MEDVEDEV’S MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE — INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HELMER BY GABRIELA IONITA, CADRAN POLITIC REVIEW, BUCHAREST – APRIL 2009
1. Recently, President Medvedev urged Russian oligarchs to pay their “moral debt”? What does this mean in concrete terms?
Moral debt in Russia is a case of the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil.
In theory, the Russian President means that men who seized most of Russia’s natural resource wealth more than a decade ago by a combination of corrupt and fraudulent means, and then generated vast fortunes abroad by manipulating Russia’s weak tax and capital controls, have an enormous debt to repay to the state and the economy. In practice, Medvedev does not intend to name names, let alone take any action to collect that debt, whether moral or fiscal.
Indeed, Medvedev is going to unusual lengths to protect one of the oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska, from having to honour the loan obligations he has to Russia’s state banks, as well as to a group of more than 70 commercial banks, some Russian, most foreign. If anyone in Russia carries the largest moral, as well as money debt today, it is Deripaska. Consider then why Medvedev said, at a regional conference in Irkutsk on February 20, in Deripaska’s presence: “I fully agree with what Oleg Vladimirovich [Deripaska] said about situations when the crisis leads to settling scores… There should be no situations when different structures’ rivalry can lead to the collapse of an entire group of companies…Such actions should get adequate reaction from the state. For that purpose we have one serious institution, the government of the Russian Federation … There are situations when power must be used.”
In case anyone was in doubt that Medvedev meant to reach up, and put his arm around Deripaska, he repeated the message at a Kremlin meeting on March 17. On that occasion, the president was meeting with Mikhail Fridman, controlling shareholder of the Alfa Bank group. Alfa, to whom Deripaska is overdue in repaying between $650 million and $1 billion, has led the commercial banks in launching court action in Moscow, and also in Jersey (where Deripaska registers some of his companies). Medvedev the lawyer appeared to be telling Fridman the banker: “We cannot sacrifice entire companies with many thousands of staff to meet the ambitions of certain credit organizations.”
It is one thing for a politician not to mean what he says, or to mean different things to different audiences. It is quite another thing for a politician to say things he has no power to do, with the purpose of intending to do in secret what he would not dare acknowledge in public.