I've been in Moscow some days now and have yet to meet an oligarch (although perhaps they don't identify themselves). I have met an entrepreneur named Andrei Davidovich. He's started several companies since his first in 1998, including a software company, a marketing agency, a publishing company, etc. He says it takes 5 days to create a new company in Russia.
He gives U.S. friends thanks for technology, research, and knowledge. He tells the U.S. government thanks for nothing.
Davidovich has been in touch for years with the U.S.-based Center for Citizen Initiatives, the excellent organization that can bring you to Russia to learn all about it, and that brought some 6,000 Russian businessmen and women, including Davidovich, to the U.S. during the previous cold war.
He has also created a highly successful online activist platform for creating citizen initiatives, now being used in 520 Russian cities. The name of the website translates as citizen.ru. Davidovich says an inspiration was the U.S. site SeeClickFix.com. The Russian site works in partnership with a Russian equivalent of Google (and Davidovich says that Google wanted to take his platform Europe-wide but cannot because of U.S. sanctions on Russia).
The Russian site makes use of a law that requires government officials to respond to public concerns within 30 days (and of the public's willingness to make a virtual piñata of those who fail to do so). On the site, you identify your location and post a problem you want fixed. Your post may be grouped with others in a category (or may be blocked if not serious, appropriate, etc.). But if others support your post, and if the media covers it, you may end up bringing a great deal of public pressure to bear.
On Friday, says Davidovich, he heard from officials in Irkutsk demanding to know how he could dare to create a project making a demand of them, and have it in the newspaper, without having obtained permission first. Davidovich says he replied: "When Facebook appeared on computers in Irkutsk, did Zuckerberg ask your permission?"
Once Davidovich received an email from a village in Crimea that had not had clean water ever, not when it had been part of the USSR, not when it had been part of Ukraine, and not since rejoining Russia. This email was thanking Davidovich for the village now finally having good water. Stories like that one could fill hours, he says.
This entrepreneur extraodinaire said many mayors and town governments are resistant to public engagement and do not want any bad publicity, but others are lining up to actively work with his project, presenting the problems raised by the public in government meetings in order to address them.
Davidovich is quite an opponent of President Vladimir Putin, yet was asked to make a presentation to the Public Chamber, a sort of advisory group created by Putin. The presentation was well received. People in Putin's government now use his project. And other groups make use of its open-source code.
Davidovich, who says that he does not like Putin, and who has posts on Facebook opposing Putin, does say that U.S. sanctions have brought him closer to Putin, and that he will unite with Putin until the sanctions end, and then return to criticizing him.
"The sanctions do not affect Putin; they affect me," says Davidovich, who cannot sell to the U.S. On the other hand, he says, he's very happy that Dell and Cisco cannot sell to Russia. (And when they do return to Russia, he promises to blow the whistle on any corruption they engage in.)
I asked Davidovich whether the U.S. government shouldn't have offered real assistance, something like the admittedly flawed Marshall Plan, to Russia in the 1990s. Davidovich said he'd rather not have any of the sort of help that the U.S. did offer, sending people over to bribe and corrupt, sending the IMF with abusive loan terms, etc.
As with many Russians (and of course many Americans as well) I found myself in great agreement on a large percentage of what this man had to say -- right up until he declared "I like Trump. I like his way of thinking. He is a real man. He is a business man!"
If we had a law requiring that our demands be met in 30 days, Trump would have 29 left in office. I hope we work that out somehow, but if Trump can do anything good for Russia between now and then I will be as pleased as anyone. And if I manage to discern a "way of thinking" in his statements I will be extremely delighted.