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Russia's Oligarchs Wield Power Behind the Scenes

By Judith MatloffStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1998



MOSCOW

Any time there is a major political development in Russia, conspiracy theories swirl about behind-the-scenes maneuverings of tycoons.

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These intriguing financiers appeared only over the past five or six years in the aftermath of the Soviet Union. They have powerful stakes in industry, media, and finance. Some analysts believe they may even control half of Russia's economy. Politically, they also wield great clout, using their newspapers and television stations to mold public opinion.

Even the mighty are vulnerable to the latest financial collapse, however. Their media holdings are hurting from the increased cost of producing newspapers. Their banks are having trouble staying afloat.

But they are a pragmatic bunch, with a history of putting rivalries aside to unite in order to survive.

The following are a list of the "Big Seven" and their financial interests:

* The most visible of the oligarchs is Boris Berezovsky. He is reportedly the closest of the bunch to President Boris Yeltsin, and for a time served as secretary of the National Security Council.

The mathematician-turned-financier's flagship is the LogoVAZ car dealership. His interests also include Obyedinenny Bank, Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, and stakes in the oil firm Sibneft and the ORT television station. Mr. Berezovsky gets access to Mr. Yeltsin through his friendships with the president's daughter, Tatyana Dychenko, Yeltsin's chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, and Yeltsin's designate for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

* One of Berezovsky's main rivals is Vladimir Potanin. He is the country's leading newspaper magnate, with such publications as Trud, Russky Telegraf, Izvestia, Komsolmolskaya Pravda, Rabochaya Tribuna, and Expert magazine. Potanin also controls Europa Plus radio.

He claims MFK Renaissance and Uneximbank. Since its founding in 1993, Uneximbank has become Russia's largest privately owned bank.

He has been close to Anatoly Chubais, Russia's former top foreign debt negotiator, and from August 1996 to March 1997 was first deputy prime minister.

* Alexander Smolensky was hit hard in the latest bank shake-up. His SBS-Agro was nationalized last week. Its main interests are - or were - in retail banking and insurance. His media interests comprise the business newspaper Kommersant Daily, shares in ORT television station, and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. Smolensky's SBS group also has stakes in mines and ore.

* Mikhail Fridman and Pyotyr Aven are the masters of the Alfa group, which spans banking, cement, art dealing, and investment banking. The empire spans Alfa Bank, Alfa Capital, Alfa Estate, the oil firm Alfa Eco, and Alfa Art.

* Vladimir Gusinsky heads MOST-Bank and has powerful media holdings, which include 7 Days publishing house, Sevodnya newspaper, Itogi news magazine, part of NTV television station, and Ekho Moskvy radio. He is president of the Rus-sian Jewish Congress and is friendly with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

* Mikhail Khodorovsky aligned his Bank Menatep to Uneximbank. He owns industrial holdings and Independent Media, which groups such publications as The Moscow Times, Capital, and Russian versions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan.