Just the other day, a Kremlin official said: "You [journalists] don't have any proof that oligarchs are close to the authorities and are always coming to the Kremlin. You're always shouting what about Abramovich,' but you don't give any specific examples."
This same high-placed official also called the sale of ONACO an honest deal. The "honesty" in this case was that in the fight for ONACO, it was not Roman Abramovich (Sibneft), who won, but Mikhail Fridman from TNK.
There's still plenty to be said about just how honest the ONACO deal was about whether or not insider knowledge was involved, and about the consequences of the sale, which are still giving Fridman all kinds of trouble.
But for the business community and the public in the know, one thing is clear: Abramovich would have been doing the Kremlin a disservice had he bought ONACO. Especially when contrasted with "equally distanced" Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky.
Representatives from the club of former oligarchs think it would be wise if Abramovich distanced himself from the center of power on his own initiative. Indeed, they add that it is a real possibility, because though Abramovich has become something of a demonized figure in recent Russian history, he is not a demon at all.
Unlike Berezovsky, Abramovich isn't interested in power, only in money. True, he's an ambitious man and wants a lot of money billions of dollars. The problem is that in today's corrupt Russia, it's hard, if not impossible, to make that kind of money without getting close to power.
At best then, Abramovich would try to keep himself at a safe distance from the Kremlin, so as not to stir up public opinion or rile his oligarch colleagues. But it won't happen because that would be too dangerous the Kremlin might lose him from its sight.
From a PR point of view, the Kremlin has reason to be proud today of its "equal distance" idea. Its charm lies in its flexibility. Kremlin spin doctors have been displaying enviable skill at distancing the oligarchs. Gusinsky took a bashing, and that was all it took to put him at the right distance. And quite rightly, too, "he wanted too much, demanding to have his own people in power."
Then there was Berezovsky, who didn't listen and tried to defend the poor governors whom the Kremlin was robbing of their power. When Berezovsky began to attack the authorities themselves, he too was swiftly "distanced." He is now admitted less and less often into the Kremlin or White House. Abramovich has backed away from him, too.
But the Kremlin's achievements in equally distancing the oligarchs don't stop with the two show-trials against these two highly visible figures. The greatest achievement came about almost by pure chance. The authorities got so carried away taming the oligarchs that they forgot about their own image. Something more attractive had to be found to replace the picture of the iron hand strangling Russian business. And that's when the spin doctors remembered that equal distance has a convenient cousin called "equal closeness."
Not everyone liked this new idea at first, especially in the Kremlin itself. Up until the last minute they were reluctant, for example, to hold a roundtable meeting including the oligarchs, other businessmen and the president. But, when they saw afterwards how the event defused tension how the oligarchs pledged love and loyalty to the president on TV and promised not to be oligarchs anymore the authorities decided to educate the oligarchs using the carrot rather than the stick.
This gave rise to the idea of creating a Council of Entrepreneurs attached to the government, which set the previously "equally distanced" oligarchs battling for places on the council to be equally close to power. But the government, meanwhile, found itself in a bind as it couldn't decide just whom to draw close.
From the authorities' point of view, there are only two indisputable candidates Oleg Deripaska (Rosaluminum) and Pyotr Aven (Alfa). A top White House official even explained the criteria that made these two such ideal candidates: "Deripaska and Aven both fully support our action. We can work with them."
But these two wonderful oligarchs have other qualities besides loyalty, which makes them ideal people for the new council. They represent two of the only financial-industrial groups that have held onto their considerable influence one headed by none other than Roman Abramovich, and the other headed by Fridman.
This scheme is practical for the authorities and for Abramovich. While Abramovich shows how distant he is, his junior partner Deripaska will enjoy "equal closeness" on the council.
Manipulating the "equal distance" idea has brought the authorities some real successes. In removing Gusinsky and Berezovsky, and formally including Abramovich on the list of equally distanced oligarchs, the Kremlin and government are quietly shaping a more loyal public opinion. Even Abramovich's well-known opponent, Anatoly Chubais, is assuring the public that Abramovich and Deripaska are far better and more civilized than Gusinsky and Berezovsky.
(Vera Kuznetsova is a member of the presidential and governmental press pools and a long-time observer of the Russian political scene.)