POTANIN VERSUS THE ONE-MAN STATE

MOSCOW – Vladimir Potanin has a plan to cash out somewhere between $3 and $5 billion worth of his fortune in Norilsk Nickel by converting it into a controlling shareholding of the South African mining company, Gold Fields. If he succeeds, he will have achieved a bigger transfer of Russian wealth offshore – beyond the reach of the Russian prosecutor, courts, tax authority, or Kremlin – than Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, or any other Russian oligarch has been able to get away with, so far.

Part of the cost of Potanin’s plan has already been borrowed from the coffers of Norilsk Nickel itself; part from Citibank, the US bank which is so nervous about the plan it dare not explain the terms on which, last month, it loaned Potanin the money in the first place, and why it’s now desperate to recruit other banks to lend the money in its stead. That first transaction, the purchase by Norilsk Nickel of a 20 percent shareholding in Gold Fields for $1.16 billion, was the single largest corporate purchase offshore in the history of post-Soviet Russia.

The second part of the plan was signaled by Potanin’s dealmaker, Leonid Rozhetskin, in London a few days ago. He said Norilsk Nickel intended to buy more Gold Fields shares. What he meant was that Potanin intends to take another 30 percent shareholding, and thus control of Gold Fields. Constructing this deal is Rozhetskin’s job for the next several months. He doesn’t exactly want to pay cash – at least another $2 billion in real money-because he is not at all sure that the banks, which are wrestling uncomfortably with refinancing of Citibank’s $800 million loan, will be agreeable to an even larger credit. And so, the trick Rozhetskin must pull off is to give the Gold Fields shareholders something just as valuable. This is likely to be the collection of Russian goldmine assets which Norilsk Nickel has been buying up for the past two years. They include Polyus, Russia’s leading gold producer from Krasnoyarsk, and other deposits and mining companies whose productivity is much less, and capital requirements much more.

Indeed, this is such a mixed bag that what Rozhetskin really needs to make his Gold Fields takeover deal effective is that President Vladimir Putin will agree to award Norilsk Nickel the Sukhoi Log deposit, Russia’s largest unmined goldfield. This lies in remote territory northeast of Lake Baikal, in the Irkutsk region. A decade ago, it belonged to a partnership between Lenzoloto, a local mining association, Star an Australian miner, and JCI. But Lenzoloto cheated its partners, and has now been swallowed up by Potanin.

Sukhoi Log is listed as having 33 million ounces of gold; if every ounce could be mined, they would fetch more than $13 billion at the current gold price. Rozhetskin’s plan is that if Norilsk Nickel wins the government tender for the new mining licence for Sukhoi Log, he will be able to create a separate Norilsk Nickel company concentrating this and the other gold assets, and then merge the lot into Gold Fields. For an oligarch like Potanin, Gold Fields shares are as good a refuge, if not better than Chelsea is for Abramovich.

The Russian government acknowledges that it has begun investigating the deal. The South African government is slower to follow suit, but it will. The last takeover bid for Gold Fields, from the US miner Franco-Nevada, was disallowed.

In the meantime, it is possible to ask a range of Russian policymakers, including party leaders, parliamentary deputies, and advisors to the President what they think of this huge cashout attempt by Potanin. It is possible to ask, I say, but the answers reveal a surprising detail about the post-election landscape in Russia. This is a pervasive fear of having, let alone expressing an opinion, that may offend either an oligarch like Potanin, or the President.

In December, Victor Gerashchenko, the veteran Soviet state banker and former chairman of the Russian Central Bank, was elected by the voters to a seat in the Duma representing the new Rodina bloc, headed by Dmitri Rogozin. The party positioned itself during the election campaign as a sharp critic of the oligarchs, with a national-interest line of policy. Gerashchenko’s election four months ago, which did not exactly align him with his party’s public platform on any point, was something of an irony. During two terms at the Central Bank in the 1990s, he defied repeated efforts by the Duma to make his administration of Bank affairs legally accountable. Gerashchenko’s high opinion of himself has been not negotiable with any of the democratic laws or organs of the state, save the President. It is thus the President who is likely to have approved the recent nomination of Gerashchenko to the board of directors of Yukos. With sensitivity to the proprieties, Gerashchenko has announced that if elected, he will resign is seat in the Duma. Before long, Gerashchenko may be chairman of the Yukos board, supervising whatever new shareholding and management arrangements the Kremlin has in mind for replacing Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s group, as well as the American management led by Semyon Kukes. Until then, Gerashchenko is still a representative of the people.

What view does he therefore take of the legality and benefit to the Russian commonwealth of Potanin’s moves offshore? As the guardian of the Central Bank’s capital transfer regulations, there is no doubt that Gerashchenko knows the rules which Potanin has been carefully skirting. Gerashchenko has had a great deal of documented experience doing the same himself. But Gerashchenko has no opinion he dares to express on Potanin, Through assistants, spokesmen and secretaries, none of whom will identify himself by name, Gerashchenko has replied that he is not refusing to express a view on Potanin’s transactions, but neither is he going to reply. He is simply “busy right now”, according to a spokesman.

Vladislav Reznik is chairman of the Duma committee that has legal and legislative jurisdiction over what Potanin is doing. This is the committee on credit organizations and financial markets. Reznik was elected to the Duma to represent the United Russia faction. Before becoming a parliamentarian, Reznik was well-known as the manager who tried to privatize the state insurance company Rosgosstrakh for his own benefit. His expertise in evaluating Potanin’s financial operations should be considerable. But asked to do so, Reznik replied: “I can’t comment on government questions. Better ask that question to the Central Bank itself.”

Mikhail Zadornov is another Duma deputy, former chairman of the Duma Budget Committee, and once the successor to Anatoly Chubais as Minister of Finance. A member of the unsuccessful Yabloko faction, Zadornov has fallen slowly, but far from the power he once enjoyed. Asked to say if Potanin’s Gold Fields transaction accords with his view of Russian public policy, Zadornov employed a lady of such rudeness, his reluctance to talk became an attack on the presumption of anyone for daring to ask. Her courage failed when asked to give her name. “Mikhail Mikhailovich,” she said, referring to the freshly reelected tribune of the people, is “very busy.” Zadornov was even busier to respond to the question of whether he had ever received election support from Norilsk Nickel, or from Potanin’s holding company Interros.

