Arguably, this writer awaited the arrival of Russia's new ambassador, Viktor Kalyuzhny, in Riga more than anyone else. Just over five years ago, writing in a column for The Moscow Times, I called Kalyuzhny "the world's worst fuel and energy minister." This was not an original epithet, and was actually a twist on a much-repeated quote by Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University professor and a former advisor to the Russian government who in the early 1990s called Russia's Viktor Gerashchenko "the world's worst central banker."
In 1999, this "world's worst" label was particularly appropriate in Russia, since both Gerashchenko and Kalyuzhny were playing key roles in the post-financial crisis government.
While Gerashchenko was resurrected as part of the quasi-communist cabinet of Yevgeny Primakov in 1998, Kalyuzhny took over the energy portfolio a few months later. He immediately let everyone know who he had to thank for the job when, in one of his first acts as minister, he signed a decree allowing Sibneft, the oil company controlled by Roman Abramovich, who now owns the Chelsea soccer club, to participate in Iraq's food-for-oil program.
But those were desperate times in Russia. Control over the regions was slipping out of the Kremlin's grasp. Sergei Stepashin, a disciplinarian-prime minister, was not even allowed to serve out the customary 100 days and was booted out in favor of Vladimir Putin. Kremlin strategists believed that the FSB chief would be a much more loyal head of government. (As things turned out, they were absolutely right.) In other words, what Minister Kalyuzhny could have never gotten away with under Stepashin became possible with Putin. All forms of skullduggery were suddenly permissible, and after three residential houses (two in Moscow) were blown up in the beginning of September 1999, killing hundreds, they were permissible in the name of national security.
Now Kalyuzhny and his immediate boss, deputy PM Nikolai Aksyonenko, had for months been trying to figure out a way to gain control of Transneft, the country's pipeline monopoly, from Dmitry Savelyev, who had been appointed by Sergei Kirienko, Russia's first post-crisis prime minister. Their motivation was simple: He who controls Transneft controls Russia. You can have millions of barrels of crude, but unless you have access to the pipeline it is nothing.
The problem was that Savelyev had no intention of leaving his comfortable post, regardless of pressure from oligarch Abramovich. Even after Kalyuzhny signed an order firing him, Savelyev still refused to budge, decrying the order as illegal. Then, early in the morning on Sept. 16 some 300 Interior Ministry troops greeted him 's compliments of our friend Kalyuzhny 's outside his Moscow office as his car pulled up. And wouldn't you know it 's Putin just happened to be out of town that day. (When asked about Kalyuzhny's stunt, Putin gave his trademark coy response to the effect that the minister had just been a little out of hand.)
Confronted with such brute force, Savelyev, whom this writer knew rather well at the time, backed down. (Three months later a local court ruled that Kalyuzhny's order had been illegal.) The minister, meanwhile, followed this victory with a series of equally myopic, ill-conceived decisions in the oil and gas industry, thereby earning my "world's worst" epithet in November 1999. "Since becoming the pointman in Russia's most vital sector," I wrote, "Kalyuzhny has shown that he is a narrow-minded lobbyist, has no strategic conception for the industry, possesses a warped understanding of the market economy and completely disregards both the rule of law and corporate culture."
No doubt, Russia's new ambassador to Latvia is a man with a colorful past 's if colorful be authoritarian cronyism. True, he would not have gotten away with his actions without support from above, or from his pal Abramovich, but let his resume speak for itself.
Why is he here? Well, basically because the job was open, and the Kremlin didn't know what else to do with him. The common Soviet-Russian practice is to give individuals no longer useful to the state a diplomatic post. Putin sent his old boss, Pavel Borodin, to Minsk, and Viktor Chernomyrdin to Ukraine (a lot of good that did), while Gorbachev dispatched Alexander Yakovlev to Canada. Now Latvia has Viktor Kalyuzhny.
The ambassador is already in hot water with the local media after he tried bullying the leading daily, Diena, into making them send a copy of an interview before it went to press. The standoff was apparently tense, with Kalyuzhny threatening to throw his diplomatic weight around. Paul Raudseps, editor of Diena's opinion page, hit the nail on the head when he said that Kalyuzhny simply had no experience working in a democratic society, a fact that the man's behavior accurately demonstrates.
In my opinion, Latvians would do well just to pay less attention to the guy (unless, of course, someone really wants a couple tickets to the English premier league). As is customary, they are pestering the ambassador to visit the Occupation Museum, but if I were a Latvian I wouldn't want someone like Kalyuzhny stepping inside such a sacrosanct establishment. Otherwise, I should warn my colleagues at Diena to be careful. If not, they may show up to work one day and see 300 shock troops in front of their office building, compliments of Viktor.
Gary Peach is editor of The Baltic Times