Once he led the life of a millionaire, working out of the Moscow mansion built by the Smirnovs of vodka fame, written up in “Forbes” as Russia’s richest man. Boris Berezovsky (it is said) funded President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential campaign, surreptitiously put money–or at least blocks of stocks–in the president’s pocket and became a pal of the president’s powerful daughter Tatyana Dyachenko. He has, or is believed to have, interests in auto dealerships (LogoVAZ), banks (Obedinenny), media outlets (ORT television, “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Ogenyok), oil (Sibneft), airlines (Aeroflot) and various other industrial and financial enterprises. He served in 1996-97 as deputy director of the National Security Council, then as an unofficial envoy to Chechnya and the northern Caucasus, then as executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the association of former Soviet republics. He survived a murder attempt, which he blamed on members of the Federal Security Service, in 1997.
Berezovsky’s grip seemed to weaken with the firing of Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister in March 1998. Since then, his efforts to merge Sibneft and Yukos Oil into the world’s third-largest oil producer have collapsed. His banks have failed. ORT television is bankrupt. And as the communists, his long-time enemies, have gained in power and prestige in Moscow, his political clout has dwindled. Last December, federal tax police in ski masks raided one of his close associates and beat his employees. Two weeks ago, in response to allegations that he had arranged electronic surveillance of members of the Yeltsin family, federal authorities raided his offices, strip-searched his managers and employees, seized his files and generally let it be known that Berezovsky could be pushed around. Then, on March 5, Boris Yeltsin, the recipient of so much of Berezovsky’s largess, ordered his dismissal as executive secretary of the CIS. Tycoonery ain’t what is used to be.
For some time Berezovsky, who is Jewish, had used his media outlets to call for a ban on the Communist Party, citing its failure to curb or repudiate its prominent anti-Semitic members. Just three days before his firing, Berezovsky said the party “promotes not a communist but a fascist ideology” and has “no right to exist” in Russia. So it was no surprise when party chairman Gennady Zyuganov called the firing a victory for justice, or when Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev said, “it’s time to break out the champagne.”
Noncommunists were quick to pile on. The leader of the Russia Is Our Home faction in the Duma said the dismissal was overdue. Erratic nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky (who also called last week for a ban on the Communist Party) applauded. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said the comeuppance was a long time coming.
The story may not be over. Berezovsky, in Azerbaijan, pointed out that he can be fired only by the CIS Council of Heads of State. While President Yeltsin can probably round up enough support to make the firing official, the exercise will further divide and diminish the CIS.
Domestically as well there may be repercussions. The Moscow press, delighted that President Yeltsin is once again firing folks, believes Berezovsky’s sacking is the sound of one shoe dropping. Pundits say that “balance” requires the dismissal of the communists in Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s cabinet, if not of Primakov himself. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov seems especially vulnerable. Maslyukov has only lukewarm support within the Communist Party, and he has so far failed in his main objective, conning the International Monetary Fund into releasing further credits.