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19 Oct, 2007 01:50

Millionaires at ease in parliament

Can money open doors to Russia's politics and parliament? With a parliamentary election less than two months away, the parties are trying hard to prove that money can't buy a seat in the Duma.

The shops in the lobby of the parliament building sell some of the best political memorabilia in town. Here you can get a silver bookmark with a coat of arms, or a gilded coin with President Putin’s portrait. But when it comes to such mementos, money is not an issue. Thus, a set of glassware may cost $ US 350, which is just pocket money for some deputies.

Indeed, about 20 members of the Russian parliament make the list of Russia’s richest people. 

Some of them might actually need something to remind them of their MP mandate. While a number of deputies regularly miss the parliament’s meetings, they are still entitled to full benefits, including immunity from prosecution. The practice has become so obvious that even the president weighed in. 

“Power and money should be separated. This applies to political parties, as well. Of course, representatives of big business are respectable people who can give valuable advice. But should they be on the parties’ ballots? Should they be deputies and businessmen at the same time and use immunity from prosecution?” asked Putin in his address to Parliament on October 1. 

The President left his questions unanswered and open to interpretation. Days after his speech several parties publicly excluded prominent businessmen from their lists, but at a closer look the race still shows quite a few of the super-rich. 

For instance, the list of the United Russia party, whose ballot is headed by the president himself, includes more than 20 prominent businessmen with a combined fortune of more than $US 15 billion. 

Among the wealthiest candidates are Viktor Rashnikov, Andrey Skoch and Andrey Morozov – all have made billions in the metals industry.

Vladimir Gruzdev is United Russia’s rising star. An owner of a supermarket chain, his fortune reportedly exceeds $US 800 million. He says, though, he has put his business interests behind him to serve his country.

“I don’t see anything bad when people who made millions by fair means serve society. They are talented, active and strong managers. It can only be good,” he believes.

United Russia is not alone, however, when it comes to recruiting prominent businessmen. Despite ideological objections to large capital, the Communists have at least two millionaires in their ranks – both made their fortunes in the oil sector. 

The richest public servant in Russia – Suleiman Kerimov – is not running for parliament this time but the Liberal-Democratic party has other millionaires to replace him. One of them is Andrey Lugovoy, who made his fortune in the security business. 

Aleksandr Lebedev wouldn’t say how much he is worth but Forbes puts his fortune at $US 2.5 billion. As a deputy, he has become well known for his statements and actions – on one occasion bringing a slot machine as a present to the parliament’s gambling lobby. He says many businessmen come to parliament seeking benefits for themselves. 

“It’s very difficult to tell whether a person with invested corporate interests is doing something to favour his business or not. I think about 90 per cent of people in the State Duma with big businesses have been involved in attempts to promote their businesses’ interests,” says Aleksandr Lebedev.

Also a target of such accusations, Mr Lebedev has withdrawn from the race. Some believe under pressure from the Kremlin, but he says – of his own will.

Still, his Fair Russia party has already listed another rich man for parliament – businessman Aleksandr Babakov with large assets in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, close association between business and politics is nothing new for Russia. During the times of Boris Yeltsin the word ‘oligarchs’ entered the Russian language to describe wealthy individuals who had a say in government affairs.

Some believe that the influence of wealthy people on politics has decreased since.

“We all know about the influence of big businesses on politics and on the previous president. And it doesn’t mean that they have to be members of parliament or ministers to exert their influence. They can use other ways to do it. But the situation is changing. Today it’s a little bit different,” says Boris Titov from the 'Business Russia' non-governmental organisation.

Big business has indeed retraced its way from politics in recent years but the parties’ lists show it still has a long way to go.