During the Duma election campaign, the Rodina faction led on the hustings as the most critical of the concentrations of wealth amassed by the oligarchs under former President Boris Yeltsin. But when Dmitri Rogozin, the Rodina leader, was asked to say what he thought of Potanin’s latest moves, his spokesman responded that his answers “are not ready yet.” This was repeated at regular intervals over several weeks.

Mikhail Delyagin, an economist who heads the Institute for Globalization Problems in Moscow, has recently been engaged by Rogozin and his colleagues to add economic policymaking muscle to the faction. Delyagin is a keen practitioner of the media sound-byte on almost anything his questioners put to him – except Potanin. “We are not refusing to answer,” said Delyagin’s spokesman, who gave her first name as Maria. “We are delaying just a little bit.’ Delyagin himself remains stonily silent.

If the Rodina faction is afraid to have a policy view of capital flight, cashout schemes by oligarchs, or the distribution of wealth in Russia’s mining sector, then surely the Communist Party could be counted on to restate the eternal Marxist-Leninist verities, and place its opposition to Potanin on the record. True, the party led by Gennady Zyuganov had a soft spot for Yukos, and took money from that direction to finance its election campaigns for the Duma and the presidency. That it failed dismally in both has now led to serious internal trouble over doctrine and leadership. Nikolai Sapozhnikov is the designated Communist spokesman in the Duma on economic policy issues. He has refused to take calls to answer questions about Potanin.

Zyuganov remains the party leader, and however embattled he may be, he knows better than to duck a question delivered face to face. And so, after listening to a recital of Potanin’s plan for Gold Fields, and after being asked whether he judges it in Russia’s national interest, Zyuganov began: “The past ten years we haven’t had business in Russia. It was robbery.” Zyuganov took another breath, and was about to deliver a second sentence, when ail of a sudden, an elderly assistant tugged at his sleeve, and whispered, not altogether successfully: “That’s enough”. With that, Zyuganov closed his mouth, and made for the door, Potanin’s future at the hands of the Communist Party left in the air, uncertain but not at risk.

Across the political spectrum of Russia, therefore, there is no one who dares to express a view on the single largest transfer of the country’s wealth abroad. No one yet, it should be qualified, because the reaction of Russian party and political leaders to the attempted sale of Yukos to an American oil company drew the same timidity when each was interviewed last autumn, before Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested. Then those running in opposition to the government found their voices, and dared to oppose the oligarchs.

But as Reznik the parliamentarian succinctly summed it up, matters of such high policy are for the government to decide, not the Duma. If he had been honest, he would not have said government either. He meant Putin alone. And that’s exactly where Potanin and the other oligarchs now stand. Reviled in public opinion, and the cause of a massive shift of votes towards the erstwhile opposition of Rodina, they are no longer capable of buying the silence or the complicity of the parliament. It is Putin, not the oligarchs, that Gerashchenko, Reznik, Zadornov, Delyagin, Sapozhnikov, and Zyuganov now fear, now wait for. By their action and inaction, they have created a one-man state. But if that is all that stands for Russia between Potanin and his ill-gotten gains, then is there anyone who will gainsay that, for the national interest at least, better Putin than no one at all?

DERIPASKA PLAYS CARDS WITH THE KREMLIN

Oleg Deripaska is probably too young, and certainly too self-confident, to contemplate those who marked the loss of their power, or their end, with famous last words. Farouk, the last king of Egypt, lived thirteen years after he was deposed, but nothing before, or afterwards, was as memorable as his words on losing his throne. “There will soon be only five kings left,” he said in 1952: “the Kings of England, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades, and Clubs.”

For the Russian oligarchs created by ex-President Boris Yeltsin, this is the time of testing how far their fortunes will go like a deck of cards. Mikhail Khodorkovsky will go to trial in June, or thereabouts. Roman Abramovich is to be tested by the Accounting Chamber on May 15, when an audit of his conduct of the affairs of Chukotka, under his governorship, will be tabled. Vladimir Potanin’s attempt to cash part of his Norilsk Nickel fortune into a multi-billion dollar takeover of South African miner, Gold Fields, is already into the second month of the Kremlin’s investigation. And Deripaska, who controls most of the Russian aluminium sector, is waging a fight for cheap electricity with the federal government and Anatoly Chubais that he has already begun to lose.

A few days ago, the Minister of Economic Development and Trade, German Gref, intervened to block an attempt by Russian Aluminium (Rusal), Deripaska’s most important property, to lock in a low-cost power supply from the 2,000-megawatt Boguchansk hydroelectric power station in Krasnoyarsk region. Government and industry sources confirm that a federal government appointed commission is to meet soon to decide the future of the Boguchansk plant. Gref will supervise the commssion, as he told Alexander Khloponin, the regional governor of Krasnoyarsk, at a recent meeting.

Government and industry sources say this formula has been adopted to neutralize the bid by Deripaska and Rusal’s allies in the Krasnoyarsk region to buy control of the 24-year old, but unfinished plant for a pittance — just $46 million — and a promise to arrange the investment required for its completion.The sources expect the government to favour preserving state control of the plant; but they can do that by protracting the negotiations for completing the low-priority plant for years.

Notwithstanding his setback in Moscow, Deripaska announced at a press conference on April 16 that he and Governor Khloponin, the former chief executive of Norilsk Nickel, had agreed on terms for Deripaska to acquire control of the Boguchansk plant in return for a promise to finish the power station at a cost of up to $1.2 billion, and to construct a new aluminium smelter nearby with annual output capacity of between 300,000 and 600,000 metric tons. Krasnoyarsk sources confirmed that an agreement had been reached but declined to say what Deripaska has promised to pay. Khloponin sang Deripaska’s tune, as if he had never heard from Gref.

Andrei Yegorov, spokesman for United Energy Systems (UES), the national electricity utility, which owns the controlling 64% stake in Boguchansk, says that UES is skeptical of both of Deripaska’s promises, and believes he has no intention of meeting either of them. “It’s important to understand what Deripaska really wants,” Yegorov said. “If it is a wish to finish the electric power station, then we do not see the investment plan, and it was not announced. We think that the main Deripaska priority here is to dilute the [state’s] blocking shareholding and take full control over Krasnoyarsk GES. Boguchansk GES is only of secondary interest and maybe there is no interest at all.”

The Krasnoyarsk power plant is the principal power supplier to Rusal’s smelter at Krasnoyarsk. However, UES has launched court proceedings against Rusal to recover what it claims are non¬payments or artificially low payments over several recent years.

