Russia's oligarchs are into forgiveness and repentance

Apr 20, 2004 02:00 AM

by Hugh Fraser

Forgiveness and repentance are the new buzzwords in Russian business circles. Writing from a desk in his prison cell, Russia's most famous prisoner, the oil tycoon Mikhael Khodorkovsky, has asked the Russian people to forgive him.
And now the country's finance minister, Aleksei Kudrin, has floated the idea of a legal amnesty for Russia's so-called oligarchs. Many of Russia's richest men acquired their billions through dubious privatisations in the 1990s. Mr Kudrin has suggested introducing a law that would grant them immunity from prosecution.

Speaking at the Russian Economic Forum in London, Mr Kudrin seemed to be addressing ordinary Russians back home: "I don't want to answer this question, but I would like to ask you: Are you ready for this amnesty? This matter is too serious for a mere government official to decide.”
His question reflects the political reality that many Russians are far from ready to forgive a handful of citizens who acquired so much wealth in so little time. But others say that the time has come for Russians to lose their resentment against the rich.

The argument runs that private property "however it was acquired" has to be put on a permanent legal basis. Certainty is a requirement of economic stability, the argument runs.
Or, in the words of the 19th-Century French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: "Only when the rules of the game declare clearly 'this is mine and this is thine', and the game is voluntarily accepted as worthwhile by the parties to it, can true independence be achieved."

Mr Khodorkovsky's meditations appear to be on an even higher plane. In his letters from prison he writes of seeking "redemption". This has not gone down well with some of those whom he suggests should be repenting along side him.
Anatoly Chubais, who was Boris Yeltin's privatisation minister and who now heads the electricity monopoly, is in no mood for this particular prayer:
"Khodorkovsky repents for me. He repents for my sins. I ask this: Doesn'the have enough of his own sins to repent?”

Most of Russia's oligarchs would find a legal amnesty more useful than spiritual reconciliation. But such an idea is still highly controversial in a country where putting a billionaire behind bars has proved to be a popular policy.
Boris Fyodorov, one of Mr Kudrin's predecessors as finance minister, believes that the Russian people would never accept an amnesty for the oligarchs.
"If they have their property illegally, it would be very strange to have an act of parliament to make it legal," he says. "If you bribed officials and rigged an auction, you should be afraid. Those who did such things should be sleeping badly."

Foreign investors would feel far more comfortable if property rights were settled once and for all. Charles Ryan, the head of investment bank United Financial Group, says that an amnesty would be "fantastic", but that it is probably a political impossibility.
"The Russian population generally thinks that the whole [privatisation] thing was a big swindle," he says. "Perhaps they could say that the property rights are safe, but there's no amnesty for the criminal component. "If they could separate those two, it's probably politically feasible."

Meanwhile Mr Kudrin has a second idea for an amnesty which might prove a less controversial, if only slightly. He says that Russia could follow Italy's example in offering an amnesty for tax evasion. In return, Russia's rich would have to declare their wealth and bring it back home from secret bank deposits oversees.
Again the idea is just a suggestion and it may take a while to implement. Mr Chubais -- the father of privatisation in Russia -- believes it will take "a generation" before the Russian people fully come to terms with the idea of private property.

Source: BBC News
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