It was the 19th century English poet William Wordsworth who once warned that “in modern business it is not the crook who is to be feared most; it is the honest man who doesn’t know what he is doing.”
Since self-proclaimed presidential candidate Sergei Glazyev isn’t a crook, and he sues television broadcasters for moral damage for so much as suggesting that not all his qualifying signatures are valid, let us hasten to our conclusion by declaring that he is, or at least was, an honest man, who doesn’t know what he is doing. According to those who have known him since he was a precocious university student, it has always been so. Glazyev’s problem is that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about himself. That can be a fatal, if not quite tragic flaw, in politics. It is not something that anyone else in Russian politics need be afraid of.
When it comes to fatal flaws, Dmitri Rogozin, Glazyev’s erstwhile partner these days, has seen them before. In 1995, for example, when Rogozin was manager and strategist for a political movement called the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), Rogozin was the brains behind the political rise of General Alexander Lebed. Like Glazyev, Lebed was an honest man, who didn’t know what he was doing. Like Glazyev too, he had an ambition for power; an intolerance of fools; and a vanity that couldn’t abide an insult, but was easy prey to flattery.
Lebed was Rogozin’s candidate to fire up Russian voters during the 1995 Duma election campaign as an alternative to Yeltsin, whom Rogozin detested, but found useful; and to the Communist party, whom Rogozin judged to have no usefulness, nor any future for himself.
Rogozin explained Lebed’s positioning to me in June of 1996. That was six months after Lebed had helped push KRO over the 5-percent barrier, and into the new Duma – only to see Yeltsin use fraud to lower the official vote tally, and keep him out. Yeltsin’s aides then approached Rogozin and Lebed with a fresh offer. They would help Lebed to double his vote in the first round of the presidential election, in order to draw votes away from the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, then well in front of Yeltsin among the majority of voters. If Lebed could neutralize Zyuganov’s lead, Yeltsin’s men promised a fresh deal. Lebed could have his choice of a senior post in the new Yeltsin administration, they said, in exchange for directing his voters towards Yeltsin in the second round against Zyuganov. Lebed asked for a revival of the vice-presidency. It was agreed, Rogozin said, that he would get a post with “broad authority to control the force structures and the right to confirm candidates for all major ministries.” When Lebed won just over 14% in the June 16 ballot, he had demonstrated his part of the bargain. Yeltsin had barely managed to stay ahead of Zyuganov, 34% to 31%. All that remained was for Yeltsin to promote Lebed to the Kremlin, and for Lebed to endorse Yeltsin in the second round. Within twenty-four hours of the poll, Lebed took the post of head of the Security Council. The power in the portfolio was kept secret, however.
As Rogozin explained what happened next, Anatoly Chubais, the presidential campaign chief, intervened. Just three days after Lebed’s appointment, Chubais forced Yeltsin to fire the two crucial advisors, Alexander Korzhakov and Mikhail Barsukov, who had been behind the Lebed deal. For seventy-two hours, Lebed thought he had been in charge of the government, when Chubais made his move. Once Korzhakov and Barsukhov were out, Lebed found himself isolated, and compared to Chubais with Yeltsin, impotent. It was a position that Rogozin had warned Lebed to avoid, but the general wouldn’t listen. It was also the end of Lebed’s power, before he had even begun to exercise it. It was the end of Rogozin’s support for Lebed.
It’s a charming coincidence that, after Yeltsin won the presidency over Zyuganov, and Chubais had reinforced himself, Lebed engaged Glazyev to serve as his deputy in charge of economic security. It’s a post that didn’t last long. Glazyev doesn’t like to talk about it nowadays, especially not when it is recalled that he and Lebed went on the attack against oligarchs like Vladimir Potanin. For a time, Glazyev even attempted to reverse Potanin’s illegal grab of Norilsk Nickel. But with Glazyev under Lebed’s boot, and Lebed under Chubais’s thumb, Potanin won out easily. Glazyev is so uncomfortable about what happened then, that when asked several times last year, during his campaign for the Duma, whether he backed the Norilsk Nickel workers in their campaign against Potanin, he refused to answer. Even during Potanin’s fraudulent, if feeble campaign to prevent the election of union leader Valery Melnikov to become Mayor of Norilsk city, Glazyev kept his mouth shut.
There are very few new tricks in politics, and so it isn’t exactly another coincidence that when Glazyev and Rogozin led their Rodina (“Motherland”) bloc in the December parliamentary election, they aimed their fire at a target they defined so vaguely that it wouldn’t embarrass Glazyev to name names. In 1996 Rogozin and Lebed made a deal with Yeltsin that they would campaign aggressively, but never attack Yeltsin personally. Only the voters were fooled. In 2003 Glazyev never attacked President Vladimir Putin, nor did he attack any of the oligarchs by name. In January, after Glazyev announced his run for the president, a Moscow newspaper asked him what he had to say about the incumbent. He replied, without using Putin’s name: “The Kremlin’s pursuing a policy of passively following price fluctuations in the global fuel market. This policy deprives us of economic growth because it encourages the brain drain and capital flight.” If this is an honest man saying what he really thinks of a politician he’s trying to beat, it’s plain he doesn’t know what he is doing.
During the Duma campaign, I asked Glazyev to say what he thought of the sale of Yukos to a foreign oil company. He refused to reply. When Vedomosti recently asked him to speak directly on the arrest and jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Glazyev responded:
“Business and government should be separated, since the government promotes national interests while business promotes its own interests.” I have tried to get him to be specific. Does he believe Putin is backing the oligarchs in general? Roman Abramovich in particular? What does he advocate for government policy towards Norilsk Nickel’s shareholding control by Potanin? Does he favour restructuring the Deripaska aluminium empire in any way? Glazyev evades the questions by instructing his spokesmen to say he’s too busy. The refusal to answer is obvious, nonetheless.
It is also obvious that the break Rogozin once came to with Lebed has occurred again with Glazyev, and with about the same speed as before. The only difference is that in 1996 Lebed failed to anticipate the double-cross which Yeltsin pulled on him, after Lebed had surrendered. Maybe this time Glazyev has pulled the double-cross first, deciding to run against Putin, after doing what the Kremlin wanted him to do during the Duma campaign. However, if Glazyev is honest about running against the president, he doesn’t seem capable of moving his mouth in that direction.
Over his years in politics Glazyev has come to regard himself as an ace. But the facts speak louder than he does. He is more the joker in the pack – the card that game-players can use to serve any value or function at all.