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The ancient wit of Aesop was born out of misfortune and is especially sharp on the subject of people getting their just desserts. You see, Aesop was unlucky enough to have been captured in war and sold into slavery as a personal secretary for his owners.

In Aesop’s fable about the middle-aged man and his mistresses, the circumstances and the moral are easily recognizable. According to Aesop, the man’s hair was turning gray. The older woman was embarrassed at having sex with a lover younger than herself, so whenever he came to her bed, she plucked out all his black hairs.

The younger woman recoiled from having an older lover so, in her bed, she took to puliing out the man’s gray hairs. And so it happened, Aesop records, that the more the man pursued his carnal appetite, the balder he became.

A member of the St. Petersburg circle that has now taken over the rule of this country is as witty as Aesop when it comes to describing businessmen whose appetites are leading them to baldness.

They believe, he says, that they own most of the property in this country. They admit there may have been a change or two in the Kremlin since President Vladimir Putin came to power, but they aren’t about to change themselves. They believe that they should pay for the Putin circle to turn its attention away from their fortunes. According to my informant, these businessmen think that all that has changed is the size of the payment, the beneficiaries and maybe the channels for delivering it.

My informant is certain this is a bad misjudgment. Just how bad, he says, is a discovery that will take time to become obvious. For Putin, he says, stripping those who have acquired vast wealth illegally and who manage it greedily, without regard for the state, is only a matter of time.

Take the arrest last month of Yakov Goldovsky on charges of defrauding Gazprom, or the resignation of Yury Vyakhirev, son of former Gazprom chief executive Rem Vyakhirev and until last week head of Gazprom’s trader, Gazexport. This is the kind of hair-pulling that can be expected to intensify. Whose pate will be next?

Alisher Usmanov headed Gazprominvest, an arm the elder Vyakhirev used for a variety of deals that transferred Gazprom assets and receivables into other hands during the Yeltsin period. Usmanov has been telling associates for weeks that he is worried the Kremlin may back an aggressive investigation of Gazprominvest deals that could cost him his position and possibly also his stakes in iron-ore, steel and diamond companies he controls. Usmanov is confident he will emerge the winner over his rivals and critics. He is not sure what the price of victory will be.

Usmanov’s long-time partner is Vagit Alekperov, chief executive of Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil producer. Together, the two controlled their own investment company VA Invest. To many in Russian business, Alekperov has already negotiated a bargain with the Kremlin that should protect him and Lukoil from the kind of hair-pulling now going on at Gazprom. That bargain, the pundits claim, includes Alekperov’s recent role in emptying TV-6 of Yevgeny Kiselov and others from the old media empires of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky.

Alekperov accompanied Putin on his official visit to Greece in December – another sign, say the pundits, that the Lukoil boss has ingratiated himself with the Kremlin. Alekperov, they also believe, is behind the ongoing investigation by the Ministry of Natural Resources of an award last year of the Val Gamburtseva oil deposit to rival Severnaya Neft. A team of Ministry investigators flew out of Moscow this week on a new mission to check the oilfield deal. Watch for the announcement soon, predict the pundits, of a Kremlin medal for Alekperov sealing the bargain with Putin,

Not so, responds a chorus of St. Petersburgers. Alekperov went to Athens to win a tender for a Greek petroleum refinery Yukos has already decided is a loss-maker and doesn’t want. The investigation of Val Gamburtseva may benefit Lukoil in the end, but it is being driven by altogether different forces and targets. Not the least of the latter is the chairman of Severnaya Neft, former Finance Ministry official Andrei Vavilov. Minister of Natural Resources Vitaly Artyukhov has known Vavilov for a long time.

“That which is ill-matched always gets into difficulties” – that is the moral of Aesop’s hair-pulling fable.

No one with a full head of hair in Moscow would disagree with the conclusion. No one at all is sure what match Putin intends to make next. The uncertainty alone is enough to turn black hair to gray.

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