John Helmer: Putin’s Supper for the Oligarchs – Who’s in the Family, Who’s Out?

Yves here. There is something to be said for how straightforward open kleptocracies are…

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears


At the very beginning of his presidency, in March 2000, Vladimir Putin said the state – he meant himself – should be “equidistant” from the oligarchs. He also promised “compliance with [market] rules, without offering any advantages or privileges or preferences to anyone”. The president, Putin added, “should stand above this influence and not pile up all the interests only in favor of the big companies and monopolies. We should not allow this.”

To illustrate what he now means by equidistance, the president annually invites forty oligarchs to the Kremlin, where he seats them clockwise in alphabetical order .

This year, in brief introductory remarks to his guests, Putin mentioned that capital has been cut off from outside Russia. He also noted the fall of revenue from the declining oil price. “Despite the complicated market conditions and objective difficulties, you were able to ensure your companies’ steady operation and preserved your workforce. We have carefully analysed what is happening at specific enterprises, and we can see that even where there are temporary difficulties, you have done everything to keep the staff on, even if it meant reducing their working hours. In general, I believe this is absolutely the right approach: it is vital to treat people with great care, particularly highly qualified personnel.”

There was no mention of capital controls to restrict the oligarchs from exporting their dividends and capital, nor of the deoffshorization programme requiring them to return their capital and reinvest it in Russia. For the start-to-finish history of that programme, read this. A year ago, Putin mentioned his offer of amnesty for capital returned to Russia; last week he ignored it. “Our response to external limitations,” Putin told the oligarchs, “is greater entrepreneurial freedom and the protection of property and rights of all those who are working and conducting their business honestly.”

At the December 19, 2014, supper there were 45 names to Putin’s left and right, of which four were officials. Here they all were. A video clip prepared by the Kremlin cameraman recorded the event this way.

This year, on December 24, the Kremlin press office has provided this guest-list of 46 names. Omitted from the guest-list are the officials: chief of the presidential staff Sergei Ivanov, Kremlin economic advisor Andrei Belousov, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, and Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina; they can be glimpsed to Putin’s right and left, in this video-clip. They were also present a year ago.

Those who attended in December 2014, but who were missing from last week’s event, are: Roman Abramovich (metals), Albert Avdolian (Gazprom group), Dmitry Ananiev (Promsvyazbank), Vasily Anisimov (metals), Dmitry Bosov (metals, coal, gas), Ruben Vardanian (finance), Sergei Generalov (transport), Andrei Kosogov (Alfa group), Iskander Makhmudov (metals, railways), Ziad Manasir (Gazprom group), Konstantin Nikolaev (ports), Andrei Skoch (Metalloinvest), Ivan Tavrin (Megafon), and German Khan (TNK-BP, Alfa group).

Those who are new invitees this year and were absent last year, are: Musa Bazhaev (oil, platinum), Oleg Belozerov (Russian Railways), Oleg Budargin (Rosseti), Arkady Volozh (Yandex), Sergei Galitzky (Magnit), Igor Zyuzin (Mechel), Yevgeny Kaspersky (IT), Sergei Kogogin (KAMAZ), Victor Linnik (agroindustry), Dmitry Mazepin (fertilizers), Alexei Miller (Gazprom), Andrei Murov (electricity), Zakhar Smushkin (paper and pulp), Nikolai Tokarev (Transneft), Sergei Chemezov (Russian Technologies), Vadim Shvetzkov (autos), and Igor Shulginov (RusHydro).

Zyuzin, who has hung on to shareholding control of the steelmaker and coal group Mechel, while fighting off state bank demands to relinquish his shares in exchange for a state bailout from bankruptcy, made a show of pencilling down Putin’s every word. The only other oligarch at Putin’s table to do that was Vladimir Yevtushenkov, owner of the Sistema group. Last year, his clash with Igor Sechin over who owned the Bashneft oil company, put him under house arrest for three months. He was released in time to appear at the president’s soiree.



To left, Zyuzin; to right, Yevtushenkov.

