Money to Burn...Putin

Tycoon Boris Berezovsky funds a smear campaign

Say this for the energetic Russian tycoon-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky: He's not one for half measures. Now living in Britain, he says he's planning to spend $100 million of his fortune--which he pegs at $1.5 billion to $2 billion--on a political campaign to brand Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as a murderous dictator. "Putin is trying to build an authoritarian regime in Russia," Berezovsky says. "I am using my financial resources to create an opposition." He outlines the project between bites of penne pasta at Sartoria on London's Savile Row, just down the street from his office. As was his habit in Moscow, he's accompanied by bodyguards. He's sipping an $80 bottle of Chardonnay; they're on apple juice.

For Berezovksy, Russia's celebrity oligarch, this new venture amounts to Act Three of a turbulent odyssey. His get-Putin plan seems improbable, but it should not be dismissed. After all, a public reared on Soviet lies is vulnerable to Berezovsky's core message that an arrogant state is capable of heinous actions. And democracy-building is typically a messy process in which muckrakers, even rogues, for their own reasons, challenge the state. "It doesn't really matter if Berezovsky is a saint or a sinner if what he is doing can encourage more democratic development in Russia," says Blair A. Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington.

Berezovsky's saga embodies the bizarre character of post-Soviet Russia. In Act One, he used his skills as a mathematician to get rich fast, was nearly killed by a car bomb, bankrolled Boris Yeltsin's 1996 presidential reelection, and created a business empire that stretched from TV network ORT to national airline Aeroflot. Then he became a player in the enfeebled Yeltsin's Kremlin, a kind of puppet master in an alcohol-saturated court.

The curtain came down after a sober ex-KGB colonel, Vladimir V. Putin, became President and told biznessmen like Berezovsky to butt out of politics. Putin then pressured Berezovsky to sell pieces of his empire. Berezovsky claims to have lost $800 million in the process. Stung, he became a Putin critic--and found himself wanted by prosecutors probing an alleged embezzlement at Aeroflot. In late 2000, he fled to Britain.

Thus began Act Three: the oligarch in exile. His anti-Putin campaign goes for the jugular. Its centerpiece is a documentary alleging that Russian FSB security service officials, with Putin's likely knowledge, were behind a 1999 series of apartment bombings in Moscow. Offering no hard proof, the film, titled Assassination of Russia, insinuates that Putin used the bombings, widely blamed on Chechen terrorists, as a pretext for a war against Chechnya, a conflict that established his can-do credentials. No Russian TV station has agreed to show it, so Berezovsky's new Liberal Russia political party is arranging for private screenings. Meanwhile, his New York-based International Foundation for Civil Liberties offers legal assistance to the kin of Russian sailors drowned in the Kursk submarine. The families may appeal a prosecutor's decision that found no criminal culpability in the Kursk sinking.

The Kremlin belittles Berezovsky's efforts. "He is trying to avoid the destiny of a forgotten tycoon," says a Putin aide. An FSB spokesman says: "Berezovsky's stupid accusations have nothing to do with reality." But even though Berezovsky remains highly unpopular in Russia, he is tapping deep suspicions. More than 40% of Russians say it is likely that the secret services are linked to the bombings. "He sensed the dangerous aspects of Putin's activities earlier than anyone else," says Alexei Simonov, president of the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation.

Simonov's group has a grant from Berezovsky to provide legal assistance to journalists such as Grigory Pasko, convicted of treason for taking notes at a meeting of naval commanders. "I sense in him very good intentions," says Yelena Bonner, the widow of dissident Andrei Sakharov and a fierce critic herself of Putin. She accepted $3 million from Berezovsky's foundation for the Sakharov Museum in Moscow. A Berezovsky aide admits some anti-Putin activists spurn assistance as "dirty money." But with millions to spend, Berezovsky has staying power. So keep to your seat: Boris Berezovsky, Act Three, is just beginning.

By Paul Starobin in London

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