25 March 2013
Russophobia and the death of an oligarch
Boris Berezovsky, an exiled erstwhile oligarch of Yeltsin-era Russia, died over the weekend in the United Kingdom. The circumstances of his death are considered suspicious by many simply because Berezovsky was a powerful figure who fell out with Vladimir Putin, whom he'd helped get elected back in 1999. From exile he remained a bitter critic of Putin, recently calling for his ouster in a "bloodless" coup. The immediate assumption of many who, like John McCain, look into Putin's eyes and see "KGB," not to mention those who see Russia as a hopelessly authoritarian culture, is that the monster of the Kremlin has reached out again to strike down a distant enemy. Putin's treatment of people like Berezovsky helped cement his monstrous reputation in the West, but the reaction also hints at a blind spot in the eyes of Putin's critics. All many of them know, or want to know, is that Berezovsky was a media mogul who was forced to give up his media empire, which ended up under state control, because his TV station spoke out against Putin. The narrative is freedom of the press being crushed by a statist thug, with dissent given nearly unlimited benefit of the doubt. The state is just about always the bad guy in such narratives, while "oligarch" merely strikes many as a cute or cool name for the abused vanguard of Russian entrepreneurship. Oligarchy is the blind spot in much liberal commentary on conflicts abroad between public and private power. Instead, there seems to be an assumption that free enterprise is the same thing everywhere on earth, that every nation has had the same minimal equality of opportunity that the United States once boasted of, and that any successful businessman on the planet is as virtuous a success story as we believe our own entrepreneurial heroes to be. We deplore "crony capitalism" but often fail to recognize its ubiquity worldwide. Worse, we lack the ancients' understanding that extremes of anything are bad and thus underestimate both the negative political consequences of oligarchy and the justice of efforts to break it down. That doesn't mean that the state is always right in conflicts with the private sector, but too many people assume that the private sector is always right, except when businessmen blatantly violate the rules businessmen themselves have agreed upon. Wealthy liberal countries with relatively egalitarian traditions fear the state above all because of its power (and right) to kill, without considering how oligarchies around the world have preempted egalitarianism while making everyday life miserable if not unbearable for multitudes of people. I don't claim extensive knowledge of Berezovsky's career, but my impression is that his feud with Putin can't be boiled down to a simple good guy vs. bad guy struggle -- especially when you recall that he backed Putin's first election, presumably on the assumption that someone like Putin in power would be good for Berezovsky. What happened after may prove one or the other a backstabber, but if your main concern is Putin's threat to freedom and his support for tyranny (e.g. Syria) elsewhere, even then you can't really sympathize much with Boris Berezovsky, and your time spent speculating on Putin's possible motives for killing him at this late date is most likely wasted.