Interview with Yuri Felshtinsky

By Lanskoy, Miriam | Demokratizatsiya, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Interview with Yuri Felshtinsky

Lanskoy, Miriam, Demokratizatsiya

Miriam Lanskoy: In the introduction to the English-language edition of your book, (1) you draw a distinction between power and influence. You say that the oligarchs never had power. Can you elaborate on that thought?

Yuri Felshtinsky: This is a very important point. What do the oligarchs have? They have money. You hear everywhere, "The oligarchs stole." From whom? Imagine [that] everything is nationalized and seventy-five years passes, and then privatization begins. Most people don't believe in it. Most people expect everything to be nationalized again. People are conservative. They reason, "I don't have very much. How can l risk my last crumb? The government will come and take it away." For this reason everything is undervalued.

But there are others who take this chance and they reason differently. [They think], "There will be many of us and they can't take it away. We will win and we won't give it up." This is [Boris] Berezovsky. (There are others, he just happens to be the one I am acquainted with.)

Because lot seventy-five years there had been no market, all assets--let's say a factory--were undervalued. Oligarchs, like Berezovsky, got their factories and other substantial assets cheap. On the other hand, they were operating in an environment where there was no law. There was no tax law. No one knows what's legal. So you got your factory, now what? Now you have to invest in it. Renovate it, and manage it, and so on. You have to give bribes, all the time, for every piece of paper.

Imagine how difficult it is for the businessman to survive. Who succeeds? The one who is smart? Ambitious? Connected? It's all of those. You have to have capital. You have to make the right decision about investing it. If you make a mistake, you're finished. And then you need the connections to keep it running. Very few can do all this--there's only a handful of them.

In a more or less democratic system, politicians need money to run campaigns to win votes. Bloomberg spent six dollars per voter and one says that Bloomberg bought votes! The oligarch helps the politician win elections through the normal legal machinery of the mass media. But this is not the same as canceling elections! There is a qualitative difference between appealing to the voter through a journalist who had been bought and a journalist who has been strangled! It's one thing to use television to elect a politician; it's another thing to start a war in Chechnya to win an election. That there's a war going on [in] Chechnya, that does not bother anyone. But Berezovsky owns a television station--now there's a scandal!

At the same time, the [Federal Security Service] FSB uses the press, too. In 1988 you could see the ideological fight. For instance, in Moskovski Komsomolets, the head editor, [Sergey] Grachev, and [Alexander] Khinshtein published a story that Berezovsky is conducting surveillance of the Yeltsin family. But if you read the story, it's obvious that someone is listening to Berezovsky--that his conversations are being taped, not the Yeltsins'.

Here's the critical difference between power and influence. Berezovsky can't persuade the prosecutor's office to start an investigation in Ryazan. This is the difference between the oligarchs and the FSB--all Berezovsky has is money. He can't persuade the procuracy to open or close a case. He has no sway over police or prosecutors. He can't protect himself or his closest associates. Nikolai Glushkov, one of his closest associates, has been in jail for two years, and no amount of money can get him out. This is the real difference between power and influence in Russia, and it's very clear by looking at Berezovsky. He has lots of money and no power. This is the difference between the real oligarchs and the people we are used to calling "oligarchs"--Berezovsky can be arrested and thrown in jail.

ML: Why don't you cite the newspapers that you used in the book? …

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