UES chief executive Anatoly Chubais, whose nose is exceptionally sensitive to the way the wind is blowing, has been categorical in saying he opposes Deripaska’s plan for Krasnoyarsk: “We are against the deal and will not allow it to take place.” Chubais, who was speaking at the Russian Economic Forum in London, added: “We have doubts about the transparency of such a deal. We do not support non-transparent deals.”

This was as close as Chubais could come to pleading mea culpa for his past attempts at favouring Deripaska. It was also a signal from Chubais that a higher power in the land than himself won’t tolerate another Chubais giveaway. In July 2002, for example, Deripaska tried to acquire Boguchansk, and he and Chubais signed an agreement for Rusal to lend UES $10 million. In return, Rusal was to receive an equity stake in the plant as collateral for the loan. That plan anticipated that Rusal would gain full control of the plant as it raised more loan funds to finance the construction, and received more equity. But the Putin government intervened. Chubais, under criticism from minority investors in UES and the Russian press, for arranging a sweetheart privatization in Deripaska’s favour, was obliged to abandon the deal. At the time, UES told me, it was spending Rb400 million ($13.2 million) in maintenance alone to preserve the plant. UES had also invested, it said, about $45 million in 2001 and 2002 for first-stage generating capacity of 185 mw.

Today the UES plan, said spokesmanYegorov, is to combine several regional generating companies, but not to unite hydroelectric units with thermal power stations “because hydro power is much cheaper, and everybody will want to use it.” The plan for Boguchansk, Yegorov told me, is to generate “superprofits” from □ two new hydroelectric companies, and use these to fund the Boguchansk capital requirement, without diluting state control. Deripaska, who has borrowing problems of his own recently, will be unnecessary to finance completion of Boguchansk. “Our specialists calculate that superprofit from [two] hydro generating companies will be enough to finish the first part of Boguchansk by 2009,” Yegorov said. There are several different capacity targets for Boguchansk from 2,000 to 9,000 mw, and the investment requirement goes up according to which is selected.

Hartmut Jacob, energy analyst at Moscow’s Renaissance Capital investment bank, reports that “we believe that although this UES financing scheme appears sound, implementation will depend on the willingness [of the federal government] to accept lower taxes from the hydro plants’ production (which could be directed towards social purposes) for the sake of retaining control over the plant.” Jacob also says he expects “the negotiations, from my point of view, will take a long time. The government will try to select a compromise variant.”

Maxim Bistrov, a Ministry of Economic Development and Trade official, reveals that the commission mandate had been agreed by Gref and Khloponin before Deripaska went public with his declaration of himself as virtual winner of the Boguchansk power grab. According to Bistrov, Deripaska’s bid is only one of several competing options, from which the ministry will recommend to the goverfnment and Kremlin its choice. “The commission will evaluate and decide on three general variants, and several additional ones,” he says. The current variants are (1) offering several additional issues of shares of the power plant to an investor; (2) lease of the plant by the investor with the subsequent right to convert spending on built capacity into the share capital of the plant; and (3) merger of the plant with Krasnoyarsk GES hydro plant, which is already controlled by Basic Element the Deripaska holding company.” Implying that other metals producers, including Deripaska’s rival Siberian Ural Aluminum (SUAL), have an interest in the outcome, Bistrov said that “other variants, such as combining the capital of several investors, will be closely evaluated, too,” He said it is too early to say what the schedule of the commission will be.

Yegorov of UES also casts doubt on Deripaska’s promise to build a new smelter in the region. “There is a space for an aluminium smelter near Boguchansk, and it was planned to build a smelter there. But the problem is that currently Rusal doesn’t have an investment plan. There is no project for the smelter too. they have been promising to do it for four years, but even the feasibility study was not done yet. “There is no railroad there, and RZD [national railroad company] doesn’t have plans to move the railroad there in nearest future. A smelter without a railroad is useless.”

Rusal has made other promises to build smelters in exchange for regional approval of shareholding deals in Deripaska’s favour. One of these, a year-2000 undertaking to build a smelter in the Kharkiv region of the Ukraine in return for privatization of state shares in the Nikolaev alumina refinery, is currently in the Ukraine courts, where the State Property agency has filed suit against Deripaska’s Ukrainian subsidiary for failure to honour his promise.

In the Irkutsk region, Deripaska and Rusal have also promised to build a new smelter at Taishet after winning regional support to take control of the smelter from Alucom-Taishet, another developer led by former Bratsk chief executive Boris Gromov. Victor Tifikov, who heads industrial development for the Irkutsk region, told me “there is no Rusal activity around Alucom-Taishet.”

The clash over the Boguchansk power project is the first test of Deripaska’s political influence with the federal government since President Vladimir Putin’s relection in March. If Deripaska loses, several other projects, which Rusal is already proposing to its bankers and contractors, may prove to be as rich as Farouk’s royal flush.

RUSSIA REVELS IN US’S WOES

MOSCOW – Nuri Said was the puppet prime minister of Iraq during the 1950s, when the British pulled all the strings in Baghdad. When he was toppled by revolutionary Iraqi officers in 1958, Said’s mangled corpse was dragged through the streets. His end more or less confirmed what he used to say: “You can always rent an Arab, but you can never buy him.” The Bush administration is filled with men with short memories who won’t have heard of Nuri Pasha, and aren’t in the frame of mind to listen to his advice.

Asia Times Online told this story in September of 2002 (Russia rooting for a quick hit on Saddam), and 18 months later it deserves to be repeated, especially after Said’s gruesome fate recently befell four American security men at the hands of an Iraqi mob in the town of Fallujah. Since their intensely televised death and dismemberment, the American occupation forces have faced surging rebellions by the two major communities of Iraq, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. Their attacks have also targeted foreign civilians, pseudo-civilians, and soldiers of fortune in Iraq, forcing widespread evacuations.

For the first time, the US military leadership in Washington, fearing the political consequences of adding fresh, inexperienced US forces to Iraq, has cancelled the one-year rotation agreement it had with its troops, extending their service in the war zone for another three months. Rotation was a scheme devised by the White House to limit the extent to which unpopular and unwinnable wars might provoke mutiny in the ranks, and votes against the president at home. The one-year rotation failed to staunch the crack-up of the US Army in Vietnam, but neither presidents Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon dared to cancel the rotation promise.

The political calculation by President George W Bush is that, even if the disgruntled families of the 20,000 troops affected immediately -one in every seven in Iraq – vote against him later this year in the presidential elections, that will still add up to fewer votes against him than if he adds 20,000 new troops who begin to suffer casualties.

