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Oligarchs — new dictators of the 21st century

BY Christian Caryl

WASHINGTON: Earlier this month, the investment bank Credit Suisse published its annual survey of global wealth. The bank’s report is filled with illuminating findings, but one in particular caught my eye. It has to do with the distribution of assets in Russia, where, as the report notes, a mere 110 people own a mind-boggling 35 per cent of the country’s entire wealth. At the same time, 93.7pc of Russians are worth $10,000 or less.

As the report notes, this makes Russia the country with the greatest wealth disparities in the world. Americans, who are now increasingly concerned about deepening inequality in their own country, might seek some consolation from this dismal conclusion. Even under present circumstances, wealth in the United States is still spread a lot more evenly than that. Things could be worse, right?

Well, maybe. But I see little cause for jubilation. Russia is merely the most extreme case of a worldwide trend that potentially represents one of the greatest threats that democracy faces today: the spread of oligarchy.

The problem isn’t just that some people in today’s world are fabulously rich. It’s that disproportionate wealth increasingly goes along with disproportionate power. Russia, again, offers a textbook example of the dangers. Back in the 1990s, a handful of politically well-connected business tycoons managed to profit from their close relations with Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin by taking advantage of the privatisation of the country’s industrial jewels — above all its vast oil wealth. Those magnates weren’t shy about exploiting their economic power to political ends. They bankrolled Yeltsin’s re-election as president in 1996, controlled ministerial appointments, and dictated government policy. No wonder these businessmen-cum-politicians were soon dubbed the “oligarchs.” (”Oligarchy” is Greek for “government of the few.”)

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