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A Czar Never Comes Alone

The Weekly Standard follows the money in Russia’s upcoming elections, and says it makes much more sense to ask the Kremlin to live up to its G8 commitments, rather than call for their removal from the group.

A czar, of course, never comes alone. He comes with cronies, the cronies are always hungry, and the stakes at the trough could not be higher. The redistribution of property that followed Putin’s ascent ran into the tens of billions of dollars. The very long list includes Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s oil company, Yukos, nationalized in a hostile takeover; Vladimir Gusinsky’s media empire, snapped up by a state-run company; Roman Abramovich’s oil company, Sibneft, nationalized in a friendly takeover (with full payment to the owner); leading titanium manufacturer VSMPO-Avisma, swallowed by the state-run arms exporter; and, more recently, Mikhail Gutseriev’s oil company, Russneft, currently under acquisition by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has publicly promised to surrender it to the state if the Kremlin so much as asks. …

It all comes back to the fact that Russia’s presidential election is about property. The lesson is simple: Follow the money. Russia has already signed on to a wide array of international obligations, such as G8 anticorruption initiatives. What’s more, specific legislation, such as section 312 of the Patriot Act, which deals with “proceeds of foreign corruption,” and European Union money-laundering directives on “politically exposed persons,” are powerful tools for targeting the ill-gotten assets of corrupt officials and politically influential insiders.These mechanisms can be used to great effect. The recent freezing of a mere $25 million in a Macau bank–chump change by international standards–did wonders for the North Korean regime’s pliability in negotiations. Showboating ploys like calls to expel Russia from the G8 make infinitely less sense than quietly holding Russia to its G8 commitments, including anticorruption initiatives. The Putin elite, confident that gas and oil wealth guarantees it impunity, is pushing a host of anti-Western policies at home and abroad. A -thoroughgoing check by Western governments of that elite’s globalized financial interests might be surprisingly salutary.The mercenary reality behind the Kremlin’s electoral flimflam exposes the Putin regime’s Achilles’ heel. It’s all about the money. Legitimate, effective mechanisms exist for sending Moscow the message that, while it may choose to disregard international norms, there are consequences. The only question is whether anyone in the West has the courage to use them.