Yeltsin's men of gold in trouble

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The Independent Online
TWO OF seven oligarchs who bankrolled Boris Yeltsin's reelection campaign now face arrest warrants, providing graphic testimony of the change in Russia's politics since Yevgeny Primakov became Prime Minister.

Alexander Smolenksy used to be one of the most powerful magnates in the country, founder of a leading bank and a man so rich that he could afford to donate 50kg of gold ingots to gild the dome on Moscow's rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

His fellow mogul Boris Berezovsky, head of a media and industrial empire, was so close to the Kremlin he was dubbed a contemporary Rasputin, and considered capable of making and breaking prime ministers. He once claimed credit for Mr Yeltsin's 1996 re-election, saying it was engineered by seven magnates - himself included - who controlled more than half of Russia's economy.

Now both men are abroad - Mr Berezovsky in Paris; Mr Smolensky in Vienna. Both have seen their empires wither after Russia's financial crisis erupted last August. And both can expect to be arrested if they set foot on Russian soil today. If further proof was ever needed that the days of business oligarchs ruling Russia are over, then this is it.

Mr Smolensky's demise marks a particularly sharp reversal of fortune. His banking empire took a heavy hit in the economic collapse. He then set himself at odds with Mr Yeltsin by publicly lamenting the loss of the Soviet Union, and accusing the state of repeatedly robbing the public.

Mr Berezovsky, who helped to rescue two British hostages from Chechnya last year, has long seemed destined for the chop. He is considered an enemy by Mr Primakov, who vowed to crack down on "economic criminals", and in parliament formed a consensus with the ascendant Communists, who resent the oligarchs.