The military calculation is that it will not be possible to preserve the US position in Iraq by paying local Iraqis to replace departing US forces. They must stay to fight; or they must retreat. The recent fighting has demonstrated for all to see that Said’s warning has returned to haunt those who ignored it. The Iraqis whom Washington has rented will never risk Said’s fate. And so, win or lose against Democratic Party candidate John Kerry, Bush has started down the slope that once defeated Johnson and Nixon, and put a brief stop to Washington’s imperial ambitions.

That’s a slope which Russian policy has no interest in either precipitating or accelerating – so long as it has the same outcome for US expansionism.

At the time of Nuri Said’s downfall, and again during the Vietnam War, the American leadership attributed its troubles to the cleverness of the Soviet Union, mostly because it was the Cold War, and Washington had no other way of explaining, let alone accepting, outbreaks of nationalism, localism and the like.

President Vladimir Putin, his Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and new Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov understand how easy it would be for Bush and his circle to revive similar charges, and put the blame for their own mistakes and battlefield losses on the Kremlin. They understand, too, how different the war in Iraq is from the war in Vietnam. They realize that the American people have even less commitment to the imperial fight this time than they had before. The Russian policymakers understand that it is Israel, and its men in Washington, who are mostly calling the shots for the president. The Russian assessment, and American public opinion, are therefore likely to converge, as the Arabs begin to exact the same toll on Americans in Iraq, as the Palestinians have been doing to the Israelis in that occupied territory.

Israel is trying to shoot its way out of a casualty ratio of one of their own to three Palestinians. For the time being, the US is trying to cope with a ratio of one to 50. Israel’s effective capture of the White House has taken a half-century to pull off, and for those, like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, who now command the heights of US power, this is a do-or-die campaign. Only it will be patriotic Americans who will be doing the dying. And they are not as malleable as their president.

Russian policy is therefore founded on letting the battlefield serve as a reminder of Nuri Said’s warning. Officially, Moscow would like to effect a substitution of US troops for a combination of Iraqi sovereignty and United Nations support. But sovereignty cannot be rigged by Wolfowitz and Perle, nor paid for by the US Congress and Halliburton Corporation. Nor can Bush’s puppets in England, Australia, Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Japan pretend to UN legitimacy. The Iraqi resistance is making sure that point is already clear (ask Spain). Sooner or later, the allied occupation forces will have to be replaced. But creating a new Iraqi political consensus will take much longer than Bush has realized.

Until that happens, Russian policy is to try to neutralize the damage that the Israeli faction in Washington can do, and try to advance a strategic relationship with the Americans who may be able to wrest power over Bush from the grip of the Israelis. Two remarks by Ivanov on his recent visit to Washington indicate this direction. The Kremlin, said Ivanov, “considered joint Russian-US efforts within the framework of the counterterrorism coalition to be much more important than our differences about the war in Iraq …” The US alliance, he added, regarding the Balkan conflict in Kosovo, but a general principle nonetheless, “must finally understand that one cannot flirt with political extremists”.

For Russia, it is crucial to prevent the deteriorating US position in Iraq from becoming the policy of perpetual war and territorial aggrandizement, which has characterized the Israeli policy for decades. To this end, having such a person as Bush in the White House may be preferable, if the extremists around Bush can be defeated by the simple facts on the battlefield.

Ivanov and other Russian officials have acknowledged recently that if the Americans were to decide to abandon their redoubts in Iraq, as they did in Vietnam, the communal instability inside the country would pose severe risks of spreading. And that isn’t in the Russian interest, so long as Islamic fundamentalism already threatens across several Russian frontiers, and inside the Russian Caucasus. Ivanov made clear also that, beyond the Chechen conflict, Russia is especially concerned to protect the movement of its exports, especially energy, to market through waterways and pipelines that are vulnerable to attack.

Ivanov told his Washington audience that he expects that the most likely conflicts between the Great Powers that may “flare up in the foreseeable future will certainly be related to the economic domain, to the needs to secure by the individual, national states of their national interests, especially in the sphere of economy”. Teaching Washington to accept that Russian economic interests are not antithetical to American ones may take time. But as long as the US keeps making costly mistakes in Iraq, time is on Russia’s side. And so is the price of crude oil.

THE FATE OF KUKOS — WHICH K WILL HAVE YUKOS?

MOSCOW — There are so many different battles now going on for the assets of Yukos, inside the company, between the management and the shareholders, between different shareholders, between Yukos and Sibneft, and between the company and the state authorities, it is easy to mistake the plot.

Last week, Yukos CEO Simon Kukes took out a fulf-page advertisement in the Financial Times of London. When it was the alter ego of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yukos never had any trouble getting its message across through the news and feature columns of the FT’s ever-obliging editors and reporters.

That Kukes had to pay for space in the conventional way signals just how much has changed in the dynamics of spoon¬feeding by the Yukos PR machine and its rival, the Abramovich PR machine.

For months after Lebedev’s arrest last July, the Yukos headquarters near Paveletskaya train station in Moscow was the general head quarters for a Yukos-bankrolled war against President Vladimir Putin. But after it became clear that Khodorkovsky was going to lose his political battle with the Kremlin, the senior executives of the company panicked. They told associates they would leave the company by January. Months later they are still there, explaining that out of foyalty to their imprisoned ex-chairman they are duty-bound to stay and try to keep the company together. But this isn’t the same company, as the one Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and their partners Leonid Nevzlin and Mikhail Brudno believe they still own.

Legal experts, who have taken time to assess the cases built against Khodorkovsky, his partners and the company itself, have become increasingly certain that prosecutors will get convictions on many, if not all the grounds of their indictments. The initial thrust of the Yukos fighting machine was a political battle against the Kremlin, hoping that U.S. pressure and Western bad press would cower the presidential administration into abandoning its strong hand. But it has totally misfired, and Khodorkovsky is reduced to hapless begging for amnesty in exchange for a promise of good behavior.

Out of the legal crisis that has faced the Yukos shareholders, an opportunity was spotted, not just by Roman Abramovich and his Sibneft group, but also by the management headed by Kukes and his allies, Bruce K, Misamore, the chief financial officer and Steven M. Theede, chief operating officer, and president of YUKOS-Moscow

Abramovich ambushed Yukos intending to ingratiate himself with the Kremlin to protect his own assets, and not only those of Sibneft locked up in the Yukos-Sibneft merger. Whether or not Abramovich hoped there might be an opportunity to reverse the Yukos-Sibneft merger, and to win Kremlin permission for him to capture Yukos, he had a more urgent priority late last year. That was to protect himself from Khodorkovsky’s fate. By proposing to be subservient and even useful to Putin in private, Abramovich accomplished quickly what Khodorkovsky waited too long to attempt. After Putin had won both the Duma and presidential elections so handily, he didn’t need either of them.

