Russia oligarchs: poorer but ...

The once-powerful elite see influence wane in the wake of the financial crisis. Who will replace them?

There was a time just months ago when anytime anything of note happened in Russia, one name was uttered: Boris Berezovsky.

A change of government? Mr. Berezovsky must be whispering in President Boris Yeltsin's ear, newspapers speculated. The ruble collapse? Mr. B. must be moving markets. Rumblings in Chechnya? Ask Berezovsky what's up.

The oil and media tycoon was the most visible of the oligarchs, who made nascent capitalism their playground after the Soviet demise in 1991.

Employing vision, chutzpah, and, some say, crime, this plutocracy sidled up to politicians to buy privatized state assets at bargain prices. They speculated wildly on currency and bond markets. The result was political clout, outrageous wealth, and control of a sizable chunk of Russia's industry, press, and banks.

But the men such as Berezovsky, who once shaped public opinion, have been stumbling from Russia's economic meltdown since August. Their weight is shrinking from debt, a failed banking system, and a new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who is cool to their overtures.

"The soap bubble burst," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The oligarchs have lost an essential part of their financial and political influence."

Speculation is rife that many managed to spirit fortunes out of the country before the economy imploded. But no giant escaped unscathed.

Just as pundits are pondering the future of free-market reforms, so they are predicting a new makeup for the tiny circle that benefited most by them. With Mr. Primakov favoring more state control and the Communist opposition in the ascendancy, a new elite, including regional bosses, may compete for the oligarchs' place.

How mighty have fallen

The biggest financial jolt was dealt to Vladimir Vinogradov. He has essentially exited the business elite with the bankruptcy of his Inkombank.

It has been a bad year, too, for Berezovsky, who previously boasted of his channels to Mr. Yeltsin. These vanished with the firing in the past year of the president's Chief of Staff Valentin Yumashev and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The ORT television station in which the entrepreneur has a big stake is so troubled that he has sought an alliance with Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch to save it.

Analysts advise against writing the business obituary yet of Vladimir Potanin. His Interros Group's diversification - iron, oil, chemical plants, newspapers - may help it weather the storm.

Mr. Potanin's Uneximbank felt the full impact of the crisis and has discussed merging with banks of two rivals, MOST-Bank and Menatep. Potanin was forced to reduce his newspaper empire, closing down the Moscow-based publications Russky Telegraf and Financial Izvestia. His Sidanko oil company is under threat of dissolving. In November, Potanin became the first oligarch to offer to reverse a privatization, volunteering to return to the state two unprofitable bits of Sidanko.

Vladimir Gusinsky's MOST-Bank is limping. His media empire, however, has remained intact despite some belt tightening at Itogi magazine, Sevodnya newspaper, the NTV television station, and Echo Moscvi radio network.

Alexander Smolensky's SBS-Agro, the largest privately owned savings bank, was bailed out by Russia's Central Bank. Its future prospects may be helped by the sympathy of Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik.

Not surprisingly, those with big holdings in the extractive sector - and not finance - are adapting best to the challenge.

The Alfa Group of Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven emerged less damaged than most. It has enforced its positions in the banking, oil, and iron sectors. Its Tyumen oil firm has deepened support from local politicians in Siberia, and the group is expanding iron enterprises in the Urals and eastern Siberia. The downside is that Alfa owes tens of millions of dollars to foreign investors.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Menatep Bank is shellshocked and his Independent Media is cutting back radically. Mr. Khodorkovsky has managed to stay afloat with Yukos, the country's second biggest oil company, and other industrial enterprises. He has cleverly developed close contacts with the government's economic chief, Yuri Maslukov. However, Yukos has been hit by low world oil prices and 15 percent of its shares must be sold to pay foreign debts.

Vagit Alekperov's Lukoil is the largest oil company in Russia. It has been stung by low oil prices and nose-diving share prices, but as an exporter benefits from the ruble's devaluation.

Gazprom under Rem Viakhirev is Russia's largest natural-gas producer and has stakes in media and banks. It ended the year well, despite a fall in gas prices, having received hard currency payments.

A comeback?

Russia even in Soviet days had a clique of powerful economic bosses, and the next millennium looks to be no different, analysts say.

The oligarchs realize that without powerful benefactors they cannot operate and are concentrating on pushing their favored candidates in parliamentary and presidential elections due respectively in 1999 and 2000. This time, unlike Yeltsin in 1996, there is no obvious figure to unite them.

Valery Fyodorov, deputy director of the Center for Current Politics, a Moscow-based research center, says, "Without a clear favorite, they are maneuvering between different candidates so as not to put all their eggs in the same basket."

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