Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 135

The key question about the moves against Vladimir Gusinsky, Vladimir Potanin, Vagit Alekperov and Boris Berezovsky is whether they are proof that President Vladimir Putin plans to keep his promise to drive the oligarchs from the corridors of power, or whether they are being carried out on behalf of one group of oligarchs or insiders at the expense of others. Indeed, prior to today’s news of a criminal case against AvtoVAZ, some observers saw the other actions of the authorities against the oligarchs as in fact serving the interests of the “Family,” the group of Yeltsin-era Kremlin insiders which includes Boris Berezovsky, Sibneft boss Roman Abramovich and Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin (Moskovsky komsomolets, June 12). The “Family” has been in a protracted war with Gusinsky and Media-Most, and some observers believe that Berezovsky, who controls Russian Public Television (ORT), would like either to take over or cripple Media-Most. An anonymous official in the Kremlin administration was quoted today as saying: “They are trying to force Gusinsky to end his business in Russia. For example, to sell it to someone else. Who are ‘they’? I don’t know. But someone is all the time trying to deprive Gusinsky of his business” (Vedomosti, July 12).

A newspaper also suggested that the letter from the Prosecutor General’s Office to Potanin concerning Norilsk Nickel was initiated by some of his rivals, including Oleg Deripaska, head of Siberian Aluminum (Kommersant, July 11). Earlier this year, Siberian Aluminum teamed up with Sibneft to buy up an estimated 70 percent of Russia’s aluminum market and create an aluminum super-holding, Russian Aluminum. In addition, both Potanin and his long-time ally, United Energy Systems head Anatoly Chubais, are long-time rivals of Berezovsky. Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, called weakening Potanin a “Family” goal. He said also that the challenge to the Norilsk privatization was a clearly a blow to Chubais’ allies in the government, including Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin (Moscow Times, July 12). It should also be noted that Potanin’s and Alekperov’s LUKoil jointly control Izvestia, the influential (and strongly pro-Putin) daily newspaper. Oneksimbank owns 51 percent of the paper, LUKoil 49 percent.

And while the criminal case announced today against AvtoVAZ would seem to hit at Berezovsky’s interests, it should be noted that some observers believe that his connections with the auto giant are no longer as close as they used to be (Moscow Times, May 30). Indeed, while AvtoVAZ’s fortunes improved somewhat following the August 1998 ruble devaluation, the company remains mired in debt and highly criminalized. Several years ago, a leading Western magazine called AvtoVAZ a “corporate wreck” (Business Week, August 17, 1998). Thus there may be less to the move against AvtoVAZ than meets the eye, at least in terms of its effect on Berezovsky. On the other hand, Berezovsky allegedly set up various Swiss companies to handle AvtoVAZ’s revenues, and later used the same companies to handle the revenues of Aeroflot, Russia’s state airline. This means the probe into AvtoVAZ could help build a case against him. Both the Swiss and Russian authorities have been investigating these Swiss companies for alleged embezzlement and money laundering. No one, however, has been charged in the cases so far. In 1999, when Yevgeny Primakov was prime minister, a warrant was issued for Berezovsky’s arrest in connection with the Aeroflot case, but later rescinded.

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