Now that Putin is fully in command, there are three scenarios for Yukos. AH of them are what we call the Kukos scenarios. In the first one, Khodorkovsky is released from prison on parole, retakes the reins of his company, and everything ends almost as it had started —Yukos remains Khodorkovsky’s Kukos. This is unlikely.

In the second scenario, the Kremlin dismembers Yukos by subjecting it to tax claims it cannot pay, and accepts shareholdings to clear the debt and penalties. That would create the Kremlin’s own Kukos, possibly for resale later. This option has met with resistance from some of the economic advisors in the Putin administration who have been arguing that the costs to be inflicted on the domestic investment market would far outweigh the benefits to the state. They have also argued that Putin would potentially compromise himself if the outcome of the case against Yukos were to be a form of ^nationalization. Besides, Putin’s policy, according to the argument, has clearly advocated reducing the extent of the state’s stakes in the energy sector if control can be achieved by other means.

The third scenario now emerging is a Kukos with Kukes and his team in charge, in cahoots with the Kremlin.

Some time ago Yukos executives suggested that Yukos’ troubles were a hostile takeover scheme arranged between Abramovich and the Kremlin. But the Kukes group don’t apparently believe that any more. They have begun to attack Abramovich, but they have stopped insinuating that Putin was in on that plot.

In effect, there is increasing evidence that Kukes, Misamore,Theede and other senior executives are hoping to arrange a cheap-price management buyout of Yukos. Accordingly, they have been negotiating with the government and Kremlin, first to deter their support for a takeover by Abramovich and his Sibneft gang; and secondly, to lower the price at which the Kremlin will agree to divest the old shareholders and replace them with new ones. In pursuing this strategy, the three U.S. citizens must also do their best to disavow their nationality, and promise not to trade the company away to ExxonMobil or ChevronTexaco — at least not now.

The appearance of a page-long advertisement by Kukes in the Financial Times is a signal that this Kukos strategy is making
headway.

If Khodorkovsky is having the nervous breakdown that some journalists are reporting and that his mistimed, misjudged letters and notes are intimating, it is little wonder. He has begun to realize that his enemies may include his employees. He may think he can secrete a sizeable pile of cash away from the Kremlin’s retribution, although foreign litigation and court-ordered freezes may limit his ability to spend it for a while. He may think of negotiating a compromise with the Kremlin that would include sizeable penalties and the loss of some of his shares. But if the third Kukos strategy turned out to be effective, whatever plea bargain Khodorkovsky might secure from the Kremlin, he would be left without any significant economic base from which to operate, either commercially or politically, after his release. Without cash, ail Khodorkovsky’s talk of liberalism will prove to be tepid air.

ALUMINIUM OLIGARCHS AT WAR AGAIN

MOSCOW (Mineweb.com) – The Faberge Easter eggs, which Viktor Vekselberg has bought from Forbes in New York and has brought back to Russia as his peace offering to the Kremlin, may also come in useful as pacifiers, now that Vekselberg has gone to war again with fellow aluminium oligarch, Oleg Deripaska.

After appearing to agree to a no-raiding pledge a year ago, Siberian Ural Aluminum (SUAL), owned by Vekselberg, and Russian Aluminum (Rusal), owned by Deripaska, have clashed anew. This time the fight – similar to the last one in late 2002 – is over shareholding control of the aluminium sector’s tidbits, the Volkhov aluminium smelter and the Pikalevo alumina refinery.

Maxim Titov, spokesman for SUAL, said that recently Rusal had outbid SUAL for a 14% state owned shareholding in OAO Metallurg, a Russian company which owns Volkhov and Pikalevo. Titov acknowledged there is a conflict between SUAL and Rusal over the 14% share sale, but he declined to say at what price Deripaska had bested Vekselberg for the shares.

The unexpected share raid is embarrassing for Vekselberg because, without the shares, he cannot claim that SUAL has bankable ownership of its assets, and without that credibility, he cannot go to the international markets with his plea to investors to cash him out of SUAL. Who would give Vekselberg a billion dollars for assets he doesn’t control tightly enough to prevent his most deadly rival from capturing?

The answer to this question has been so troublesome that Chris Norvaf. head of Vekselfoerg’s foreign flotation venture SUAL International, has made himself unavailable to answer questions for a year now. Behind the scenes, he has commissioned South African mining consultants. SRK, to do a new inventory of SUAL assets, as if to freshen them up, after financial advisor Fleming Family & Partners, has spent an unsuccessful year trying to market them.

Titov has also confirmed that a recent shareholder meeting called in St. Petersburg, failed to proceed, because of the conflict between the two groups. Rusal is seeking a seat on the board of Metallurg. SUAL blocked the shareholders from meeting on a technicality.

The Volkhov smelter, in the Leningrad region, is the oldest, and smallest, of Russia’s primary aluminium producers, it was first constructed in 1932, but it has been upgraded as recently as 1999, and has annual output capacity of 50,000 tons per annum. Production in 2003 was 22,600 tons. That figure is just 3% of SUAL’s metal production for the year. It is even more minuscule compared to Rusal’s production numbers – just 0.9%.

The Pikalevo refinery, also in the Leningrad region, was started at the same time. But operations were postponed because of the German invasion until 1959. It is the smallest of Russia’s refineries, and last year turned out 249,130 tons of alumina, the vital raw material for producing aluminium metal. Pikalevo alumina comprised 12% of SUAL’s output. To Rusal, however, which is starved for alumina produced in Russia, Pikalevo represents almost one-quarter of what Rusaf is able to produce tor itsetf.

With local partners, SUAL owns about 80% of the shares in the two production units. It has been aiming to consolidate full control of the units, and make them wholly-owned subsidiaries of the SUAL group. The Rusal acquisition badly frustrates that plan. It also puts potential pressure on SUAL to make its alumina available to Rusal at prices that are more attractive than the imports Rusal is also obfiged to depend on,

Deripaska has made raids against Vekselberg before, less for raw material gains, and more to sabotage SUAL’s corporate consolidation plans, and greenmail Vekselberg into paying a high price to be left alone.

