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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Random Shot in the Political Dark

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As I walked into the lobby of a certain Moscow bank to pay a business visit to its director, the television news came on. The anchor announced in tones of studied alarm that there had been an attempt on Unified Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais' life. The secretaries, guards and people waiting in the bank lobby began to discuss the news excitedly: "Too bad they didn't get the jerk!" or "Who bombs people that way? They should have slammed him with a grenade launcher!" The comments all ran something along those lines.

Folks also instantly came up with their version of what happened. And they all agreed: Chubais staged the attack himself. It seemed pointless to try and prove to those around me that staging an assassination attempt is a risky and completely unnecessary affair. It seemed just as pointless to get sucked into moralizing about how every employee in that lobby personally owed their jobs to the man they had such disdain for.

The theory that it was all staged has been tossed around fairly actively in recent days, but only by people who are Chubais' declared political enemies, like, say, Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist State Duma deputy. The assassination attempt has become a kind of political litmus test.

The reaction of the government to the event was particularly odd. For instance, when a certain minister was asked why there was no reaction at all from the government, he answered without a second thought that the president had called Chubais and inquired about his health, and that was reaction enough. He went on to call the attempt "elegant" but then, with a poorly concealed smirk, called it a "savage act." Getting a grip on himself, he put on a properly serious face and added, "This is terrorism, terrorism." Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov called the attempt to kill the head of the country's biggest power company "cynical." The leader of the party of power couldn't seem to find any more damning words for the attack on Chubais, whom he is less than fond of.

In this context, the theory that a retired colonel from the Directorate of the General Staff would attack Chubais out of personal hatred seems logical in a way. It was already clear in the first hours after the attempt -- before they arrested the colonel -- that authorities would either never find the culprits or would find some wacko or lone gunman. And there have been assassinations based on personal hatred. Sergei Kirov, a Politburo bigwig close to Josef Stalin, was shot in 1934 by young Party member Leonid Nikolayev after Kirov had an affair with his wife. And the national response was overwhelming: Historians have yet to count how many millions died as Stalin consolidated power.

Chubais is no Kirov. And things are different nowadays, somehow pettier. Yet in terms of materialist pragmatism, the present is way ahead of the idealist romanticism of Stalin. Nonetheless, our petty times are still ruled by the old maxim of Roman law "quid prodest" -- "who benefits?" Chubais himself has openly stated that someone ordered the hit. He hasn't said who, though.

I was reminded of something from a recent interview I had with Chubais just a few days before the attack, which was published in the March 14 issue of Profil. I asked him, among other things, if he knew what exactly had happened in the backrooms of government to put on hold the deal that allowed the German company Siemens to buy Power Machines, also know as Silovye Mashiny, 71 percent of which belongs to Vladimir Potanin's Interros industrial group. Chubais said he knew what happened but absolutely refused to say what he knew. I got the impression that Power Machines was a big deal for him. In part, he seemed to find it necessary to scrupulously clarify the UES position reported the day before by various news agencies regarding the energy monopoly's alleged proposals for the future of Power Machines. The press also suggested that Chubais was planning to join forces with his traditional business rival, Basic Element head Oleg Deripaska, on the issue. However, in the interview, he denied both that any proposals existed and that he had any agreements with Deripaska.

But then he made a slip of the tongue: UES might make Power Machines an offer if the government rejected Siemens as a foreign purchaser trying to buy a strategic company. This is exactly what has already happened de facto.

Does this mean that after the attack, UES will forget about its offer, and that the attack was a stern warning to Chubais? Or does someone really want Chubais wiped off Russia's political and business map? It's hard to say. The Power Machines-Siemens deal was approved beforehand at the highest level. The second the deal got the green light, its powerful opponents sprang into action, including those close to President Vladimir Putin whom people have taken to calling the siloviki. The lobby against the deal was and is extremely strong. The main argument against it is that it will reduce Russia's military potential, as Power Machines fills lots of defense orders. And in today's Russia, the force of so-called patriotic arguments -- especially those with noticeable anti-Western leanings -- is increasing as we speak.

So, like a magician whipping a card from his sleeve, Deripaska appeared with his offer. And apparently one of Interros' directors admitted in private that at least two other Russian companies were fighting for Power Machines, companies no one seems to recognize.

Was he referring to some new clone of Baikal Finance Group, which leapt into the limelight with its purchase of Yuganskneftegaz? No one knows, and probably no one ever will.

Just like no one will ever know if there was any connection between the attack on Chubais and his various business activities, for instance, the much-debated privatization of wholesale generation companies or other aspects of energy reform.

It seems that Power Machines might follow the same well-trodden path as many other companies in Putin's Russia. Control over the company, the country's largest producer of electrical engineering equipment, will be handed over to a company close to the so-called "St. Petersburg clique." Either someone from the presidential administration or someone directly connected to it will head Power Machines. This is precisely what has happened to almost all key Russian companies in which the state was a stakeholder.

But what does some poor colonel's attack on Chubais have to do with any of this? The colonel in question is no Lee Harvey Oswald, and Chubais is no JFK. Of course, it has nothing at all to do with any of this. It's all a coincidence. Sure.

Just try to convince yourself and those around you that Russia is simply loaded with endless and stunning coincidences. If you can make yourself believe it's all random, then you should be able to live in absolute tranquility, and even the investment climate will start to look good. It's sheer coincidence that in Russia many well-known and obscure businesspeople and many well-known and obscure politicians get killed, all due to someone's personal hatred for them.

Yet it's hard to chalk it all up to chance. One can't help but get the feeling that what's going on in Russia today reeks of an impending political nightmare.

Georgy Bovt, editor of Profil, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.