Today's date:
Summer 2000

Will Putin Put Me in Jail?

Boris BEREZOVSKY, the Russian industrialist and media mogul, has been the "oligarch" and kingmaker behind the powers-that-be in the Kremlin. In December, Berezovsky himself was elected to the Russian Duma. In this interview with NPQ Editor Nathan Gardels, Berezovsky discusses his views on corruption, the Yeltsin years and a Vladimir Putin presidency.

NPQ | Is the Yeltsin "family" still in control of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin? And what was your role in bringing Putin to power?

BEREZOVSKY | Putin will continue Yeltsin’s path, though he is not "family." Putin has brought in his own team, but he will keep the basic positions that Yeltsin had.
My concern was not about the continuation of the power of President Yeltsin, but the continuation of the path he created.

"Who is Putin?" That question which everyone asks means a lot because it signifies that, still, the leader at the top makes all the difference in Russia. No one asks whether Al Gore or George Bush will fundamentally change America. It will go on more or less as before no matter who becomes president—because the limits on power are strong. For Russia that is not so.

The question "Who is Putin" is more precise for me. It is "Will Putin put me in jail?" I’m not sure. If it makes sense for his ends, he will do it.

The bigger question for Russia is whether the society as a whole is prepared to set new conditions on power, to institutionalize the shift of society to the (liberal) right. Putin, certainly, will not be against this. But if he doesn’t do it within a reasonable period of time he will no doubt become a dictator. But understand me: It doesn’t depend on Putin. It is the problem of anyone with unlimited power.

Yeltsin is completely different than Putin. Yeltsin was a man of historical intuition. He had a very clear political instinct that Russia had to be transformed. Even now I don’t understand how this Communist bureaucrat came to this view.

Yeltsin believed in basic ideals. He absolutely believed that the mass media had to be independent. I remember very well pressuring him to intervene against one of my competitors, NTV, which was not behaving correctly. He absolutely would not allow this. The same for newspapers.

He also had very deep in his mind that state property must be transferred to private property, even though he knew it would make most people unhappy. The same with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As far as he was concerned, it had to happen.
But Yeltsin was not a strategic thinker. He never thought about what Russia itself ought to be (other than not being the Soviet Union). He never thought about Russia’s position in the world.

He stood on principle and sought historical solutions, but not strategic ones. Look what a mistake the war in Chechnya has been! Look at his absolutely wrong decisions in appointing prime ministers. First Yegor Gaidar was able, then he was not. Then Victor Chernomyrdin was able, then he was not. Then Sergei Stepashin and Sergei Kiriyenko.

The main challenge for the new president is to be a strategic thinker for Russia. Is Putin? I have known Putin for 10 years, but not well. So far I don’t see any evidence that he is a strategic thinker. He is a reformer, I’m sure. And he has a strong will. What is his scale? I don’t know.

Russia has two basic strategic problems that Putin must address. First, what is Russia? Second, what is Russia’s role in the world?

I have not so far found that Putin has a clear understanding of this frst question. Should Russia be a federation? A confederation? Why have we had this explosion in Chechnya? Is it a local problem, or is it a general, systemic problem?

On this last point my view is that it is systemic. Russia has never existed over this large geographic space under liberal conditions, but only as a totalitarian state. First the czar appointed the governors of the regions, then in Soviet times the general secretary of the Communist Party named the regional party secretaries. So, when Russia made the transition to a liberal system, the centrifugal forces of nationalism unleashed created a lot of tensions, leading to the Chechnya-type situation.
It is time to step forward and resolve these tensions. I don’t think Putin understands this very well. He should have ended military operations and started political negotiations in Chechnya already long ago, and now is losing some leverage in solving this problem.

Only after Russia figures out what it is can it figure out its role in the world.

NPQ | Putin has said he will enforce the law equally for all Russian citizens. Is that why you think you might be put in jail?

BEREZOVSKY | Look, in principle, I am for the rule of law. But what does "the law" mean in Russia today? There is no one today in Russia—no one—who is in business, whether a shopkeeper or the owner of an oil company, who has not made mistakes with respect to the law. As recently as 1993 no one understood what taxation meant exactly.

So, by the letter of the law, I suppose Putin may put in jail anyone who has done business in Russia. The problem is how he will realize the application of the law.
Today, 75 percent of the property of Russia is already private. But can you find anyone who will say, "this is my factory"? No. So, a big part of applying the law is guaranteeing property ownership rights. That will be the first step in bringing capital back to Russia. And if it is not done, you won’t see too many foreign investors around either.

Those who want to stay in Russia want legal status, a state of law, to protect them and their investments.

NPQ | What about the recent money-laundering scandal that touched the Yeltsin family?

BEREZOVSKY | I’m sure that many Russians made mistakes, some knew they were mistakes; others didn’t. I am 100 per cent sure that this scandal was orchestrated in Moscow, not in New York or started in the pages of Corriere della Sera (the Italian newspaper).

It was part of a struggle, inside of Russia, against Yeltsin and his team.

NPQ | Doesn’t corruption stand in the way of creating the rule of law in Russia?

BEREZOVSKY | We have a lot of corruption, now even more than before in these past 10 years. Why? Because so much property was transferred from the state to private hands. No one is happy, so they all fight and maneuver. The oligarchs fight with each other. And now everybody who has property will fight to keep what they have gotten.
Corruption is illegal actions by bureaucrats who are paid off by private persons. The most corruption today is in the courts. Why? Because property has already been redistributed from the state to the private sector. The only way someone can change the situation is to corrupt the judges.

NPQ | What is your analysis today of the state of the country?

BEREZOVSKY | Russia today has finally, definitively left the past behind and entered a long evolution toward being a normal country. It will take a generation at least to work it all out—to make it ft Russia’s culture. But we now have in place the basic conditions of a free market economy through, for example, privatization and a liberal political system with a division of power. Russia is on the right track.

We moved to this evolutionary stage from what I would call the stage of "revolutionary transformation" that began in 1985–86 and ended in 1998 when Boris Yeltsin was reelected. The elections of a Communist majority to the Duma in 1996 had meant there was a chance that Russia could revert to the authoritarian and statist past. When Yeltsin beat (Communist Party leader Gennady) Zyuganov in 1998 it meant for us reformers that there was no going back, even though the Communists still thought they could regain power. Dangerously, they tried to impeach Yeltsin. Finally, the December 1999 parliamentary elections put an end to that illusion.

Although they became too populistic in the end for the presidential team, the formation of the Primakov-Luzhkov bloc actually helped destroy the Communists because they offered an alternative on the left and split the vote.
In short, the mentality of the country has changed and even the Communists have come to understand they are historically finished, that they have lost forever.
The traditional psychology for Russia provides a big political base for the left wing. And there are so many poor people. But from now on that won’t mean the Communists. There is instead a big space for social democracy in Russia. I’m sure they will find their position.

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