Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 164

The apparent bad blood between President Vladimir Putin and Boris Berezovsky got worse last month–first with Berezovsky’s open letter proclaiming the formation of a “constructive opposition” to Putin’s centralizing plans, and then with ORT’s coverage of the Kursk disaster, which the Kremlin apparently found to be too critical of Putin. Indeed, in the open letter addressed to Putin earlier this week, Berezovsky noted that the media had subjected the head of state to “sharp criticism,” which, he said, was largely justified (Kommersant, September 6). In the wake of the Kursk disaster, Putin blamed the submarine disaster on the country’s oligarchs, who, he said, had helped to destroy the state. Noting that some media moguls had helped raise money for the families of the Kursk crew–Berezovsky was among them, though Putin did not mention him by name–the president said the tycoons “would do better to sell their villas on the French Mediterranean coast or in Spain” (Moscow Times, September 5; see the Monitor, August 30).

Earlier this year, as Berezovsky’s problems with the Kremlin appeared to grow, he suggested that he might hand over the ORT shares under his control to the state. Later, however, he said he would reconsider his offer if the state tried to take over Media-Most. In his letter this week to Putin, Berezovsky asserted that Media-Most’s NTV television channel had already been handed over to Gazprom, the 38-percent state-owned natural gas monopoly–an assertion Media-Most officials subsequently denied (Russian agencies, September 4).

In any case, many observers have interpreted Berezovsky’s decision to give up the 49 percent ORT stake as another victory in Putin’s war with the oligarchs. Agence France Presse, for example, referred to Berezovsky’s decision as a “surrender” (AFP, September 5). Some Russian observers, however, have been less ready to jump to such conclusions. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov said today that Berezovsky’s decision looked like “a public action, and not a serious business decision,” while Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov yesterday predicted that Berezovsky would continue to control ORT through Sergei Dorenko and other allies (Russian agencies, September 5-6). A newspaper wrote that far from being proof of his “readiness to capitulate,” Berezovsky’s decision to transfer the 49-percent ORT stake to “journalists and other representatives of creative intelligentsia” put Putin on the spot on the eve of his trip to United Nations meeting in New York. While American media and politicians would have little problem with the Kremlin seizing the ORT shares directly from Berezovsky, the paper wrote, they would react quite differently if the shares were seized from the “creative intelligentsia and journalists.” Berezovsky’s move, the paper wrote, once again proved that he is a “master of the political bluff” (Moskovsky komsomolets, September 5).

Even prior to Berezovsky’s latest demarche concerning the ORT shares, another newspaper speculated that the war between the tycoon and Putin may not be what it appears to be on the surface. The paper put forward various theories on what might really be going on. According to one theory, Berezovsky decided to play an active role in the growing opposition to Putin within the Russian political elite, but only with the intention of later “jumping back across to the Kremlin, [thereby] destroying the opposition and winning himself good and guaranteed terms.” The paper even speculated that this Potemkin opposition may have been the result of a “conspiracy” between the Kremlin and Berezovsky. It pointed to the fact that Nikolai Volkov, who was leading the investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office into Berezovsky’s alleged role in embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars from the state airline Aeroflot, was recently fired (see the Monitor, August 31). The paper wrote that because neither Media-Most, the Fatherland-All Russia movement, the Union of Right-Wing Forces nor Yabloko were any longer capable of playing the opposition role convincingly, the Kremlin, in order to maintain the facade of democracy, had to create the appearance of an “active opposition.” Thus it cannot be ruled out, the paper concluded, that Berezovsky and Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin decided to “concoct” such an opposition (Russkaya Mysl, August 31).