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How Billionaires Picked Putin as “Russia’s Pinochet”

Vladimir Putin did not arrive from outer space on an abalone shell.

Putin went from the virtually unknown Deputy Mayor of Saint Petersburg to Russia’s President and potentate by winning a weird competition organized by Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky who sought a “Russian Pinochet” to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President.

The competition, dubbed “Operation Successor,” went so far as to send Russia’s “Larry King,” Mikhail Leontyev, to interview General Pinochet for Russian TV while Pinochet was under indictment in Chile on murder charges. Russians were treated to the old dictator’s advice on choosing a leader who could imitate Pinochet’s “strong hand,” a police state, while promoting a hyper-capitalist economy.

And Putin fit the Pinochet profile.

To understand how Russia became, in effect, a military-corporate dictatorship, we have to go back to the 1990s when the former USSR, after the Wall fell, went along with the scheme known as “shock therapy” — substantially crafted by the man who would become Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers. Yeltsin’s oligarchs grabbed 60% of Russia’s state assets for peanuts — including the world’s largest producing oil fields.

The “therapy” was deadly. The US-designed smash-and-grab pushed 60% of Russians into poverty and half the population into starvation: calorie intake per person fell by almost half. Russian men, who had a longer life expectancy than Americans under the USSR, literally died by the millions — their life expectancy dropped to 57 years.

The suffering and resulting Pinochet fever hit its apotheosis with Russia’s 1998 default on its debts. Ben Judah, author of the must-read Putin biography, Fragile Empire, explains the repercussions:

“It was the moment when the elite got scared and moved over further toward authoritarianism. According to Grigory Satarov, Yeltsin’s former aide, it was then that [Yeltsin] ditched the idea of [“reformer” Boris]] Nemtsov as the successor and decided Russia needed a robust, military man. Intellectuals began to debate the need for a ‘Russian Pinochet’ to defend the market.”

The chance that Yeltsin, a notorious drunk, could get re-elected, was close to zero.

Berezovsky and other oligarchs, in Davos, Switzerland, attending that mating event of the rich and powerful, were horrified that the monied elite were giving their affection to Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the newly re-branded Communist Party of the Russian Federation. Polls showed Zyuganov was certain to defeat Yeltsin in upcoming elections.

Berezovsky and other oligarchs, panicked that Zyuganov would seize their ill-gotten gains, formed what they called the “Davos Pact” to re-elect Yeltsin — at all costs. And that cost a lot: they bought up all the media, all of it, and iced out Zyuganov. Bill Clinton jumped in, sending in an army of US elections and PR consultants.

While Yeltsin wanted to pick one of his US-trained free-market economists as his running mate (for Prime Minister), the oligarchs told him they’d found that Russian Pinochet, the little-known apparatchik named Vladimir Putin. They groomed Putin by having Yeltsin promote him rapidly through several posts including chief of the FSB, the successor of the KGB, where Putin had started his career.

But even that wasn’t enough to reelect Yeltsin. Yeltsin’s “victory” required what in Russia are called, “administrative resources” — wholesale vote theft. Dmitry Medvedev, later Putin’s Prime Minister is quoted in Fragile Empire, saying he didn’t know who won that election, but “it was not Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.”

In 1999, Russia was falling apart. Literally. While big hunks of the USSR had years earlier scampered away (Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Ukraine and others), smaller regions were now declaring independence, including the Muslim region of Chechnya.

Yeltsin ordered a military expedition to recapture Chechnya. It failed disastrously.

But then Putin took charge, invading Chechnya. But this time, Putin took a page from Pinochet’s playbook: mass slaughter of civilians. When Chechens resisted the Russian invasion, Putin simply leveled their capital city, Grozny, killing, according to Reuters, 25,000 to 50,000 Chechens, most civilians. Notably, 14,000 Russian soldiers died — yet Putin’s popularity soared.

This is a sobering reminder for those who think Putin can’t withstand too many Russian body bags returning from Ukraine.

It is beyond strange to me that some of my progressive friends are playing Putin as a victim, an innocent man “provoked” by US expansion of NATO. Oh, come on! Ukraine applied for NATO membership 14 years ago — and it was laughed off by NATO members.

No doubt, expanding was diplomatic malfeasance, but it never constituted a real threat to Russian sovereignty, certainly not from the non-NATO Ukraine. Let’s not forget that Ukraine transferred all its nuclear warheads to Russia, hardly an act of aggression. (And let’s not forget, as Joe Biden seems to have forgotten, that as part of the transfer of Ukraine’s nukes, the US and Russia guaranteed the safety of Ukraine against all acts of aggression.)

Putin’s power originated from manipulation of an election. Whether you call it, “administrative measures” or “vote suppression,” it’s the endless story of the moneyed at war with democracy.

When, in 1999, Yeltsin was finally pushed to invite Putin to become prime minister, there was still the formality of having to get elected. Yeltsin said that Putin told him, “Elections, I just hate them.”

That surprises no one, least of all the ghost of Pinochet.

Me? I kind of like elections. I stand with democracy. I stand with Ukraine.

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Greg Palast (Rolling Stone, Guardian, BBC) is the author of The New York Times bestsellers, Armed Madhouse, Billionaires & Ballot Bandits and the book and documentary, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
His latest film is Vigilante: Georgia's Vote Suppression Hitman

Palast is currently working on a new documentary Long Knife, exposing the Koch Brothers' theft of Osage oil, to be released in 2024.

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