Russian Revolution III: This time it’s personal

21 November 2008

Owen Kennedy speaks to exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky

It’s not every day that you meet someone openly calling for violent revolution. And when you do, somehow you don’t expect the person in question to be a softly-spoken, middle aged mathematician-turned billionaire, but Boris Berezovsky is both of these.

Born in Moscow in 1946, he spent his time between 1975 and 1989 quietly ensconced in academia. When I bring this up, he almost gives the impression that he misses those years. I ask if he ever felt like an outsider (he was born into a Jewish family, at a time when anti-Semitism was still fairly commonplace in Russia), but he emphatically denies it:

“No, I don’t feel that. I spent 25 years in Mathematics, and this was one of the areas where ideology and nationality didn’t play a big role. Definitely there were some problems, but I felt comfortable. I was free to pursue my research.”

With the rise of Gorbachev and perestroika, Berezovsky found that capitalism suited him. He started out importing and selling second-hand cars, then moved into mass media, (both television and newspapers), Aeroflot, (the Russian national airline), and oil.

He used his new-found wealth and power to get into politics, first through his media holdings (the support from one of his TV stations is credited by some with being instrumental in Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 Presidential election victory), then by funding liberal political candidates, and finally by seeking office himself, as a member of the Duma (Russian Parliament).

He was a close political ally of Yeltsin’s and initially of Putin as well. In 2001, though, he fled to the UK, where he applied for, and was granted, political asylum. Arrest warrants have been issued against him in Russia and Brazil for embezzlement and money-laundering, but he was granted leave to remain in the UK after a judge found that the charges against him were politically motivated. He has gone from being one of the most powerful men in Russia to being a refugee, albeit a very well-off one. So what went wrong?

“It’s very simple. I fought, really fought for the Yeltsin revolution, and I really believed that Putin could continue in the same way. Putin changed his mind, I didn’t change mine, and that’s the basis for our conflict.”

The change of mind in question, as Berezovsky sees it, is the shift towards authoritarianism. When I ask if he thinks Russia is on the road to dictatorship, his answer is definitive, bordering on impatient.

“It is a dictatorship. If one man controls the economy, political life and mass media, technically it’s a dictatorship.”

He may not currently be President, but the man in question is still Vladimir Putin. In his talk at the Union just before our interview, Berezovsky was utterly dismissive of Dmitriy Medvedev, Putin’s successor.

“He’s a puppet. He’s a nobody. He doesn’t make any decisions…It’s clear what they’re doing, and it’s so destructive for Russia. The institution of the Presidency has been destroyed.”

As to what should be done to solve the problem, Berezovsky is very clear. In an interview given to the Guardian in April last year, he expressed the opinion that, “It isn’t possible to change this regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force.”

Does he stand by that? Does he still believe that a violent revolution is necessary in Russia? “Absolutely.”

And is he still using his wealth to fund groups in Russia that are trying to bring this about? Here he becomes more circumspect.

“I support, er…some groups in Russia which understand that Russia needs changes.”

He may no longer own any media outlets, but thanks simply to his vast wealth, Berezovsky is still better placed than most to make his political preferences a reality. He has claimed that he provided funding that made the bloodless “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine possible in the winter of 2004, and has even set up a foundation, the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, with the explicit aim of promoting civil liberties in Russia.

These, combined with his previous disputes with Putin (he opposed the second war in Chechnya, for example) have, he claims, made the Russian government eager to silence him. He is accompanied by several bodyguards, large men with shaved heads who make an unconvincing job of blending into the audience during his talk, and wait just outside the door during our interview.

It’s an understandable precaution; there were attempts on his life more than once when he was in Russia, and since he came to the UK there have allegedly been two plots to assassinate him, one in 2003 and one in 2007. He is certain that the Kremlin was behind them.

“I know that it was . There was even a statement by an MI5 officer that it was an attempt initiated from Russia. I don’t have any doubt that it was the government.”

And what about the arrest warrants against him for money-laundering and embezzlement, in both Russia and Brazil? Are they really just more attempts to shut him up?

“I think so, and moreover when I was granted political asylum in this country, the conclusion was that the charges against me are politically motivated. In Brazil, they withdrew the warrant to arrest, because they recognised that their case was based on papers which they got from Russia…The highest court in Brazil found that it was initiated by Russia and some corrupt people inside Brazil.”

He is equally sure that the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, an exiled Russian Intelligence Officer and close friend of Berezovsky’s who was poisoned with the radioactive metal polonium-210, was the Kremlin trying to silence its critics yet again.

“As I understand it, they planned to kill Litvinenko and to create the story that I was behind the murder. when the polonium was discovered, it became very complicated to say that it was me who brought polonium to poison Litvinenko. It’s almost the official government statement in Britain that they suppose that Russian government is behind it.”

Berezovsky is also adamant that Western governments have a role to play in reforming Russia, and is strongly critical of them for not doing enough. In his speech to the Union, he says that he believes that if Georgia and Ukraine had been allowed to join Nato, Russia would have been far less aggressive towards them (it cut off gas supplies to Ukraine in January 2006, and for much of this summer was at war with Georgia in a dispute over breakaway provinces in the Georgia).

I suggest that if Georgia had been a member of Nato when war broke out this summer, then that would mean that all the Nato member states would have been obliged to join in against Russia, effectively starting World War III, but Berezovsky disagrees.

“I am 100% sure that Russia is not ready to fight against NATO. The problem is that politicians don’t have enough will to act. I’m sure that if America was more decisive, then Russia would not be so aggressive. no chance that Russia would stand to fight against NATO.”

At this our interview comes to an abrupt end. It’s sooner than I’d have liked, but Berezovsky is a busy man. Putin can’t be expected to depose himself, after all.