Missing from both the 2014 and 2015 guest lists are three names identified on US and European Union sanctions lists as oligarch-sized businessmen whom the US Treasury believes to be personally close to Putin — the Rotenberg brothers, Arkady and Boris; and St. Petersburg banker Yury Kovalchuk (below, left).



The fourth “crony” to be targeted by sanctions and to be seated two years in a row is Gennady Timchenko (above, right). For the current sanctions list, click.

The name of the richest of the oligarchs who is missing from both occasions is Mikhail Fridman of the Alfa group and Vimpelcom.

At the conclusion of Putin’s opening remarks the press were obliged to file out. As they did, according to one of the trusted pool reporters, he heard Putin say something that isn’t on the official tape. Putin described the oligarchs around the table as “Почти семейным.” “Almost family.”

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  1. sd

    Who today are America’s oligarchs? I am wondering who are their American counterparts. Do the oligarchs change as the White House passes from one party to the next, or is there continuity and they more or less remain the same?

    1. cwaltz

      If I remember correctly 600 companies had access to and were allowed to help with crafting TPP. I’d start with the CEOs of those companies when crafting a list.

      1. TarheelDem

        My sense is that the US oligarchs are people instead of corporations and are closer in number to 40 than to 600 and that they are constant in normal times for a generation with about the same turnover you see visibly in Putin’s dinner.

        These are not normal times, however. My guess is that there is severe partisan polarization to the point that there is effectively two semi-disjoint oligarchies contending for power with a common bipartisan intersection that is the most visible. Buffett, Gates, Petersen (note the industries) are the most visible members of that bipartisan intersection. Kochs, Edelman, Trump (note the industries) are the most visible in one of the disjoint groups; Dimon (again note the industry) one of the most visible in the other disjoint group.

        The difference between Russia and the US is in who talks and who takes notes.

        1. TG

          Well said!

          In Russia Putin talks and the oligarchs take notes.

          In the United States the oligarchs talk and Obama takes notes. As for Congress, when the oligarchs talk Congress asks “How high?”

          Putin is no saint, but surely still deserves credit for stopping the Neoliberal looting of the Russian economy. Without Putin Russia today might be a lot more like Libya or Kosovo…

          1. digi_owl

            “In the United States the oligarchs talk and Obama takes notes.”

            Under Yeltsin the same situation was present in Russia as well, and why Putin seems to have such a strong support from the people.

            Note btw that while Yeltsin was in control, western corporations and their buddy oligarchs ran roughshod over the nation. But now that the tables have turned, the guy in charge is an evil autocrat as best.

            1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

              Can I recommend the Putin biography “The New Tsar”. Pay no attention to the fact it is favorably reviewed by *Robert Kagan* on the jacket, this is a very detailed and mostly dispassionate retelling of the history of the period and Putin’s rise within it. I think Yeltsin deserves some slack, the Communists really had no clue how capitalism worked, how to write a binding contract, so when the vultures swooped the looting was epic. Putin oberved, and learned, and seems to be trying to find the right balance between Capital and The State.

      2. Vatch

        Most of the U.S. oligarchs are near the top of this list:

        The CEOs of the companies at the top of this list are either oligarchs or members of the Power Elite:

        The CEOs of the top banks on this list are also either oligarchs or members of the Power Elite. As I write, this particular web site is down, so I’ll also provide a Wikipedia list.

        It’s harder to determine who are the top members of the governmental Power Elite. Some of those people are not elected, and are hidden in the hierarchy of the Defense, State, or Treasury Departments.

        1. meeps

          It’s likely that a small core of the the same ‘players’ would be found to exercise control across borders via TNCs under their control. James B. Glattfelder’s TED in 2012 may be old hat to NC readers; in case you missed it:

          If a small number of simple rules can facilitate the emergence of a systemically risky and unevenly distributed complex system, wouldn’t a few simple rule changes cause something different to emerge? Anyone willing to use Vatch’s list of oligarchs to run the equation again? (;

          Thanks and a Happy New Year to Yves, Lambert, and all the bright people who delight on NC each day.

