Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 164

Some observers see this week’s announcement by Boris Berezovsky–that he plans to divest himself of the 49-percent stake in Russian Public Television (ORT) he has long been believed to control–as a sign that the controversial tycoon and former State Duma deputy is reaching the end of his career as a key Russian powerbroker. Other observers, however, warn that it is far too early to count Berezovsky out. Yet others even question whether Berezovsky’s battle with President Vladimir Putin should be taken at face value.

In an open letter to Putin circulated at the beginning of the week and published yesterday in Kommersant, one of the daily newspapers owned by Berezovsky, the tycoon declared that he would hand the 49 percent stake in ORT, a 51-percent state-controlled channel, to “journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia” rather than to the state. Berezovsky claimed that a high-ranking Kremlin administration official, whom he did not identify, warned him last week to hand the shares over to the state or “follow in the steps of Gusinsky.” This, according to Berezovsky, was a clear warning that he would be jailed, as was his fellow media mogul and rival, Media-Most’s Vladimir Gusinsky, for a brief period earlier this year. Berezovsky said he would not give in to the Kremlin’s “ultimatum,” arguing that if he did, Russian television would be transformed into propaganda controlled by Putin’s advisers (Kommersant, September 5). This particular line in the letter undoubtedly aroused more than one chuckle among readers, given the key role Berezovsky’s media have played in churning out propaganda for both Boris Yeltsin and his successor.

While Berezovsky did not indicate exactly to which “journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia” he would transfer the ORT shares, Igor Shabdurasulov, formerly ORT’s general director and a Berezovsky ally, said yesterday that the shares would be held in trust (as opposed to being owned outright), and that he had been invited to become a trustee. ORT deputy director and anchor Sergei Dorenko said that he and Konstantin Ernst, ORT’s current general director, had been also been asked to be ORT trustees (Radio Ekho Moskvy, September 4; Moscow Times, September 5). Shabdurasulov suggested that ORT shares might also be transferred to persons outside the channel’s orbit. Some observers have speculated that these might include some of the signatories to Berezovsky’s August 8 open letter proclaiming the formation of a “constructive opposition” to Putin’s centralization plans. Among the signatories to that letter was the eminent writer and George Mason University professor Vasily Aksyenov (Russian agencies, September 4; see also the Monitor, August 10).

Berezovsky’s LogoVAZ company holds an 11-percent stake in ORT, while the United Consortium of Banks (OKB), which is reportedly controlled by Berezovsky’s Obedinyonnyi Bank, holds 37 or 38 percent of the shares, depending on the source (Vremya novosti, Moscow Times, September 5). Mikhail Lesin, Russia’s press minister, said yesterday he was not sure who was included in OKB–a rather startling admission from the person supposedly watching over Russia’s state media (Vremya novosti, September 5).