Rumor’s roar can be as baffling as secrecy’s silence. Kremlin politics today are noisy. They fill the airwaves and the papers with skullduggery and intrigue. Yet what is really happening remains about as opaque as in the Soviet era of whispers and lies.
Case in point: On February 2, Russia’s top prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, resigned his post. On the same day, officers of the Federal Security Service, the old KGB, raided Sibneft, an oil company controlled by media magnate and would-be kingmaker Boris Berezovsky. Were these events related, and if so, how? Talking heads are yammering, and all Moscow is abuzz.
Ostensibly the raids were part of the government’s vaunted anticrime campaign. But in Russia crime prevention, like crime itself, often serves a political purpose.
The Sibneft raid, which took nine hours and swept through some twenty private residences as well as a number of offices, followed published allegations that Berezovsky had used a private security firm called Atoll to spy on President Boris Yeltsin and his family, including his powerful daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. One source for the spying charge was in a position to know. Aleksandr Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s former bodyguard and drinking buddy, said Berezovsky had used Sibneft to funnel money to the Yeltsins in Russia and abroad. With support from Atoll, said Korzhakov, Berezovsky was building a dossier with which to blackmail the president. The allegations dovetail nicely with similar stories about Yeltsin’s secret, silent participation in ORT television, a property formally majority-owned by the Russian state but apparently controlled by Berezovsky.
The raid on Sibneft is the latest in a series of government moves against Berezovsky’s empire. Last December ski-masked officers of the tax police raided an advertising agency linked to ORT television and strip-searched the employees. ORT itself faces bankruptcy for failure to pay state agencies rent for the use of transmitters. Official action has pushed Berezovsky to surrender some of his airline holdings. The Russian government undercut his efforts to build a strong bureaucracy in the Commonwealth of Independent States, for which he serves as executive secretary. Berezovsky charged last year that the Federal Security Service tried to arrange his assassination last year–and he had some evidence to back it up.
It’s not at all clear whether putting the squeeze on Berezovsky is intended to protect Boris Yeltsin or threaten him, or both. Berezovsky, after all, has been one of Yeltsin’s most important supporters, a key source of funding and media backing in the 1996 presidential campaign. But it does seem clear that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov is behind the pressure on Berezovsky.
Primakov’s grip on power is threatened only by Yeltsin’s ability to fire him. Two weeks ago Primakov floated a plan to strip Yeltsin of that power and ease him into de facto retirement. When Berezovsky criticized the plan, Primakov spoke with scorn: “Boris Abramovich… is an international bureaucrat,” he said, referring to Berezovsky’s CIS post. “Let him do his work and be successful…. This is a big job for him, and it has not been accomplished.” Primakov, 69, is no stranger to intrigue. The Soviet Union’s last ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, made him the country’s top spymaster in 1990. He was shrewd enough then to open a back channel to Gorbachev’s rival, Boris Yeltsin, who later made him foreign minister and, in September 1998, prime minister. Of the presidency he says, “I have no ambitions,” but his behavior suggests otherwise.