  2. susan the other

    Putin was using a western law (putting assets in trust?) in order to repatriate the naughty oligarchs and their money in order to help mama Russia. Looks like it worked. Gotta love the “family” think; its Cosa Nostra all over again. Since they skillfully took klelptocracy as far as it could go and then crashed, give them a new bone to chew – the environment and its preservation. Afterall, that’s a very patriotic cosa.

  3. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thanks for the informative post. Not a fan, but I found Putin’s linked introductory remarks to his “near-family” of particular interest.:

    “I have already mentioned our plans to begin consultations between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states and ASEAN regarding the possibility of an economic partnership. This is a huge market.”

    I believe Russia’s success in this endeavor will be pivotal as to whether they will succeed in developing economic alternatives that could make geopolitically driven Western economic and financial sanctions irrelevant. But the fact that this Russian-Chinese joint development effort h/b out there for some time now and is evidently stalling out h/b informative in identifying who still lays the turf regarding export demand, commodities and energy pricing.

    However, it also appears that the myopic thinkers in the latter group don’t care a lot about either domestic U.S. or international collateral damage, although they should. The massive fail of U.S. domestic consumption due to private sector debt overload, wage suppression, and wealth transfer and concentration policies will be a major contributing factor underlying potential U.S. international economic and geopolitical policy failure IMO. After all, who wants to enter into a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” with someone who lacks the capacity and desire to purchase your exports?

  4. Russell Scott Day/Founder of Transcendia

    My long held belief that the US and Russia would become more like each other than the mythical US ideals raise up Russian capitalism has essentially come to be more true, than less true.
    Meyer Lansky Financial Engineering was made legal in the US during the Clinton Administration. It did not take legislation for it to become the way in Russia.
    The Cold War became an economic war, and is a phony war in Syria and the Ukraine.
    Cash flow from the seats on Russian Rockets to the ISS represents the true friends of Putin list. I have strong suspicions in regards to US rocketry failures of 2015. Detectives work from motive and opportunity.
    The good reasons that the US Petrodollar continued as the world’s reserve currency have been well eroded by the Wall Street machinations along the paths of least resistance.
    The Euro has proved to be impractical. The Nixon Kissinger gift wobbles.
    Transcendia offers the Insurodollar. I recommend extreme security measures for US based Space Businesses, like Space X, who would be wise to close themselves off from any whose tentacles reach into Russian Space ops, as Gore set up in hopes of restraining freelancers selling tech to whacks.
    I’d also recommend serious discussion about the simple sale of a land corridor from Russia to the Crimea. Ukraine’s people were screwed when they gave up their nukes.
    Find the tanks, like the German Leopards that Poland just got, and see war as bad for business, and work from there.

  5. Olaf Lukk

    The difference between American and Russian oligarchs is this: In Russia, oligarchs who expose the predatory nature of the ruling economic elites to the general public (the 99%) are exiled, imprisoned, or shot. In the United States, they are given bailouts and bonuses.
    In any case, they are birds of a feather.

    1. Lin1

      Huh ? What can you possibly mean by “expose the predatory nature of the ruling economic elites” (ie ruling class) ? Do you mean exposed as an unintended consequence of their increasingly corrupt and incompetent activities ?

  6. TheCatSaid

    “Apostles of Power” provides a front row seat to some of the activities of the 12 shareholders who bought the 2008 US presidency in about 1999. While some details (names, time sequences) were changed to avoid lawsuits, in several radio interviews the author has confirmed his presence at the presentation of the business plan in question, and of the accuracy of other events described. This particular project involved individuals who were powerful and with technical / business expertise and vast networks in the various sectors needed to implement the plan. Some were Americans, others were not. Actual names of some of the US government officials involved are included.

    It’s not a pretty picture. The shareholders are apparently not the usual suspects. By the end of the book (events that occurred in 2012) it seems that the unity of the group was fraying.

    The author has said that the purpose of writing the book was to put enough information into the public domain that a specific event planned for 2012 (which would have been disastrous) could not be carried out. The book’s publication–only a few days before the intended event–was fortunately successful in avoiding this calamity.

    The operational aspects were revealing, including details of unplanned mishaps.

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