State to gobble up private businesses?

Until last Friday, Oleg Shvartsman was just one of many fund managers. Today, his name is mentioned in every other newscast. He owes his new-found fame to the Kommersant newspaper, in which he claimed the state is looking to take over strategic sectors of

In the interview published on the eve of the election, the businessman claimed to be a key money manager for a group of high-ranking Kremlin officials and their relatives. He also suggested that he had the Kremlin’s blessing to conduct the so called ‘velvet re-privatisation’ to bring privately-owned companies back under state control. His role would involve helping the Kremlin to gobble up certain strategic enterprises.

“The goal is to reverse the consequences of the chaos of the 1990s and to return to state control those strategic enterprises, which were sold wrongly or illegally. To do that, we’re using all legal means at our disposal,” claimed Shvartsman.

While the state has indeed regained some of the companies sold in the 1990s, Shvartsman’s revelations have proved to be a bombshell, not least because of the fear it created in some business circles.

Just days later, Shvartsman retracted some of his statements. He said the newspaper had changed the interview’s text in what he called an example of ‘literary editing’.

But Kommersant insists it is Shvartsman who is changing his story. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Andrey Vasilyev, showed RT’s correspondent Oksana Boyko a pre-print copy of the interview bearing Shvartsman’s signature on every page.

“I think his interview was sanctioned by some influential people, even though I don’t know by whom. If that is indeed the case, then I think the public outcry has forced these people to retract this interview,” Vasilyev said.

It was not only the interview that was retracted. Shvartsman’s partners in a proposed venture fund have also pulled the plug.

Meanwhile, Russia’s business community is awash with speculation as to whether Shvartsman’s statements have any merit.

While the Kremlin’s spokesman described the article as a fake, many business leaders say it’s probably not far from the truth: “Knowingly or not, Mr. Shvartsman told the truth. The truth about unavoidable faults of such political systems as sovereign democracy,” said Anatoly Chubais, head of the Russian electricity monopoly RAO UES.

Whether this interview is valid or not, it does show the Russian government in a rather unflattering way. While to some, the very fact of its publication confirms the existence of free press in Russia, to others it’s yet another sign of how easily it can be manipulated.