Debate - Opinion in English, Russia and Baltic States
Debate - Opinion in English
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Oligarch hits out at his Kremlin monster Boris Berezovsky aims to defend Russias oppressed - like himself Amelia Gentleman in Moscow Thursday December 21, 2000 Languishing in exile, a self-proclaimed target of political persecution, Boris Berezovsky has developed a sudden fascination with the victims of Russian oppression. This week the multi-millionaire announced that he was donating $25m (£17m) to establish a foundation for the casualties of Russian authoritarianism. The International Foundation for Civil Liberties will support the abused and the vulnerable in society - prisoners, national minorities and, a press release reads, business people. Claiming to be a martyr to an "utterly corrupt" legal system, Mr Berezovsky said his fund would donate money to a centre for judicial reform in Moscow. It would also focus on the oppression of people (like him) who work in the media and believe that they have been targeted as a result of their activity. The irony of Mr Berezovskys campaign to transform himself from a cynically ruthless businessman and Kremlin godfather into a champion of civil freedoms and legal justice in Russia has not gone unnoticed. While most Russians welcome the creation of a human rights body, there has been much eyebrow raising about the suitability of its founder - the most notorious of Russias oligarchs, who grabbed his fortune by privatising state assets in the murky legal climate of the 1990s. "We are delighted that a Russian-funded organisation has been set up, but there is concern that the director may hope to use the foundation to resolve some personal issues," Elena Zhimkova, acting director of Moscows Memorial human rights group, said. The almost bankrupt Andrei Sakharov foundation in Moscow has already received $3m from the tycoon - a gift which the Soviet dissidents widow accepted with ambivalence. Sanguine in the knowledge that most of the Russian population loathes him for his political intrigues and for the money he made from state oil, aluminium, television and airline businesses, Mr Berezovsky professes to be immune to public cynicism about his motives. "I just hope to help people," he said. Interpol He may feel he could do with a little bit of this help himself. He is wanted for questioning in an investigation into whether senior executives of the national airline Aeroflot funnelled $970m into private Swiss companies. He fled Russia in November, claiming that the case was politically motivated. He believes that if he returns, he risks the same treatment meted out to media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, in detention in Spain on fraud charges on an Interpol arrest warrant from Russia. Mr Gusinsky owns a network of media companies, including Russias main independent television channel, NTV. Yesterday one of his senior executives claimed in Spain that Russias president, Vladimir Putin, plans to close down NTV in the new year. "I will not return to Russia to explain myself in a purely political affair," Mr Berezovsky said. Speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location in America), he comes across as a man whose latest venture is just one of many attempts to wrest back some of the influence he wielded under Boris Yeltsins rule. He announced on Monday that he had begun negotiations with Chechen rebels, trying to help end the war in the separatist region. His decision to champion the cause of Russias underdogs came, he said, as a result of profound disaffection with the current regime. Mr Putin, he said with vitriol, was trampling on the countrys rights. Hitler "We cant rely on our president to be a reformer - weve got a president who is trying to turn the country backwards. We have to rely on ourselves. If we organise ourselves we can begin to build a democratic state and liberal society," he said. "Putins regime is becoming like the Germany which Hitler built - were seeing a return of a dictatorship of the state, using nationalist motifs as a base. It isnt simply a question of anti-semitism, but a negative attitude towards all ethnic groups, under a flag of Great Russia, or Russia for Russians." Now one of Mr Putins most strident critics, Mr Berezovsky bears much responsibility for propelling the president to power. Exactly a year ago, his funding of the pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin Unity party cleared the way for Mr Putin to take the presidency, while the main state television channel ORT, which he controls, spewed out enthusiastic Putin propganda. His current venom is that of a Dr Frankenstein, horrified by the insolent independence of his own creation. "I never counted precisely how much [I donated], but it came to millions of dollars," he said. "But Putin deceived me and the millions of people who voted for him in the election. He promised to support the course of reforms, and instead he has stopped them and reversed them." It is debatable whether the tycoon really abandoned the Kremlin on a point of principle, or whether Mr Putin wanted a crowd-pleasing sacrifice of the governments Rasputin. From Mr Putins point of view, the very public split with Mr Berezovsky conveniently distracts attention from the fact that other pro-Kremlin oligarchs remain in favour. Mr Berezovskys former business partner, Roman Abramovich, is set on Sunday to be elected governor of gold-rich Chukotka. Mr Berezovsky strongly criticises the presidents stance on Chechnya, the rebuilding of government structures in Russia to concentrate power in the Kremlin and the crackdown on press freedoms. But his current favourite theme is the corruption of the Russian prosecution service which is pursuing both him and the Media Most head, Mr Gusinsky. Mr Berezovsky said: "Europe and the United States should take note of what is happening in Russia. When the Russian prosecutor said [he] has all the material necessary to imprison Gusinsky, the Spanish prosecutors took this on faith - not understanding that the Russian prosecution service is utterly corrupt and under the influence of presidential structures which are using democratic institutions to realise totalitarian aims." As Swiss prosecutors continue their investigation, Mr Berezovsky admitted that some of the $25m donation for his fund came from the contested Aeroflot funds - money which he accused Mr Putin of taking for his presidential campaign. "I have never hidden the fact that the Swiss companies that worked with Aeroflot were profitable, and that part of the money which those companies earned came to me. I openly declared that," he said. "Ive been in business since 1989. I made a lot of money because, unlike most people, I slept only three or four hours every night and spent the rest of the time working. I earned this money absolutely honestly. My conscience is clear." Man with knack for figures Boris Berezovsky, 54, transformed himself from an impoverished Soviet mathematician to a supremely successful entrepreneur as the Soviet Union collapsed. Later he used his charm and shrewd judgment to secure himself a controlling position in Boris Yeltsins government. His commercial career began by importing computer software from the west, but he began to earn serious money with the establishment at the end of the 1980s of the Logovaz car dealership, which allowed him to sell off Russian-made cars at a profit. His business success is a result of his versatility, and the ease with which he obtained and developed serious stakes in banking, oil, aluminium and media, as well as in the state airline Aeroflot. In 1997, Forbes magazine named him the ninth most powerful entrepreneur in the world and his fortune was rated at $3bn. In 1994 he took control of 49% of the state television channel ORT, and makes no secret of the role he played in the 1996 presidential election, when he and a group of influential business figures used their powers to cripple the communists and rescue Mr Yeltsin from defeat. He forged a strong friendship with Mr Yeltsins daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and won himself a key role in Kremlin decision-making. Ferocious His control of ORT proved useful again in last years parliamentary elections, when a ferocious slur campaign played out on the channels news programmes effectively eliminated two of Vladimir Putins key rivals for the presidential election in March. Mr Berezovsky won a seat in the state duma later, obtaining theoretical immunity from prosecution. But despite funding Mr Putins campaign, his central role in Russian politics began to disintegrate soon after the election, as the new president launched a selective campaign against the oligarchs who had flourished under Mr Yeltsin. Mr Berezovsky resigned from his seat in the duma in July, in protest at what he saw as "authoritarian trends" within Mr Putins government. Mr Berezovsky refuses to return to Russia to face prosecutors because he fears becoming a "political prisoner".
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