember, was still less than a decade away from being a middle-ranking, surplus-to-requirements KGB officer.

After the U.S. fades, wither human rights?

John Lloyd
Mar 27, 2012 18:43 UTC

The shrinking of U.S. power, now pretty much taken for granted and in some quarters relished, may hurt news coverage of human rights and the uncovering of abuses to them. But not necessarily. Journalism is showing itself to be resilient in adversity, and its core tasks – to illuminate the workings of power and to be diverse in its opinions – could prove to be more than “Western” impositions.

When the British Empire withdrew from its global reach after the World War Two, the space was occupied, rapidly and at times eagerly, by the resurgent United States, at the very peak of its relative wealth and influence in the immediate postwar years. What it brought with it was a culture of journalism that was increasingly self-confident in its global mission: not just to describe the world, but to improve it. Some European journalism had that ambition too, but these were nations exhausted by war. The Americans, at the peak of their influence in the postwar years, had the power, wealth, standing and cocksureness to project their vision of what the world should be.

Now, American power too will shrink, and the end of U.S. hegemony (it was never an empire in the classic sense) will mean that there will be a jostling for power, influence, and above all resources by getting-rich-quick mega-states like China, India and Brazil. They will project their view of what the world should be — they have already begun, some (China) more confidently than others (India, Brazil).

The rich versus the seething masses

John Lloyd
Mar 21, 2012 15:58 UTC

In a remarkable column in Italy’s paper of record earlier this week, the columnist Ernesto Galli della Loggia flayed his country’s ruling class. The country is witnessing, he believes “a kind of incontinence and exhibitionism without restraint, a compulsive acquisitiveness,” rife within the highest circles of Italian society. This, mind you, after the departure of the highly acquisitive former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

“It seems,” he writes, “that in this country, for bankers, for entrepreneurs, for senior officials, for celebrities and for politicians, for those who, in short, count for something, any reward is never enough, any privilege or treat is never too excessive, any show of wealth is never over the top.” The politicians, if not the richest, are still the most degraded, because of their elective positions of trust. The press, the justice system and the frequent leaks of the many wiretaps that Italy’s magistrates order show the snouts of a political class that are too often deep into troughs of money, luxury and privilege, funded either by the Italian taxpayer or by private interests avid for political favor.

Flaying the rich in one form or another is becoming a habit everywhere where freedom reigns in the world and even — more carefully and more dangerously — where it doesn’t, as in Russia and China, where the very rich often have the backing of the state, or sometimes, are the state. It’s happening because the financial crash is making many people poorer, and most people poorer relative to the rich, who still contrive to get richer and richer. The stagnation in middle- and working-class incomes in many parts of the Western world is often turning into real decreases in spending power. Insofar as that goes on — and a fragile improvement in Europe and North America may take hold, and once again raise all boats, or it may not — then privileges, treats and shows of wealth become more and more galling, even to moderates not previously given to envy or militancy.

Do Russians really want democracy?

John Lloyd
Dec 13, 2011 23:18 UTC

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

MOSCOW — This weekend it was the Russians who took to the streets. Authorities claim there were no more than 25,000 protestors while organizers say there were at least 50,000. No matter the number, the protests have taken a sharp turn and seem to have depth in their anger.

Russia is far from a full democracy, but it is enough of one to prompt its electors to indignation that their presidential choices had been radically “improved”.

The current unrest on the streets and the widespread revulsion over solid-seeming evidence of ballot rigging show that many get very annoyed if their democratic choice is falsified. In conversations with students, regional journalists and a few older people in Russia last week, I was left in little doubt of the anger felt by many among them — and many among them had been Putin supporters.

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