Mary Dejevsky: Where wealth is less about power than influence

To the Deripaska I met, possessions were not what really mattered

Thursday 23 October 2008 00:00 BST

Of the principal players in the Corfu yacht saga, the one – paradoxically – we have heard least from is the character at the very centre of the (in)action: the Russian super-oligarch, Oleg Deripaska.

All we know, from sources described as "close" to him, is that he did not initiate the conversation, has never donated to any political party, has no intention of doing so and has no interest in getting involved in UK politics. I would just add a small postscript here: even if he was once a teeny-weeny bit interested, I bet my bottom rouble he isn't any more.

The only one of Mr Deripaska's non-attributable disclaimers I find hard to get to grips with is his supposed failure to understand why the Conservatives put it about that the idea of a donation came from him. Really? On reflection, though, this could be true; a characteristic of Russian oligarchs is their collective lack of party-political nous.

There is a reason for this, of course. If you get too interested in politics in your home country, you might acquire a taste for actually doing it and end up on the wrong side of some rather flexible Russian laws. This is, after all, what took the oil billionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, from his private plane, via a Moscow courtroom, to a prison camp in Siberia.

Which is not to say that oligarchs are not political animals. It is the finer points of Western party politics that tend to elude them. But they also have an acute sense of which way the political wind is blowing, in so far as it will affect them and their business. This is how they made their fortunes in the chaotic prelude and aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse. Mostly outsiders, many of Jewish origin, and highly educated, they saw opportunities, where others saw only fatal risk.

The society of Russian oligarchs, I have to say, is not my natural habitat. But anyone who has had reported on Russia in recent years, has probably met quite a few. I first encountered Oleg Deripaska six or seven years ago, when – from abroad, at least – oligarchs were regarded as a phenomenon more interesting than malign. He was rich then, very rich, but had not yet attained the "richest" label.

Yet the impression he created was not one of wealth, but of diffidence and social awkwardness. Devoid of charm, he answered questions in monosyllables, until asked to describe his career and how it had intersected with the various landmarks of the Soviet collapse. He launched into an absorbing, if strangely passionless monologue.

Like other oligarchs of my passing acquaintance, he came across as a doer, not a thinker, with something of an adolescent's clumsy naivety. He seemed to treat possessions as a by-product of business success, rather than the prime purpose. In common with other immediate post-Soviet Russian magnates, he seemed to be driven above all by the business and its possibilities, along with family.

The mansions, the cars, the pictures and the rest were in part compensation for an austere early life, but also a sort of "two fingers" to the defunct Soviet establishment. They could be picked up and discarded, like toys; new business ventures were much the same. Think Roman Abramovich, his deer farms in Chukotka and Chelsea.

Oligarchs who see their wealth in part as a political tool, such as Boris Berezovsky – now in London and a cause of bitter contention between Russia and the UK – live in exile, while attempting to play politics in their homeland. This also, of course, entails mastering the intricacies of politics in their adopted country, quietly dispensing funds and receiving access and the occasional public platform. They know that money can buy future favours which might, in an uncertain world, be useful – even in the country they call "good old England".

As someone apparently in good standing with the Kremlin, Deripaska has no obvious need for such insurance. In some ways, though, that might make his seemingly inexhaustible founts of money even more attractive to British ventures in search of financing. Indeed, I rather suspect, from a few glimpses, that such opaque games with Russian money are more widespread than you think – even if the Conservative Party is not the first petitioner that might come to mind.

The point is that influence, whether bought or sold, is a far more slippery commodity than power. In Britain this trade tends to be at the invisible end of discreet. In the seclusion of Corfu, far – they surely believed – from the public eye, a select group of the super-rich and influential enjoyed each other's hospitality. You think such informal meetings have no consequence? Consider even the little that is now known about the procession to and from the Deripaska yacht, and think again.

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