As Vladimir Putin finished his first week as acting president, a number of observers began talking about the next possible round in Russia’s endless political power struggle: the new head of state versus the tycoon Boris Berezovsky. According to the conventional wisdom, Putin was not the man Berezovsky wanted to see as Yeltsin’s successor. Putin, whose political fortunes have been closely connected with Russia’s other power broker, United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais, is thought to harbor less than warm feelings toward Berezovsky. Chubais has been very public in praising former President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to resign and in talking up Putin, who several years ago served under Chubais in the Kremlin administration, while Berezovsky has been more or less silent. According to one report, Chubais and Alfa financial-industrial group heads Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman are the new administration’s favored “oligarchs,” meaning that some of the current cabinet officials reportedly linked to Berezovsky–such as First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko and Fuel and Energy Minister Viktor Kaluzhny–might soon become ex-ministers.
On the other hand, Putin may not want to take on Berezovsky prior to the March 26 election, given the tycoon’s control over Russian Public Television and other powerful media. Thus Putin may simply appoint members of Chubais’ “St. Petersburg clan” to supplement the cabinet. One possible candidate for deputy prime minister is Aleksei Kudrin, a long-time Chubais associate (Vremya-MN, January 5). One newspaper speculated that Putin, who is also continuing to act as prime minister, could choose Chubais for that post, though undoubtedly not until after the March 26 presidential election, given Chubais’ controversial reputation with the public (Izvestia, January 5). Chubais and Berezovsky came into open conflict in 1997 over various privatization deals.
Should Putin decide to cut Berezovsky down to size or take him out altogether, it will probably be done the way most Russian palace power struggles are carried out–with the use of “kompromat” (compromising material). It is interesting to note that Nikolai Volkov, the investigator from the Prosecutor General’s Office who is leading the investigation into the alleged embezzlement of funds from the state airline Aeroflot, said yesterday that he is waiting anxiously for Swiss prosecutors to send him new material concerning the case (Russian agencies, January 6). The Swiss authorities are looking into whether two Swiss firms reportedly connected to Berezovsky, Andava and Forus, embezzled money from Aeroflot. Last November, Volkov traveled to Switzerland to interview the heads of those companies.
It should be noted that Berezovsky, who has taken credit for coming up with the idea of forming Unity, the pro-Putin bloc which came in second in the December 19 State Duma elections, himself won a State Duma seat representing the republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which gives him immunity from prosecution. Should charges be brought against Berezovsky, the Duma could vote to revoke his immunity. On the other hand, Berezovsky, who is said to have an impressive private intelligence network, might have enough “kompromat” on enough people–including Duma deputies and heads of state, past and present–to make his arrest more trouble than it is worth.
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