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Russian billionaire won, workers nil

The sale of Chelsea Football Club to the second richest man in Russia made a good story for the tabloids – and even the broadsheets. “From Russia with £3.4bn” and “Tycoon buys club with loose change” were typical headlines.

There were some spicy elements in the story. The price of Chelsea FC – a mere £140m – would have enabled Roman Abramovich easily to buy also Manchester Utd, Real Madrid and Juventus. The buyer is a youthful 36; his casual dress and unshaven appearance is not that of your archetypal billionaire. On top of that he is a foreigner, mysterious, somewhat reclusive and therefore of dubious character. Also a bit of a paradox: MP for a remote and poverty-stricken area in Siberia, spending one week a month there, the rest of his time on a vast estate in a heavily guarded area strictly off limits to the Russian public because the new wealthy live there.

Abramovich is interesting not so much for his foray into football, but as an exemplar of changes in Russia in the last few years which have made that country a leading player on the stage of world capitalism. In August 1998 there was a financial crash, the rouble was devalued, and international credit dried up after some defaults in payments. In the Yeltsin era businesses had been privatised in opaque deals which (according to the Guardian of 3 July) “make Britain's privatisation fat cats look like lean models of self-denial by comparison.”

Astute businessmen like Abramovich were able to become extremely rich extremely fast by exploiting the laws which allowed companies to trade on the huge difference between Russian and western prices for raw materials. Abramovich's businesses, which included oil, television and aluminium companies, grew in number and complexity. His companies are nested within companies within other companies, many of them outside Russia. His British interests are controlled by a holding company, Millhouse.

More can be learned about contemporary Russian capitalism from the 5 July 2000 issue of Worldlink, the magazine of the World Economic Forum. This magazine enables workers employed to help run capitalism in the interests of one set of exploiters to talk to workers employed to help run the same system in the interests of other exploiters. Apparently, things are looking up for Russian capitalists, especially those with political connections (Abramovich is said to be a close friend of President Putin). Earlier Russia had “poor” banking and tax systems. Now “liberal currency regulation allows enterprises and individuals to keep their money in good international banks instead.”

What do the Russian workers think of this new system compared with old-style “communism” (state capitalism)? Many of them are worse off and certainly not sharing in the prosperity of the privileged few. Insofar as there is a political opposition in Russia, it is centred on the old Communist Party beliefs. But, as Worldlink is happy to report: “The communists now only insist on more state enterprises and more state financing . . . Both the right and the left have come to their senses and settled for a normal market economy.”

No wonder Blair and Putin shake hands when they meet, no doubt congratulating each other on the success of the system – for themselves and their cronies. The workers have yet to realise that there is an alternative and to act together to bring it about.