What is an oligarch? -Poynter
My wife has four university degrees. I have two. I asked her last night if she could give me the definition of an oligarch. She said, “You know, I googled this thing yesterday.”
I offer this small example to show how journalists use a word that I suspect most people don’t understand – and maybe you don’t either.
It made me wonder how many Americans such a definition would apply to. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that in the last two weeks the word “oligarch” isn’t used as a compliment. The implication is that if you are rich and Russian, you are corrupt and entangled in invading Ukraine.
But let’s dwell more on how the oligarchs play out in Russian and Ukrainian politics. The word oligarchy begins to color the way we should think of the people who make up this group:
So, by definition, if you were rich and so powerful and you were part of a select group of people who controlled, say, Russia, then you would be responsible for what this government does.
The history of the oligarchy is as long as the history of rich and powerful people who influence and rule governments. In fact, in 2014, a few scholars suggested that the US government is so influenced by the rich and powerful that it approximates a government of and for the economic elite.
The modern oligarchs in Russia rose to wealth, power and influence in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and they profited from the collapse of key government-run institutions, including the industry, banking, petroleum, agriculture and mining. Newsy explains what happened next:
“These are not people who invented Google or Microsoft or Amazon. These are people who took control of the state industries that existed in Soviet times, and in 1991 there was a mad dash over who was going to run those industries,” said Howard Stoffer, a security professor. national and international affairs at the university. of New Haven. “(The oligarchs) all took over these industries and they all became these multi-zillionaires.”
As long as they remained loyal to Vladimir Putin, the oligarchs lived the life of the rich and the infamous – a world of yachts, private schools, private jets and sports teams. But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine threatens this way of life.
Some of the people who fit the definition of oligarch are calling for an end to the Russian invasion. Among them, Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska, who respectively made their fortunes in banking and aluminum production.
Another person described as an oligarch is Vladimir Potanin, who is a major donor and trustee of the prestigious Guggenheim Museum. He has just left this position. The New York Times profiles other people who fit the definition of an oligarch who have also been prominent contributors to the arts in America and Europe. Major institutions are now trying to separate themselves from these friendships.
These elite Russian influencers own large amounts of real estate in the United States and Europe.
The US Department of Justice has launched a task force it calls “KleptoCapture” to crack down on the Russian oligarch’s assets. Media stories are starting to focus on a small group of billionaires who own ultra-expensive properties in the US
The most definitive collection of oligarch names is contained in the list dubbed the “Navalny 35”, named after imprisoned Kremlin critic and poisoning survivor Alexei Navalny. It was Navalny, the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, who named these 35 Russians.
Only two of the Russians caught in the crossfire have had a combined $22 billion in assets frozen by the European Union. The BBC reports:
A yacht belonging to Igor Sechin, boss of the Russian energy company Rosneft, was seized by French customs officers near Marseille.
German authorities have seized a $600 million vessel belonging to Russian metallurgy tycoon Alisher Usmanov, according to reports.
These are the latest moves against Russia as sanctions are tightened.
The BBC understands that some EU-sanctioned oligarchs are “shocked” to find their debit cards no longer working, and they now rely on using cash in safe deposit boxes.
According to one estimate, Russian oligarchs have laundered $2.3 billion in real estate, jewelry, art and yachts over the past five years. The Global Financial Integrity group reviewed 100 real estate transactions in the United States, Canada and Great Britain over five years. They often use shell companies and complex corporate structures to hide assets. (Learn more about how the oligarchs move money with the help of others with this investigation from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.)
This Twitter page follows the air travels of some of the most notorious oligarchs. Another track”VIP Russian Jetswhich Putin can use but not necessarily on board at any given time. Data from MarineTraffic, a global intelligence group, tracks the movement of ships, including mega-yachts owned by Russian oligarchs. Data shows that the big boats have been on the move for the past few days.
NBC News explored the legality of seizing an oligarch’s assets without a trial or other usual criminal charges:
For starters, it’s legal under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, which dates back to the 18th century when America seized cargo from foreign ships that didn’t pay customs or import tax. It also became a drug enforcement tool in the 1980s, and is a common tool against terrorists and fugitives.
The law allows for the forfeiture of his assets to the federal government as part of a long list of federal or foreign crimes, but this is a separate action from any criminal litigation. Civil forfeiture laws have become popular ways for state and local governments to raise revenue, though critics say it’s a practice abused by law enforcement to profit from criminal activity.
Under the law, prosecutors can consider freezing the asset or seizing it, which requires a probable cause standard and possibly a warrant from a judge.
Freezing assets prevents them from being sold or transferred. The US government can confiscate and even sell assets if prosecutors can prove they are linked to illegal activity. If the asset is a revenue producer, like a New York skyscraper, then any rent it produces could also be frozen.
Back to my original question: The phrase “Russian oligarch” refers to a small group of about 35 billionaires who profited from their association with Putin and his government by being deep insiders in government affairs.
This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas on coronavirus and other hot topics for journalists. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.