All hell is about to break loose over Norilsk Nickel. Western analysts, a former Russian minister, oligarchs and others are climbing over each other to accuse the new Russian administration of "renationalization," "redistributing wealth," rebuilding a repressive regime run by "chekists" and so on.
Vladimir Putin's prosecutors seem to have a special liking for oligarchs that share the president's first name. First Vladimir Gusinsky and now Vladimir Potanin though most in Russia are still waiting for the prosecutions to get to the other end of the alphabet specifically to the letter B.
But the question that looms large behind the Moscow prosecutors' move is not whether "loans-for-shares" should be questioned they should be. And not whether some of the most fraudulent deals last century should be reversed plainly they should be. The question is if an attack comes, whether it will be via an independent court or by arbitrary means.
The notion of a renationalization of assets from the hands of oligarchs who, with the help of corrupt politicians, robbed the Russian people blind and the re-auctioning of those assets should not be seen as an attack on private property or capitalism. As long as the state does not use strong-arm tactics allowing the oligarchs to fight the issue in court then it would be wrong to raise the specter of bolshevism in this process.
The worry in all of this is of a different nature altogether. The question remains whether the whole Kremlin apparatus is a "Kukla" (puppet) in the hands of a few. But this can only be answered properly if the state moves wholesale against loans-for-shares and other rigged privatization deals.
One must not be too hasty in drawing conclusions about the Kremlin's intentions. After all, any legal process will depend on the prosecutor's office, an office known better for finding its chiefs in bed with prostitutes than for successfully bringing law-breakers to justice. In fact, it is doubtful that the state even possesses the legal firepower necessary to bring the oligarchs to justice. The best legal brains in the country are, of course, now working for the oligarchy.
Indeed, if the state is serious about righting past wrongs, it would do better to first build a functional and independent judicial system with modern laws and then go after the oligarchs.
But if the state's intention is simply to use the government's current Soviet legal apparatus to further the interests of its own coterie (read "the family") which cannot be ruled out given the track record of those in government then a greater travesty of justice is about to be committed than the one being challenged.
But a successful court challenge to a large deal like NorNickel the world's second largest producer of nickel and largest producer of platinum group metals privatized without any money coming into state coffers would set a solid legal precedent.
Broadly, we must laud the fact that government has this time chosen to use the courts rather than the men in masks and that it has shown a willingness to open the closets that everyone knows are packed with skeletons. The only question now is whether the state has the resources, the legal ones that is, to see the process through and whether the mass graves of the Russian economy will also be disturbed.
The close cooperation between the Russian Audit Chamber, run by former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, a man with a relatively clean reputation, and the Moscow prosecutors, with not such a clean reputation, should also be seen as positive. Stepashin seems to enjoy particularly good relations with Putin, and if that means he has the president's approval to open the X-files that are the Russian privatization process, then this would answer the prayers of millions of ordinary Russians. Let the wealth even criminal, oligarchic wealth defend itself in a court of law. But don't let the past go unchallenged. It must be subject to a legal process.
The media in Russia (mostly owned by oligarchs) and in the West (strange, but true) have risen in opposition of the government's actions. If the process is done legally, we shall give a cheer every time a file is opened, a corrupt process reversed and the state's assets put back to auction in an open, competitive and transparent manner. Russia needs a privatization where the government and the people reap the benefits, not a corrupt few.