Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 214

Boris Berezovsky has apparently joined his fellow media magnate and erstwhile archrival, Media-Most chief Vladimir Gusinsky, in political exile. Berezovsky, who was set to appear today at the Prosecutor General’s Office in Moscow for questioning in the Aeroflot case, involving the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars from Russia’s state airline, issued a statement last night announcing that he would not return to Russia for questioning and explaining why. In the statement, which was faxed to media offices in Moscow, Berezovsky, who has been traveling abroad, wrote that he had decided not to return to Moscow for questioning because of what he described as “constantly intensifying pressure on me by the authorities and President [Vladimir] Putin personally. Essentially,” he said, “I’m being forced to choose whether to become a political prisoner or a political immigrant.” Berezovsky charged that Putin had made him a suspect in the Aeroflot case–which, he claimed, had been “concocted” by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–simply because Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-controlled television channel until recently under Berezovsky’s control, had “spoken the truth” about the sinking of the submarine Kursk and because he, Berezovsky, had set up a private foundation to assist families of the sailors who died on the sub. Berezovsky repeated accusations he has made in the past against Putin, including the charge that the Russian president was “trying to impose his control over the main mass media with the goal of setting up a regime of personal power,” was carrying out an “ethnic war in Chechnya,” had violated the Russian constitution and contributed to the breakup of the country by “dispersing” the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament), and had “destroyed” independent local self-government. Berezovsky charged that Putin had “turned the country over to secret services and bureaucrats who strangle the freedom and initiative needed to raise Russia.”

Berezovsky and several of his associates are suspected of having used several Swiss companies, including Forus Services and Andava, to embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars from Aeroflot. The case was launched in early 1999 at the initiative of then Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, who, many observers believe, had received a green light from then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to pursue the case. An arrest warrant was issued for Berezovsky in early 1999 in connection with the Aeroflot case, but was later rescinded. Both Skuratov and Primakov were subsequently removed from their posts.

Perhaps the most interesting element in Berezovsky’s statement was his claim that “profits of the firms working with Aeroflot” were used to finance Unity, the pro-Putin political bloc, and Putin’s presidential campaign. It is interesting because Berezovsky, on the one hand, claims in the statement that the “so-called Aeroflot case” was “concocted” by Primakov and has claimed in the past that he had no connection with Aeroflot whatsoever. On the other hand, he suggests that Putin and Unity were beneficiaries of back-channel financing from the Russian state airline. A member of Unity’s faction in the State Duma told a newspaper that in making that charge, Berezovsky was “settling scores” with the Kremlin administration (Vedomosti, November 15). Gleb Pavlovsky, the controversial political strategist and Kremlin adviser, said he did not recall whether Aeroflot or any of its subsidiaries financed Putin’s campaign. In any case, Berezovsky ended his statement with the following words: “I am sure that if Putin continues his policy which is ruinous for the country, his regime will not last until the end of [its] first constitutional term.” Pavlovsky said that this sentence looked like “a direct physical threat to Putin” (Segodnya, November 15).

Meanwhile, one of Berezovsky’s former associates, former Aeroflot commercial director Aleksandr Krasnenker, appeared yesterday at the Prosecutor General’s Office for questioning. Krasnenker was questioned for five hours. Another Berezovsky associate, former Aeroflot First Deputy General Director Nikolai Glushkov, was set to be questioned on November 13, but did not appear because he is in the hospital. Prosecutors reportedly filed charges yesterday against another suspect in the Aeroflot case–Roman Sheinin, former head of a company called FOK, which Aeroflot hired to collect its foreign debts (Russian agencies, Moscow Times, November 15).