The battle between Boris Berezovsky and the Russian authorities escalated once again yesterday, when the Prosecutor General’s Office added new charges to the so-called Aeroflot case, in which Swiss front companies set up by the tycoon were allegedly used to embezzle funds from Russia’s state airline. Berezovsky was previously charged under Article 159 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which covers fraud. He was charged yesterday (in addition to the previous charges) under Part One of the code’s Article 208, covering the creation of “illegal armed formations,” a term applied most often to Chechnya’s rebels. The new charges were also brought against Badri Patarkatsishvili, former deputy general director of Russian Public Television (ORT) who has been described as Berezovsky’s right-hand man (Interfax, January 29).
The new charges against Berezovsky follow comments by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev, who said on January 25 that his agency had documentary evidence that Berezovsky had financed Chechen “illegal armed formations and their leaders” and would pass this information on to law enforcement agencies abroad. NTV television reported that an international warrant might be issued for Berezovsky based on these charges (see the Monitor, January 25). Yesterday, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who was attending a meeting of the coordinating council of the power agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ member countries, said that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office had received material “concerning the involvement of Boris Berezovsky in financing bandit formations in Chechnya” (Kommersant, January 30).
Asked yesterday about the new charges against him, Berezovsky responded ironically, noting that in the fall of 1999, he “actively participated” in the creation of Unity, the political group set up to support Vladimir Putin, who was then prime minister, “which later President Putin and his administration turned into an armed Kremlin formation for the destruction of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” Noting that Article 208 frees those accused of involvement in “illegal armed formations” of criminal responsibility if they quit such groups, Berezovsky recalled that in the spring of 2000 he stepped down as a State Duma deputy. He concluded by repeating his charge that Russia’s special services were behind the autumn 1999 apartment building bombings in Moscow and other cities, which killed hundreds of people and served as a pretext for military intervention in Chechnya. “But to speak seriously, I believe that it is my claim that the explosions in Moscow in the autumn of 1999 were organized by employees of the FSB that is arousing an inappropriate reaction from those who find it necessary to hide the truth about that crime,” Berezovsky said. He has promised to make documents proving his claim public before the end of February (Lenta.ru, January 29; see also the Monitor, December 17, 2001; January 14, 17, 25).
On January 25, following Patrushev’s statement about Berezovsky’s alleged funding of the Chechen rebels, the self-exiled tycoon called the allegations “inane” while admitting that in 1997, when he was deputy secretary of President Boris Yeltsin’s Security Council and thus “involved in building a peace process in Chechnya,” he had dealings with a number of rebel leaders, including Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev, Movladi Udugov, Salman Raduev and Akhmed Kakaev. Berezovsky noted that Maskhadov was elected Chechen president that year and that the Russian authorities had signed a peace agreement with Maskhadov’s self-styled government. Berezovsky said that he maintained his relations with the Chechen rebels, noting that negotiations with Raduev had led to the freeing of twenty-one captured OMON special police troops (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 25).
Also on January 25, the Kremlin-connected website Strana.ru quoted “informed sources close to law enforcement agencies” as saying that Berezovsky had handed over large sums of money to Chechen field commanders as ransom for hostages, using as a middleman a Magomet Zubarov, putatively an adviser to Zakaev, who was then a top official in Maskhadov’s government. Strana.ru also claimed that Russia’s special services had recently discovered that Berezovsky had “suggested to the Chechen field commanders to start the business of trading in [kidnapped] people, and thus, by ransoming hostages, carried out financing of the field commanders.” The website said the FSB had tapes of conversations between Berezovsky, Movladi Udugov and Akhmed Zakaev “confirming the FSB’s version of events.” Strana.ru also said that it could not be ruled out that Berezovsky might have been involved in the March 1999 kidnapping of Interior Minister General Gennady Shpigun (Strana.ru, January 25). The Gazeta.ru website, meanwhile, reported that Berezovsky had once given Shamil Basaev US$2 million to rebuild a cement factory (Gazeta.ru, January 25). Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired army major who brokered many deals to free hostages in Chechnya, told the Moscow Times that Berezovsky had paid millions of dollars to secure the release of at least four journalists and dozens of soldiers, and that Interior Ministry and “other military and security officials” had also been involved in these pay-offs (Moscow Times, January 28).
Indeed, in February 1997 Berezovsky himself flew to Chechnya on a chartered flight to pick up two ORT journalists who had been kidnapped. A Chechen who served as an intermediary in securing the release of those journalists subsequently said that Berezovsky had paid a ransom of US$800,000. Khunkarpasha Israpilov, who then headed the Chechen government’s security department, said at the time that Berezovsky should have been arrested for collaborating with kidnappers. In August 1997, Patarkatsishvili participated directly in freeing Ilyas Bogatyrev (who is now the Monitor’s correspondent) and his cameraman from captivity in Chechnya. When Bogatyrev asked Patarkatsishvili how much had been paid in ransom, he was told never to ask the question again.
Whether Berezovsky deliberately organized the kidnapping of journalists in Chechnya, as some contend, or his payment of ransoms simply encouraged further hostage taking, as other say, it might be argued that his activities in Chechnya were simply fulfilling Kremlin policy there. Indeed, the kidnapping of the correspondents had the effect of turning the national media, which had mainly opposed the first Chechen military campaign (1994-1996), against the Chechen rebels. In addition, much of the money paid to ransom the journalists went to extremist rebel field commanders who opposed Maskhadov. Among them was Arbi Baraev, who was behind a number of kidnappings and murders, allegedly including the beheading of four Western telecommunications workers in 1998. Baraev, who was killed by federal forces last year, reportedly maintained ties with foreign radical Islamist groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida.
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