In January 2003 SUAL declared victory over Rusal, following a three-month long contest over a 32% shareholding in the Nadvortsk smelter. Alexei Goncharov told me at the time that SUAL had reached an agreement to buy the shareholding, which Rusaf had acquired from two Nadvortsk directors in October of 2002. He confirmed that the fight over Nadvoitsk had been a bitter one,

In November of 2002, Gulzhan Moldazhanova claimed Rusal wanted to buy into Nadvoitsk in order to have a source of aluminium dose to consumers in the remote northwestern wastes of Karelia. Moldazhanova was at the time Rusal’s director for corporate development Nowadays she manages Rusal’s cashflow and corporate lending programme from a seat at Basic Element, Derlpaska’s holding company. In the weeks that followed her remarks, Rusal spokesman Yevgeny Ivanov attacked SUAL in the press for withholding aluminium claimed by Rusal as shareholder; SUAL denied the charge, and criticized Rusal’s media tactics,

Nadvoitsk produces just 76,000 tons of aluminum,

SUAL hinted at the time that Deripaska’s raid was a violation of a gentleman’s agreement between Vekselberg and Deripaska that neither man would attack each other’s aluminium business. Deripaska, the Vekselberg group suggested, was no gentleman. But neither group has ever admitted how much the raid cost Deripaska, nor how much Vekselberg paid to make it go away.

Asked if SUAL plans to buy out the Rusal stake in Volkhov and Pikalevo, Titov gays he cannot “comment on how this situation will be solved.” Rusal’s Moscow office refused to say anything.

JUDAS ISCARIOT WRITES AN EDITORIAL

MOSCOW – The Moscow Times published an editorial Friday, which could only have been written by Judas Iscariot. The editorial is a wholesale denunciation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, demonizing the man as he faces a likely prison sentence if the charges brought against him by Russian prosecutors are proven to be true. Talk about hitting a man when he is down.

The editorial comes in the wake of a decade-long relationship between Khodorkovsky’s Menatep and Yukos companies and Moscow Times.

Moscow Times is published by a former Dutch communist Derk Sauer who came to Russia as a reporter back in early 1990s. The early origins of financing for Moscow Times are still shrouded in a mystery buried deep in the files of a well-known organization in McLean, Virginia. But the newspaper found its niche promoting the privatization programs of President Boris Yeltsin, his favorite Anatoly Chubais, and his favorite in the U.S. Treasury, Lawrence Summers. Naturally, it became the favorite of the beneficiaries of that privatization. The editorials back then literally thanked God for people like Chubais and other prime beneficiaries of Russian privatization that saw mass looting of the country. At the peak of this sell off, the Moscow Times publisher applied for and landed himself a new patron – Khodorkovsky. Sauer needed his money to publish Playboy and Cosmopolitan. The methods, terms and scale of that cash injection into Sauer’s business remain almost secret to date. One of Khodorkovsky’s investment advisorsat the time has said that Sauer wanted to sell 20 percent of his publishing group; Khodorkovsky, acting through an outfit called Menatep Lausanne, agreed to just half, 10 percent. It is not known if the money Khodorkovsky paid Sauer is among the funds, which Khodorkovsky is now accused of laundering abroad. What is known, however, is that Sauer’s closest associates and partners have admitted selling their shares to Menatep for political protection in Russia. They never mentioned, however, how much money they got for that transaction. Nor did they ever announce the subsequent largesse the company kept on receiving for the following decade. Yukos was one of the first sponsors of the new newspaper by Sauer, Vedomosti.

His renamed banks and oil companies remained generous advertisers and sponsors. Moscow Times returned the favors by never asking any difficult questions about Menatep or Khodorkovsky, who attacked the Times of London group for daring to report that he was connected to Menatep Bank at the time of its default and collapse in 1998. That suit was settled by the Times of London with a confidential agreement that has deterred it from ever investigating Khodorkovsky again. The Moscow Times was already on retainer, and didn’t need a lawyers’ warning. Never once did Moscow Times notice wrongdoing at Menatep and Yukos; never once did the newspaper ask a difficult question; instead, it dispatched its reporters to brave sub-zero Siberian temperatures to do warm-up articles on how Yukos was changing Russia and Russian oil.

All that changed a few weeks after the July 2003 arrest of Platon Lebedev. Within days of the arrest, Moscow Times ran a front-page story accusing Lebedev of systematically intimidating reporters and curbing free speech. The reporters’ names were never mentioned. What Moscow Times did not reveal was that in a highly secretive deal, Sauer and his ironically named Independent Media had bought back the shares from Menatep and sold them, plus the stake held by VNU of the Netherlands, to Vladimir Potanin. The deal was arranged by Leonid Rozhetskin, a founding shareholder of Moscow investment bank Renaissance Capital and dealmaker

On contract to Potanin through Norilsk Nickel, where Rozhetskin is In November 2003, Potanin was the first big businessman to abandon Khodorkovsky, and to save himself offer tokens of his obedience to the Kremlin. The Moscow Times suddenly discovered the evil in Yukos and Khodorkovsky. Leading Moscow expatriates have told The Russia Journal how dismayed they were at the about turn by Moscow Times. “The newspaper never had any credibility, but the manner in which they turned on Khodorkovsky is just shameful,” said a leading American business leader in Moscow.

Few noticed that Moscow Times had begun to provide the same services to Potanin and his Norilsk Nickel and Interros holdings it had been giving to Yukos. No difficult questions about Potanin’s over-hyped investment deal with Hank Greenberg of AIG; no investigative stories of Potanin’s lobbying for favour from Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin; no truthful reports of the Norilsk Nickel miners’ strike against Potanin and his co-shareholder, Mikhail Prokhorov; no record of Potanin’s defeat in manipulating the Norilsk mayoral election won by a mine union leader.

Moscow Times and its parent company are hugely in debt to Potanin. At least, about 45 percent of their shares are owned by Potanin, and because of inherited debts, the Potanin interests have effective control.

The latest editorial by Moscow Times, biting the Khodorkovsky hand that once fed it while concealing Potanin’s hand, is a first, even for the newspaper known for its lack of openness and professional standards.

Judas would be ashamed. He was paid to betray his master, it is well known. Judas took sides, but then in remorse took his life. Sauer isn’t in that class.

RED HAS TURNED YELLOW – THE GREEK AND CYPRIOT COMMUNISTS ARE FLYING A DIFFERENT FLAG IN THE UKRAINE WAR



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

The Ukraine war is splitting the communist parties of Europe between those taking the US side, and those on the Russian side.

