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Medvedev Calls On Oligarchs To Sacrifice For Society

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- President Dmitry Medvedev on has urged Russia's richest businessmen to repay their "moral debts" to society during the economic crisis.

"Perhaps nowhere in the world has business developed as fast as in our country," Medvedev said in an interview due to be broadcast on state television on the night of March 15.

"People have been getting very rich in a very short time," he said, according to the script posted on the Kremlin website. "Now it is time to return debts, moral debts, because the crisis is a test of maturity."

Russia's rapid transition to a market economy in 1990s gave birth to a group of super-rich businessmen known as "oligarchs".

An economic boom on the back of high prices for oil, gas and metals, has allowed them to earn fortunes. But the fall in commodity prices and the global credit squeeze has badly hit most of the oligarchs, placing them at the mercy of the Kremlin.

Russia's private sector owes about $500 billion in foreign debt with $130 billion due this year, according to central-bank data. Analysts have said the payments are likely to bankrupt many big businessmen unless the state helps.

The government initially promised $50 billion to help pay corporate foreign debts but the facility allocated in state corporation VEB was frozen after $11 billion was distributed.

Medvedev and his powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have told businessmen the government was not planning to bail out all of them.

A tough line on oligarchs can help the Kremlin win additional support badly needed during the crisis from ordinary Russians, traditionally critical of the oligarchs. The Kremlin worries social unrest could destabilize the country and undermine its current political system.

In the interview, Medvedev said the number of jobless in Russia has reached 6 million, including 2 million officially registered. He said businessmen should be prepared to sacrifice part of their wealth to keep jobs for their employees.

"If a man becomes a real businessmen, he can appreciate his employees and will try to put off part of his ideas, some of his personal consumption to maintain his staff, keep paying it, and save the business he was running in the past years," Medvedev said.

"But if the man starts panicking, if he sells business, runs away somewhere, that means he is a wrong businessmen. He simply did his business and now decided to get rid of it."

Accusations of anti-patriotic behavior have been leveled against oligarchs, many of whom live lavishly abroad buying yachts and soccer clubs. Medvedev made clear their behavior during the crisis could be crucial for their survival after the turmoil is over.

"He who survives tough crisis conditions will be an effective businessmen, an effective manager in the best sense of the word," he said. "I think this is very important."