What it really means to be a ‘friend of Putin’

Julia Ioffe writes: In June 2008, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson attended the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Russia’s answer to Davos, its way of showing itself to the world as the kind of economic powerhouse that can attract executives like Rex Tillerson to its banquets. It was a key and very shaky moment for Russia. Vladimir Putin was bowing out after his second term as president of Russia — the most the Russian constitution allows in a row, though he would figure out a way around it by 2012 — and his successor, the relatively liberal Dmitri Medvedev, was debuting at the Forum. Tensions were heating up with Russia’s southern neighbor, Georgia, and would soon spill into war. The Russian economy was already getting shaky, and within a few months it would crater, faring the worst out of all the G20 economies, sinking from eight percent GDP growth, to negative eight percent.

Even after eight years of Putin assiduously taking control of the Russian economy and trying to restore some modicum of Soviet geopolitical power, Russia was still a pretty weak player. It had been relegated to last place among the BRICs, that term coined by a Goldman Sachs banker to connote the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. And despite surging commodity prices — oil at the time was around $130 a barrel — Russia wasn’t making a good case for itself in the world. Gazprom, the Russian state gas monopoly, was rattling European nerves by shutting gas supplies on and off in an effort to control an increasingly independent Ukraine, thus leaving much of Central Europe without heat in the winters. It had only been five years since oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was thrown in jail for not bowing to Putin’s will, and two years since the Kremlin unceremoniously pushed Royal Dutch Shell out of a lucrative gas project in the far eastern island of Sakhalin. BP was on the obvious verge of meeting the same fate. The following month, BP chief Robert Dudley would flee Russia, complaining of “sustained harassment.”

When Tillerson mounted the stage in St. Petersburg that summer, he chastised the Russian government for the way it was operating. The Kremlin, he said, “must improve the functioning of its judicial system and its judiciary. There is no respect for the rule of law in Russia today.”

It’s hard to imagine Tillerson, now reportedly the frontrunner for Secretary of State under president-elect Donald Trump, saying something similar today, much less from a stage in Russia’s second capital, Vladimir Putin’s birthplace, and at a high-stakes, window-dressing government function. It’s not that Russia has suddenly acquired a taste for the rule of law—if anything, things have only gotten far, far worse, and Russia’s judiciary has become no more independent. And it’s not even because Tillerson is now ubiquitously identified in the press as being personally close to Putin. As the Wall Street Journal puts it, “Among those considered for the post, Mr. Tillerson has perhaps the closest ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” adding that, in 2012, Putin personally bestowed Russia’s Order of Friendship on Tillerson.

It’s hard to imagine Tillerson publicly chiding Putin today because he is now so very dependent on that friendship. [Continue reading…]

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