In an unusual public criticism of the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and of smaller communist parties in Europe which have endorsed the Greek criticism of Russia for waging an “imperialist” war against the Ukraine, the Russian Communist Party (KPRF) has responded this week with a 3,300-word declaration:  “The military conflict in Ukraine,” the party said, “cannot be described as an imperialist war, as our comrades would argue. It is essentially a national liberation war of the people of Donbass. From Russia’s point of view it is a struggle against an external threat to national security and against Fascism.”

By contrast, the Russian communists have not bothered to send advice, or air public criticism of the Cypriot communists and their party, the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL). On March 2, AKEL issued a communiqué “condemn[ing] Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calls for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Ukrainian territories….[and] stresses that the Russian Federation’s action in recognising the Donetsk and Luhansk regions constitutes a violation of the principle of the territorial integrity of states.”

 To the KPRF in Moscow the Cypriots are below contempt; the Greeks are a fraction above it.

A Greek-Cypriot veteran of Cypriot politics and unaffiliated academic explains: “The Cypriot communists do not allow themselves to suffer for what they profess to believe. Actually, they are a misnomer. They are the American party of the left in Cyprus, just as [President Nikos] Anastasiades is the American party of the right.” As for the Greek left, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza – with 85 seats of the Greek parliament’s 300, the leading party of the opposition – the KKE (with 15 seats), and Yanis Varoufakis of MeRA25 (9 seats), the source adds: “The communists are irrelevant in Europe and in the US, except in the very narrow context of Greek party politics.”

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IF IT SMELLS ALLURING, IT’S RUSSIAN – IN WARTIME L’ORÉAL (FRANCE) AND ESTÉE LAUDER (US) MAKE A BAD SMELL



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

The war plan of the US and the European allies is destroying the Russian market for traditional French perfumes, the profits of the French and American conglomerates which own the best-known brands, the bonuses of their managers, and the dividends of their shareholders. The odour  of these losses is too strong for artificial fresheners.

Givaudan, the Swiss-based world leader in production and supply of fragrances, oils and other beauty product ingredients, has long regarded the Russian market as potentially its largest in Europe; it is one of the fastest growing contributors to Givaudan’s profit worldwide. In the recovery from the pandemic of Givaudan’s Fragrance and Beauty division – it accounts for almost half the company’s total sales — the group reported “excellent double-digit growth in 2021, demonstrating strong consumer demand for these product categories.”    Until this year, Givaudan reveals in its latest financial report, the growth rate for Russian demand was double-digit – much faster than the  6.3% sales growth in Europe overall; faster growth than in Germany, Belgium and Spain.    

Between February 2014, when the coup in Kiev started the US war against Russia, and last December, when the Russian non-aggression treaties with the US and NATO were rejected,   Givaudan’s share price jumped three and a half times – from 1,380 Swiss francs to 4,792 francs; from a company with a market capitalisation of 12.7 billion francs ($12.7 billion) to a value of 44.2 billion francs ($44.2 billion). Since the fighting began in eastern Ukraine this year until now, Givaudan has lost 24% of that value – that’s $10 billion.  

The largest of Givaudan’s shareholders is Bill Gates. With his 14%, plus the 10% controlled by Black Rock of New York and MFS of Boston, the US has effective control over the company.

Now, according to the US war sanctions, trade with Russia and the required payment systems have been closed down, alongside the bans on the importation of the leading European perfumes. So in place of the French perfumers, instead of Givaudan, the Russian industry is reorganizing for its future growth with its own perfume brands manufactured from raw materials produced in Crimea and other regions, or supplied by India and China. Givaudan, L’Oréal (Lancome, Yves Saint Laurent), Kering (Balenciaga, Gucci), LVMH (Dior, Guerlain, Givenchy), Chanel, Estée Lauder, Clarins – they have all cut off their noses to spite the Russian face.

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THE WAR AGAINST FOOD – WHO IS TO BLAME



By Nikolai Storozhenko, introduced and translated by John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

This week President Joseph Biden stopped at an Illinois farm to say he’s going to help the  Ukraine ship 20 million tonnes of wheat and corn out of storage into export, thereby relieving  grain shortages in the international markets and lowering bread prices around the world.  Biden was trying to play a hand in which his cards have already been clipped. By Biden.  

The first Washington-Kiev war plan for eastern Ukraine has already lost about 40% of the Ukrainian wheat fields, 50% of the barley, and all of the grain export ports. Their second war plan to hold the western region defence lines with mobile armour, tanks, and artillery  now risks the loss of the corn and rapeseed crop as well as the export route for trucks to Romania and Moldova. What will be saved in western Ukraine will be unable to grow enough to feed its own people. They will be forced to import US wheat, as well as US guns and the money to pay for both.

Biden told his audience that on the Delaware farms he used to represent in the US Senate “there are more chickens than there are Americans.”  Blaming the Russians is the other card Biden has left.  

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EXILE



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

The problem with living in exile is the meaning of the word. If you’re in exile, you mean you are forever looking backwards, in geography as well as in time. You’re not only out of place; you’re out of time — yesterday’s man.

Ovid, the Roman poet who was sent into exile from Rome by Caesar Augustus, for offences neither Augustus nor Ovid revealed, never stopped looking back to Rome. His exile, as Ovid described it, was “a barbarous coast, inured to rapine/stalked ever by bloodshed, murder, war.” In such a place or state, he said, “writing a poem you can read to no one is like dancing in the dark.”

The word itself, exsilium in Roman law, was the sentence of loss of citizenship as an alternative to loss of life, capital punishment. It meant being compelled to live outside Rome at a location decided by the emperor. The penalty took several degrees of isolation and severity. In Ovid’s case, he was ordered by Augustus to be shipped to the northeastern limit of the Roman empire,  the Black Sea town called Tomis; it is now Constanta, Romania. Ovid’s last books, Tristia (“Sorrows”) and Epistulae ex Ponto (“Black Sea Letters”), were written from this exile, which began when he was 50 years old, in 8 AD, and ended when he died in Tomis nine years year later, in 17 AD.  

In my case I’ve been driven into exile more than once. The current one is lasting the longest. This is the one from Moscow, which began with my expulsion by the Foreign Ministry on September 28, 2010.  The official sentence is Article 27(1) of the law No. 114-FZ — “necessary for the purposes of defence capability or security of the state, or public order, or protection of health of the population.” The reason, a foreign ministry official told an immigration service official when they didn’t know they were being overheard, was: “Helmer writes bad things about Russia.”

