Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 17

The August disasters, however, did not put any brakes on Russia’s seemingly endless political power struggle. In fact, the Ostankino tower fire seemed to accelerate the battle for control of national television–specifically, the conflict between Putin and Boris Berezovsky, the powerful tycoon said to control the 51-percent state-owned Russian Public Television (ORT). Following the Kursk disaster, Putin had put the blame for the parlous state of the armed forces on the media tycoons, saying that they should sell their villas on the Mediterranean to help the families of the sub’s deceased crewmen. That was a pointed reference to Berezovsky and Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky. Several weeks later Berezovsky published an open letter to Putin in which he again repeated his charges that the head of state was establishing an authoritarian regime and trying to control the press. He also claimed that a top Kremlin official had threatened him with jail if he did not turn over the 49-percent stake in ORT he controlled.

In response, Berezovsky announced he would turn over the ORT shares to “journalists and other representatives of the creative intelligentsia” to be held in trust. Berezovsky had asked allies such as ORT journalist Sergei Dorenko and former ORT general director Igor Shabdurasulov to be trustees, and was reportedly considering handing other ORT shares to some of those had signed his open letter in early August announcing the creation of a “constructive opposition” to Putin’s centralization plans. Some observers saw this as a brilliant tactical move by Berezovsky, given that Putin would be reluctant to seize ORT shares from eminent persons like the writer and George Mason University professor Vasily Aksyenov, a signatory to Berezovsky’s August letter. The Kremlin, however, struck back at Berezovsky, apparently convincing Konstantin Ernst, ORT’s general director, to remove two of Berezovsky’s close allies at ORT, Tatyana Koshkareva and Rustam Narzikulov, and to replace Koshkareva, who headed ORT’s information programming department, with Sergei Goryachev, formerly deputy head of VGTRK, the state television and radio company.

Yet while Putin and his erstwhile ally Berezovsky played out this chess game for control of Russia’s most-watched television channel, certain anomalies remained unexplained. If Putin and his allies truly wanted to remove Berezovsky from the political stage, the Kremlin case involving the alleged embezzlement of hundreds of million of dollars from the state airline Aeroflot seemed the more promising avenue, given that two Swiss firms connected to Berezovsky were allegedly involved. After all, in early 1999 the Prosecutor General’s Office, reportedly at then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s behest, had issued an arrest warrant for Berezovsky in connection with the Aeroflot case, and the tycoon had been forced to flee abroad until Primakov was safely removed from his post.

Yet on August 22, Nikolai Volkov, the lead investigator from the Prosecutor General’s Office in the Aeroflot case, was fired. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that Volkov’s firing meant either that Vladimir Putin did not have the final word over decisionmaking in Russia or that his battle with Berezovsky was something less than a fight to the finish.