I wonder how many British readers watched the first episode of BBC2's new series 'The Oligarchs', last night? The sight of robber baron Boris Berezovsky strolling around Riga with Neil Bush, brother of the U.S. President will have shocked many. But the links between Russia's oligarchs and Washington's neo-conservatives go back a long way. Here's a piece I wrote for the NS in 2003 on the unholy alliance between the oligarchs, the neo-cons and Israel's Likud party.
A funny sort of democracy
It is well documented that a cabal of Likud-supporting American neoconservatives played an important role in bringing about this year's illegal war against Iraq. What is less well known is the link the group has with the billionaire oligarchs in Russia and how theyare trying to use the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky to harden USpolicy towards Moscow. Richard Perle's gang of regime-changers andadvocates of total war are taking advantage of their disproportionate influence in the western media to portray the arrest of the billionaire businessman as a major international scandal and evidence thatVladimir Putin, a man whose elevation to power they largely welcomedthree years ago, is now the new Stalin. Perle's interest in Russiagoes back a long way. As for most Likudniks of his generation, the Soviet Union was the "evil empire" - not so much for its clampdowns on western-style freedoms, but for the support it gave to secular Arab regimes and its sponsorship of Palestinian liberation movements. Perle helped draft the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment which, to the chagrinof supporters of detente, made US-Soviet trade deals dependent onthe Soviets facilitating Jewish emigration. In the 20 years that followed, more than a million Russian Jews left for Israel, boostingthe electoral prospects of Likud and the far right. This also produced new settlements in the occupied territories, which did much to provoketoday's troubles.
The eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and the shock therapyof Russia's road to a "market" economy were widely welcomed by Perle and his supporters, even though this led to the impoverishment ofswathes of the population. With the rapid transition to capitalism came the emergence of the oligarchs - seven businessmen who usedtheir connections with the corrupt Yeltsin administration to seize valuable state assets at knockdown prices. In the oligarchs, Perleand his fellow hawks saw a way in which the US and Israel could, by proxy, gain political and economic power in Russia and, by doing so,eventually gain control of enormous energy resources.
But seven years on from the heady days of 1996, when the intervention of the oligarchs and their backers in the west guaranteed re-electionfor the "reformer" Boris Yeltsin, things have gone very wrong. BorisBerezovsky, the "Godfather of the Kremlin", and his fellow oligarchVladimir Gusinsky are both in exile. Earlier this year, Russia'sstubborn holding of its line on Iraq infuriated the neoconservativesand increased their determination to work towards regime change atthe next presidential elections in 2004 - and to accelerate theirplans to secure Russia's energy resources.
Before his arrest, Khodorkovsky had been in talks with US oil companies over a merger with Yukos. Now, with their man in Moscow behind bars,it is time for the neoconservative propaganda war against Putin to go into overdrive. Perle was first out of the blocks, calling for Russia's expulsion from the G8 and its exclusion from any postwarIraq oil contracts, and accusing it of collusion with Iran's nuclearpower programme.
Bruce P Jackson - like Perle a member of the Project for the NewAmerican Century and president of the hawkish Project on Transitional Democracies - used his column in the Washington Post to arguethat Putin had established a "de facto cold war administration inMoscow" and that the Russian president's actions were motivated by anti-Semitism (a claim echoed by Ariel Sharon). "In dollar terms weare witnessing the largest illegal appropriation of Jewish property since the Nazi seizures during the 1930s."
For Jackson, Putin is not just a new tsar and a new Stalin, but a newHitler, too. In Britain, the Daily Telegraph, a paper not known forhanding its comment pages to refugees wanted for criminal activities in their own country, did just that. Boris Berezovsky condemned the"increasing totalitarianism" of the Putin regime.
In the unrelenting pro-Khodorkovsky, anti-Putin propaganda we have beensubjected to, much has been made of the oligarchs' role in buildingRussian "democracy" - as opposed to the crude attempts of the Russianpresident to shunt his country back to the days of Peter the Great. Butthe "democracy" that Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky stand for is the"democracy" of an elite of billionaire businessmen to buy themselves not just political power, but immunity from the laws of the land.
"We hired First Deputy Chubais," Berezovsky boasted in 1997. "Weinvested huge sums of money. We guaranteed Yeltsin's re-election. Now we have the right to occupy government posts and use the fruits ofour victory."
True democracy in Russia would mean not only the return of propertyheld by the oligarchs to their rightful owners - the Russian people -but the formation of a government that puts the needs and interestsof Russia first, rather than those of the US or Israel.
For all their lip-service to the democratic ideal, that is the last thing Richard Perle, the oligarchs and their supporters in the west really want.