[FOUNTAIN]Cutting off the oligarchs

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[FOUNTAIN]Cutting off the oligarchs

“Vertushka” originally meant a telephone dial plate in Russian, but the word is more commonly used to refer to the hotline between companies and the Kremlin. The vertushka was initiated in 1996, when President Boris Yeltsin provided direct phone lines to businessmen who made donations and helped boost public opinion during his re-election campaign.
Before the vertushka, the kremlyovka was the most coveted hotline in Russia. It was an official telephone line among government officials, not between private companies and the government.
Each head of a government agency or state-run research center and political big shot had the kremlyovska at home. If you wanted to know a Russian bureaucrat’s status you checked what kind of kremlyovka he had on his desk.
Business giants emerging after the dissolution of the Soviet Union competed to secure material and human networks that could connect them to the Kremlin. But even as the government moved from a totalitarian system to democracy, it could not expand its network of kremlyovka to the private sector. So Mr. Yeltsin came up with the vertushka.
Companies with a vertushka can directly contact Kremlin insiders. Having a vertushka is a badge of honor and a shield at the same time. The hammer and sickle at the center of the dial plate symbolize that the owner of the desk is a powerful businessman who is connected to, is managed by, or is influencing the Kremlin. Currently, 28 companies have the coveted vertushka.
But recently, President Vladimir Putin ordered the severing of the vertushka lines. While the Kremlin justifies the measure on security grounds, Russian oligarchs are nervous. They wonder if the line will be reconnected, and want to know if other vertushka lines were cut at the same time.
The timing is amplifying the tycoons’ worries since Mr. Putin’s order followed the consecutive arrests and persecutions of Russian oligarchs such as Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Some oligarchs say they might have to leave Russia to avoid persecution.
Mr. Putin has been constantly pushing the war against corruption, the revival of a strong Russia, and a crackdown on oligarchs looking for political power. How far can he go?

by Kim Seok-hwan

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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