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IN THE FOG OF WAR THERE’S THE GUTERRES CERTAINTY AND THE CADIEU CERTAINTY – GORILLA RADIO SEES THROUGH THE COVER-UP



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

Antonio Guterres is the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), who attempted last month  to arrange the escape from Russian capture of Ukrainian soldiers and NATO commanders,  knowing they had committed war crimes. He was asked to explain; he refuses.   

Trevor Cadieu is a Canadian lieutenant-general who was appointed the chief of staff and head of the Canadian Armed Forces last August; was stopped in September; retired from the Army this past April, and went to the Ukraine, where he is in hiding. From whom he is hiding – Canadians or Russians – where he is hiding, and what he will say to explain are questions Cadieu isn’t answering, yet.

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DID UN SECRETARY-GENERAL GUTERRES COMMIT A WAR CRIME AT AZOVSTAL?

By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, is refusing this week to answer questions on the role he played in the recent attempt by US, British, Canadian and other foreign combatants to escape the bunkers under the Azovstal plant, using the human shield of civilians trying to evacuate.

In Guterres’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on April 26 (lead image), Putin warned Guterres he had been “misled” in his efforts. “The simplest thing”, Putin told Guterres in the recorded part of their meeting, “for military personnel or members of the nationalist battalions is to release the civilians. It is a crime to keep civilians, if there are any there, as human shields.”  

This war crime has been recognized since 1977 by the UN in Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention.  In US law for US soldiers and state officials, planning to employ or actually using human shields is a war crime to be prosecuted under 10 US Code Section 950t.  

Instead, Guterres ignored the Kremlin warning and the war crime law, and authorized UN officials, together with Red Cross officials,  to conceal what Guterres himself knew of the foreign military group trying to escape. Overnight from New York, Guterres has refused to say what he knew of the military escape operation, and what he had done to distinguish, or conceal the differences between the civilians and combatants in the evacuation plan over the weekend of April 30-May 1.May.

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THE LAST DITCH IS POLAND – RUSSIA’S PHASE-3 PLAN FOR WESTERN UKRAINE



By Vlad Shlepchenko, introduced & translated by John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

The more western politicians announce pledges of fresh weapons for the Ukraine, the more Russian military analysts explain what options their official sources are considering to destroy the arms before they reach the eastern front, and to neutralize Poland’s role as the NATO  hub for resupply and reinforcement of the last-ditch holdout of western Ukraine.

“I would like to note,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, repeated yesterday, “that any transport of the North Atlantic Alliance that arrived on the territory of the country with weapons or material means for the needs of the Ukrainian armed forces is considered by us as a legitimate target for destruction”.  He means the Ukraine border is the red line.

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THE MATLIN PLOT, THE BROWDER PLOT AND THE NEW YORK TIMES PLOT



By Lucy Komisar,  New York*
  @bears_with

Here’s a story the New York Times has just missed.

US politicians and media pundits are promoting the targeting of “enablers” of Russian oligarchs who stash their money in offshore accounts. A Times article of March 11   highlighted Michael Matlin, CEO of Concord Management as such an “enabler.” But the newspaper missed serious corruption Matlin was involved in. Maybe that’s because Matlin cheated Russia, and also because the Matlin story exposes the William Browder/Sergei Magnitsky hoax aimed at Russia.

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YELLOW COAL, THE FUEL MADE OUT OF RACE HATRED — MAY DAY MESSAGE FROM SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY, 1939



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

In 1939 a little known writer in Moscow named Sigizmund Khrzhizhanovsky published his idea that the Americans, then the Germans would convert human hatred into a new source of energy powering everything which had been dependent until then on coal, gas, and oil.

Called yellow coal, this invention originated with Professor Leker at Harvard University. It was applied, first to running municipal trams, then to army weapons, and finally to cheap electrification of everything from domestic homes and office buildings to factory production lines. In Russian leker means a quack doctor.

The Harvard professor’s idea was to concentrate the neuro-muscular energy people produce when they hate each other.  Generated as bile (yellow), accumulated and concentrated into kinetic spite in machines called myeloabsorberators, Krzhizhanovsky called this globalization process the bilification of society.

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IS CAESARISM THE PROBLEM, THE SOLUTION, A FANCY DRESS COSTUME, OR A PROPAGANDA CARTOON?



By John Helmer, Moscow
  @bears_with

In imperial history there is nothing new in cases of dementia in rulers attracting homicidal psychopaths to replace them.  It’s as natural as honey attracts bees.

When US President Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke on October 19, 1919, he was partially paralysed and blinded, and was no longer able to feed himself, sign his name, or speak normally; he was not demented.

While his wife and the Navy officer  who was his personal physician concealed his condition, there is no evidence that either Edith Wilson or Admiral Cary Grayson were themselves clinical cases of disability, delusion,  or derangement. They were simply liars driven by the ambition to hold on to the power of the president’s office and deceive everyone who got in their way.  

The White House is always full of people like that. The 25th Amendment to the US Constitution is meant to put a damper on their homicidal tendencies.

What is unusual, probably exceptional in the current case of President Joseph Biden, not to mention the history of the United States,  is the extent of the president’s personal incapacitation; combined with the clinical evidence of psychopathology in his Secretary of State Antony Blinken;  and the delusional condition of the rivals to replace Biden, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Like Rome during the first century AD, Washington is now in the ailing emperor-homicidal legionary phase.  But give it another century or two, and the madness, bloodshed, and lies of the characters of the moment won’t matter quite as much as their images on display in the museums of their successors craving legitimacy, or of successor powers celebrating their superiority.  

Exactly this has happened to the original Caesars, as a new book by Mary Beard, a Cambridge University professor of classics, explains. The biggest point of her book, she says, is “dynastic succession” – not only of the original Romans but of those modern rulers who acquired the Roman portraits in marble and later copies in paint, and the copies of those copies, with the idea of communicating “the idea of the direct transfer of power from ancient Romans to Franks and on to later German rulers.”

In the case she narrates of the most famous English owner of a series of the “Twelve Caesars”, King Charles I — instigator of the civil war of 1642-51 and the loser of both the war and his head – the display of his Caesars was intended to demonstrate the king’s self-serving “missing link” between his one-man rule and the ancient Romans who murdered their way to rule, and then apotheosized into immortal gods in what they hoped would be a natural death on a comfortable bed.

With the American and Russian successions due to take place in Washington and Moscow in two years’ time, Beard’s “Twelve Caesars, Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern”,  is just the ticket from now to then.

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