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What is an "oligarch"?

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Jim Richards asks the question, if we are to sanction "oligarchs," what is an oligarch?

What is an oligarch? Who knows, but we know them when we see them ...

The Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT) supports an "international public register of wealth for Russian oligarchs with wealth above 10 million euros ...".

€10,000,000???? Really? Alisher Usmanov's butler is probably worth €10,000,000. I would have thought 10 BILLION euros was more in the oligarch realm.

Which got me thinking: if we're sanctioning all these oligarchs because they're oligarchs, just what is an oligarch?

Merriam-Webster doesn't help us. It defines "oligarch" as "a member or supporter of an oligarchy." And oligarchy is "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes." So that doesn't help.

Google helps a little bit: "1. a ruler in an oligarchy. 2. (especially in Russia) a very rich business leader with a great deal of political influence." But then that's just Google. And "rich dudes close to Putin" doesn't help, because we're back to square one: what is "rich"?

I couldn't find a solid definition. So I've concluded that oligarchs are like hard core pornography. Let me explain ...

In Jacobellis v Ohio, 378 US 18 (1964), the US Supreme Court was considering whether the State of Ohio could ban a movie it had deemed obscene. One of the issues before the Court was defining obscenity. Justice Potter Stewart wrote: "... under the First and Fourteenth Amendments criminal laws in this area are constitutionally limited to hard-core pornography. I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

This "I know it when I see it" quote is well known and often used. But it may be best applied to Russian oligarchs. We know them when we see them.


Jim Richards is Founder and Principal of RegTech Consulting LLC.

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