OP-ED: By Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post
Even here in Washington — a city populated by lobbyists who once held
political office and government officials who once worked as lobbyists —
it’s hard to top the story of Gerhard Schroeder. Last week the former German
chancellor announced that he’d accepted a job offer from Gazprom, the
state-controlled Russian energy mega-company.
As one of his last acts in office, Schroeder signed an agreement to build a
diplomatically and environmentally controversial Baltic Sea gas pipeline
from Russia to Germany. Now he’s working for the company that will build it.
It’s as if Jimmy Carter had negotiated the return of the Panama Canal to
Panama — and then signed a lucrative contract to manage the shipping lanes.
But there’s more here than just the former German chancellor’s quest for
personal enrichment — or funds to pay alimony to his three ex-wives. The
story also reflects the growing international power of Russian money. Much
like the Saudis, who spent the 1970s buying up London real estate, the
Russian tycoons spent their first decade of billionaire-hood sunning
themselves in southern France and crowding the slopes at Gstaad. And just as
the Saudis eventually learned to make more fruitful use of their money —
putting prominent Americans on lucrative boards, donating money to their
favorite causes, even befriending their wives — the Russians, too, have now
realized that petrodollars go a long way.
What they’ve been seeking so far is respectability of the sort that will
help Americans overlook their murky origins and will win Russian companies
coveted listings on Western stock exchanges. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil
tycoon in prison in part because he got too good at this sort of thing, gave
big chunks of money to the Library of Congress.
In return, the librarian of Congress hosted a party for his foundation. A
similar desire for respectability compelled Vladimir Potanin, another
Russian magnate, to become a patron of the arts. In return, the Guggenheim
Museum in New York put him on its board.
This year the Woodrow Wilson Center — a federal institution that raises
some funds privately and that encompasses the Kennan Institute for advanced
Russian studies — even gave a “Corporate Citizenship” award to Vagit
Alekperov, chairman of Lukoil, another energy mega-company. At the award
dinner, James Langdon of the D.C. law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
lauded Alekperov as “an innovator and leader,” which suited all concerned.
Alekperov, a man who with amazing speed acquired 10 percent ownership of a
company whose reserves may match those of Exxon Mobil, got his credibility.
The Wilson Center raised some $400,000, mostly from U.S. oil companies, at
that dinner. Fred Bush, chief fundraiser for the center, says of the new
Russian billionaires that he’s “happy to have their money” and wishes they’d
Others point out that it’s better for Russian moguls to support Russian
scholars than to fritter their money away buying lift tickets. The
suggestion of influence does cause some discomfort, particularly since many
Russian companies aren’t exactly independent of the Russian state.
Last week Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, furiously
denied a Russian newspaper report of Kremlin plans to set up a think tank,
funded by the Russian government and Russian oligarchs, in conjunction with
the center, which is affiliated with the Richard Nixon Library and
Birthplace. Saunders admits that the Nixon Center accepts “small” amounts of
money from Russia, but he issued a statement calling the Russian journalist
who wrote the story a “specialist in black PR.”
Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute, also worries that some might
think his scholars are influenced by Russian money, and he admits to having
questions about donations from Lukoil and other Russian companies. He says
he doesn’t allow donors to have any influence over research. Besides, when
someone such as Schroeder goes to work for Gazprom, Ruble says, the
Generalized paranoia — and in particular the assumption that anyone
expressing an opinion about anything is being paid to do so — is probably
the least attractive attribute of Russian political culture, and I’m not
going to indulge in it here. But Schroeder’s new job should raise awareness
that there may be some mixed motives out there: If nothing else, Russian
companies, like their Saudi and indeed American counterparts, have now made
it known that they’ll reward their friends. (firstname.lastname@example.org)