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Russian Businessman Lashes Out At Kremlin, Becomes Cause Celebre

Dmitry Potapenko has been a consistent critic of the Russian government's treatment of entrepreneurs, accusing the Kremlin of failing to make good on calls for tax inspectors and other officials to stop, as President Vladimir Putin put it in 2005, "terrorizing business."

Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Potapenko's address to a recent economic roundtable in Moscow began routinely enough, with a snapshot of his retail and food businesses at home and abroad. Things escalated quickly from there.

With a Kremlin-loyal federal lawmaker looking on, the plainspoken Potapenko proceeded to upbraid the Russian government for economic policies he suggested were aimed at lining officials' pockets and strangling businesses with inspections and red tape.

The particularly blunt remarks, at the Moscow Economic Forum on December 8, provided an unvarnished glimpse of resentment and frustration on the part of business leaders that might surprise Russians more accustomed to seeing state-dominated media's glossy spin on events.

"For the past 20 years," Potapenko, 45, told the roundtable, "the dialogue between business and authorities has been that of a butcher looking tenderly into the eyes of a cow, holding a knife at its throat and asking, 'What do we have today, beef or milk?'"

WATCH: Potapenko's speech (in Russian):

Potapenko, a veteran retailer and former executive with the Russian grocery chain Pyaterochka, is known in Moscow business circles but is far from a household name in Russia.

But an eight-minute video of his roundtable appearance has set the country's chattering classes abuzz after it went viral on social media this week.

Two separate videos of his performance have garnered nearly 800,000 YouTube views in two days, while Potapenko has drawn praise from prominent Kremlin critics, including opposition leader and anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny.

Potapenko has been a consistent critic of the Russian government's treatment of entrepreneurs, accusing the Kremlin of failing to make good on calls for tax inspectors and other officials to stop, as President Vladimir Putin put it in 2005, "terrorizing business."

Businesspeople in Russia have long complained that Russian officials abuse such inspections to extract bribes, and Kremlin critics accuse Putin of presiding over an economy built to benefit insiders with connections among the political elite.

Potapenko told the roundtable that racketeering gangs that had a stranglehold over Russian businesses following the Soviet collapse in the 1990s were "exceptional bastards," but that their function had been replaced by tax inspectors, customs officials, and economic-crimes police who are "significantly worse."

'Die Standing'

The resonance of Potapenko's speech is due in no small part to his verbal sparring match with Vladimir Gutenev, deputy head of the Industry Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, that ensued following the businessman's prepared remarks.

Gutenev, a member of Putin's ruling United Russia party, challenged Potapenko's rosy portrait of doing business abroad and criticized Russian companies for using tax-avoidance schemes.

Potapenko fired back: "When you work with your own money and hands, it is something else than heading up a committee. There is a difference between holding a candle and working with your hands."

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Potapenko said his speech had likely resonated because "people saw the true nature of the relationship between entrepreneurs and authorities."

"I didn't do this for the public. I just said what I think and say every day," Potapenko said. "I'll continue to do what I think is necessary. As they say: ‘Do what you have to do, and what will be, will be.' And it's better to die standing than on your knees."

'It Wasn't Obama'

During his remarks, Potapenko took aim at the title of the December 8 roundtable, Changing The Economic Course: Responding To Outside Threats. "First of all, I don't see any outside threats, pardon me.... Our own economic authorities have delivered four knockout punches" to Russian business, he said.

These "punches," he said, include the "criminal" embargo on Western goods in response to U.S. and EU sanctions over Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis that has driven up prices, as well as "prohibitive" interest rates on loans.

"It wasn't Obama who [set these rates]," Potapenko said.

He also denounced a recently imposed controversial transport tax that has sparked protests by long-haul truckers. The levy has become known as the "Rotenberg tax" because the government has entrusted collection to a company controlled by a son of construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a former judo sparring partner of Putin who has landed billions of dollars in state contracts.

Potapenko told RFE/RL that the government was unlikely to budge when confronted with popular protests like those staged by truckers in recent weeks. "The authorities are doing everything right, from their perspective," he said. "If they start to negotiate, they [might appear to] lose face."

Potapenko's remarks at the roundtable were met with applause from the audience.

In a December 10 radio interview, Gutenev accused the businessman of populism. "The forum's platform has traditionally been different," he told the Moscow broadcaster Govorit Moskva. "The Moscow [Economic] Forum is a dialogue among experts, and Potapenko tried to politicize the economic agenda. This is populism."

Potapenko, for his part, told RFE/RL that he was "happy" that his remarks made a public splash. "Independent and thinking people heard this," he said. "And above all, they realized that they're not alone."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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    Mumin Shakirov

    Mumin Shakirov is an experienced field reporter and TV host for RFE/RL's Russian Service. He has covered armed conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and the former Yugoslavia. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Shakirov is the host of the weekly Facets Of Time TV show.