By Uri Avnery
02 August, 2004
is a TV series about Russia. But it could have been about Israel. Or
about the United States. It is entitled The Oligarchs and
is now being screened on Israeli television.
Some of its episodes
are simply unbelievable or would have been, if they had not come
straight from the horses mouths: the heroes of the story, who
gleefully boast about their despicable exploits. The series was produced
by Israeli immigrants from Russia.
are a tiny group of entrepreneurs who exploited the disintegration of
the Soviet system to loot the treasures of the state and to amass plunder
amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars. In order to safeguard
the perpetuation of their business, they took control of the state.
Six out of the seven are Jews.
In popular parlance
they are called oligarchs from the Greek word meaning
rule of the few.
In the first years
of post-Soviet Russian capitalism they were the bold and nimble ones
who knew how to exploit the economic anarchy in order to acquire enormous
possessions for a hundredth or a thousandth of their value: oil, natural
gas, nickel and other minerals. They used every possible trick, including
cheating, bribery and murder. Every one of them had a small private
army. In the course of the series they are proud to tell in great detail
how they did it.
But the most intriguing
part of the series recounts the way they took control of the political
apparatus. After a period of fighting each other, they decided that
it would be more profitable for them to cooperate in order to take over
At the time, President
Boris Yeltsin was in a steep decline. On the eve of the new elections
for the presidency, his rating in public opinion polls stood at 4%.
He was an alcoholic with a severe heart disease, working about two hours
a day. The state was, in practice, ruled by his bodyguard and his daughter;
corruption was the order of the day.
The oligarchs decided
to take power through him. They had almost unlimited funds, control
of all TV channels and most of the other media. They put all these at
the disposal of Yeltsins reelection campaign, denying his opponents
even one minute of TV time and pouring huge sums of money into the effort.
(The series omits an interesting detail: they secretly brought over
the most outstanding American election experts and copywriters, who
applied methods previously unknown in Russia.)
The campaign bore
fruit: Yeltsin was indeed reelected. On the very same day he had another
heart attack and spent the rest of his term in hospital. In practice,
the oligarchs ruled Russia. One of them, Boris Berezovsky, appointed
himself Prime Minister. There was a minor scandal when it became known
that he (like most of the oligarchs) had acquired Israeli citizenship,
but he gave up his Israeli passport and everything was in order again.
By the way, Berezovsky
boasts that he caused the war in Chechnya, in which tens of thousands
have been killed and a whole country devastated. He was interested in
the mineral resources and a prospective pipeline there. In order to
achieve this he put an end to the peace agreement that gave the country
some kind of independence. The oligarchs dismissed and destroyed Alexander
Lebed, the popular general who engineered the agreement, and the war
has been going on since then.
In the end, there
was a reaction: Vladimir Putin, the taciturn and tough ex-KGB operative,
assumed power, took control of the media, put one of the oligarchs (Mikhail
Khodorkovsky) in prison, caused the others to flee (Berezovsky is in
England, Vladimir Gusinsky is in Israel, another, Mikhail Chernoy, is
assumed to be hiding here.)
Since all the exploits
of the oligarchs occurred in public, there is a danger that the affair
might cause an increase in anti-Semitism in Russia. Indeed, the anti-Semites
argue that these doings confirm the Protocols of the Elders of
Zion, a document fabricated by the Russian secret police a century
ago, purporting to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to control the world.
Moving from Russia
to America the same thing happened, of course, in the US, but
more than a hundred years ago. At the time, the great robber barons,
Morgan, Rockefeller at al., all of them good Christians, used very similar
methods to acquire capital and power on a massive scale. Today, it works
in far more refined ways.
In the present
election campaign, the candidates collect hundreds of millions of dollars.
George W. Bush and John Kerry both brag about their talent for raising
enormous sums of money. From whom? From pensioners? From the mythical
old lady in tennis shoes? Of course not, but from the cabals
of billionaires, the giant corporations and powerful lobbies (arms dealers,
Jewish organiztions, doctors, lawyers and such). Many of them give money
to both candidates just to be on the safe side.
All of these expect,
of course, to receive a generous bonus when their candidate is elected.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, as the right-wing
economist Milton Friedman wrote. As in Russia, every dollar (or ruble)
invested wisely in an election will yield a ten- or hundred-fold return.
The problem is
rooted in the fact that presidential candidates (and all other candidates
for political office) need ever increasing amounts of money. Elections
are mainly fought out on TV and cost huge sums. It is not a coincidence
that all the present candidates in the US are multi-millionaires. The
Bush family has amassed a fortune from the oil business (helped by its
political connections, of course.) Kerry is married to one of the richest
women in America, who was once the wife of the ketchup king, Henry John
Heinz. Dick Cheney was the chief of a huge corporation that has garnered
contracts worth billions in Iraq. John Edwards, candidate for Vice President,
has made a fortune as a trial lawyer.
From time to time
there is talk in America about reforming election finances, but nothing
worthwhile ever comes of it. None of the oligarchs has any interest
in changing a system that enables them to buy the government of the
In Israel, too,
talk about Money and Power is now in vogue. Ariel Sharon
and one of his two sons have been suspected of accepting bribes from
a real estate magnate. An indictment was blocked by the new Attorney
General who happened to be appointed by the Sharon government at the
height of the affair. Another investigation into Sharon and his sons
is still pending. It concerns millions of dollars that reached his election
coffers by roundabout routes, crossing three continents.
connections with multi-millionaires are well-known, as are the huge
sums poured out by American Jewish multi-millionaires for extreme right-wing
causes in Israel. One of the Russian oligarchs is the part-owner of
the second biggest Israeli newspaper.
A political scandal
concerning the Israeli Minister for Infrastructure has mushroomed into
an affair involving giant multi-national corporations competing for
contracts for supplying natural gas to the Israeli Electricity Company,
an affair of billions in which underworld figures, politicians and private
investigators play their parts. This disclosure has made it clear to
Israelis that here, too, politicians of the highest rank have long ago
been acting as mercenaries for powerful financial interests.
These facts must
alarm everybody who cares about democracy in Israel, Russia,
the United States and elsewhere. Oligarchy and democracy are incompatible.
As a Russian commentator in the TV series said about the new Russian
democracy: They have turned a virgin into a whore.