By Elena Dikun
Almost immediately after Vladimir Putin’s inauguration, the court oligarch Boris Berezovsky–one of the architects of the president’s victory–went into direct opposition with him. “Berezovsky versus Putin” was such an unexpected and gripping story that it has been a major sensation for several months.
The starting point of the confrontation may be taken to be the open letter Berezovsky wrote to Putin in early June. Berezovsky made no bones about the fact that his aim was to organize public opposition to Putin’s administrative reforms. No one had raised this issue before, and the job of founder and leader of a “party of protest” was vacant, so Berezovsky–clever strategist that he is–immediately proposed himself for this role. It was quite clear to Berezovsky: Putin’s reforms threatened to reverse the main achievements of Russian democracy, and to establish Soviet or Latin American-style “unitary and authoritarian” regimes throughout the provinces. While every other critic, from the far left to the far right, concedes that the federative relations established under Yeltsin are certainly in need of reform, and that the power hierarchy needs strengthening, Berezovsky does not consider these relevant issues at all. On the contrary, he thinks the “current structure of the Russian state corresponds more closely to the North American or European models.” In other words, President Putin has inherited a well-structured state and there is no need to turn it into goodness knows what. This is not a criticism, it is an accusation: Putin has been caught attacking everything Russian democracy has achieved over the last ten years. As yet, everybody still remembers that Putin’s central promise to the voters was to strengthen the state; this is basically why he was elected. And now it transpires that this claim of Putin’s was at best a sham, and that he is no statist. The upshot is that the Russians have been cruelly deceived.
Berezovsky’s next move was to stir up trouble among the senators and deputies, encouraging them to block the president’s bills on federal reform. Berezovsky has already announced that he plans to cobble a governors’ party in the near future which will become the real opposition to Putin. So why is Berezovsky trying to oppose the head of state when he has almost no resources at his disposal? There is probably only one explanation: He has no choice. He has been pushed out of the Kremlin by the businessmen [Roman] Abramovich and [Aleksandr] Mamut, who enjoy the patronage of the president’s chief of staff Voloshin. Berezovsky’s once close ties with Yumashev and Dyachenko have frayed at the edges. On top of this Yeltsin’s chief confidants have lost a considerable amount of political authority. It is no secret that Putin himself is very wary of Berezovsky. From the start an unfortunate misunderstanding overshadowed their relations. Putin’s St. Petersburg colleagues love to describe how Berezovsky and Putin first met. In the mid 1990s, Anatoly Chubais telephoned from Moscow and asked Putin to arrange a meeting between Anatoly Sobchak and an American congressman who was flying in from Tbilisi with some Georgian politicians. Only with great difficulty did Putin persuade the St. Petersburg mayor to receive the unexpected guests. And, suddenly, when the reception was in full swing, he saw a Georgian quietly dozing in the corner. It is said that Putin grew irate, and in a fit of temper shouted, “What a bastard–I never want to see him in here again!” He rang Chubais and demanded, “What sort of people are you sending us?” Imagine Putin’s surprise when he discovered that the sleeping “Georgian” was Berezovsky. From the banks of the Neva, Putin saw only what he thought was simply a successful businessman. Only when he moved to Moscow did he realize the role Berezovsky played in Russian politics.
It may be taken as an axiom that Berezovsky does not do anything out of love for the truth; he always expects to extract some benefit for himself. So what is Berezovsky’s agenda in subjecting the president’s initiatives to harsh, all-out criticism? We asked seven experts on behind-the-scenes squabbles, who preferred to remain anonymous, and ended up with the following two versions.
Version one has it that Berezovsky is trying to avert potential personal problems. On June 18, the Prosecutor General’s Office extended the investigation into Aeroflot’s financial affairs. On top of this, the investigation received a powerful new impetus. Recently Switzerland handed over several files of valuable documentation, the contents of which are being kept strictly secret. More files are expected in August. It cannot be ruled out that after the prosecutor general’s investigators have familiarized themselves with the documents, Boris Berezovsky will once again be designated as a suspect rather than a witness. Those close to Berezovsky told our correspondent that he knows about the new evidence. According to them, he has been in a “very agitated, almost hysterical state recently; he evidently senses that they are about to get on his back again.”
The Kremlin is complaining that the once loyal oligarch has now become totally “uncontrollable.” “Alas, much as we would like to, we cannot tell him to keep his head down or to go abroad for a while,” admitted a senior official from the presidential administration. “So the only way we can keep a hold on Berezovsky is to carry on with the Aeroflot investigation.”
So Berezovsky’s political maneuvering is nothing other than an insurance policy against prosecution for financial machinations. He now has excellent grounds for claiming: “As soon as I stand up for federalism, the constitution and democracy, the prosecutors come after me.” However, Berezovsky has already tried a similar trick. When the Aeroflot case was first brought in January 1999, the businessman immediately accused then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of being in cahoots with the communists. He was then able to say that because he had exposed this relationship, he immediately became the victim of attacks. Berezovsky deftly turned everything on its head.
According to version two, Berezovsky wants to regain his status as an irreplaceable strategist for the Kremlin. Since the president’s administration stopped consulting him on anything and everything, Berezovsky has been looking for ways of proving that he is a major player in Russia–a force to be reckoned with. Finding himself in a corner, Berezovsky has decided to stake everything. From the start it was clear that the Federation Council would not simply adopt Putin’s new laws, which basically would have meant that the upper house would disband itself. Becoming the informal leader of the governors’ opposition, acting as a sort of intermediary between the Federation Council and the president, was an excellent move. Berezovsky’s strategy was to reveal Putin’s weak spot, and to force him to involve him as a sort of go-between between the Kremlin and both houses of parliament. In a word, to become irreplaceable again.
This is not the first time that the oligarch, feeling himself being squeezed out, has offered his services to Putin. At the beginning of the year he presented the then acting president with his plan for resolving the Chechen crisis, but Putin rejected it. The Kremlin thinks that Berezovsky will try anything to involve the head of state in a public discussion, thus proving that he is considered an equal and is recognized as having special rights in the running of the state. It is no coincidence that the president’s administration has adopted a policy of not entering into a polemic with a man who is only waiting for just such an opportunity. On the contrary, the Kremlin strategists take the view that every cloud has a silver lining. Their reasoning is that Berezovsky’s attack is a gesture which serves to distance the president further from the odious businessman; now it is clear for all to see that Putin is not Berezovsky’s equal, and vice versa.
Putin’s associates say that he understands that Berezovsky is linked to those people who brought him to power, but he does not consider himself indebted to him directly. Moreover, he has not forgotten his last message from Berezovsky. Two years ago Berezovsky wrote an open letter to Putin–then director of the FSB–accusing him of covering up the bandits who had entrenched themselves in his department. Putin’s reply was swift and tough. Everybody thought that was the end for Berezovsky, but he got away with it. “Back then Boris Abramovich [Berezovsky] was all powerful, but today there is no particular need to kowtow to him,” says one of our informers.
To put it bluntly, the only realistic resource that Berezovsky now has is television’s Channel 1. But it is already being openly mooted in the Kremlin that Berezovsky may be forced to relinquish his 49 percent stake in ORT to the state, free of charge. In fact, it looks as though this decision has already been taken. This would explain Berezovsky’s public statements that he is prepared to relinquish these shares voluntarily. But then, it is always better for an oligarch to give things up voluntarily than to wait until they are demanded of him with the full force of the law.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist for Obshchaya gazeta.