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 Putins
Kremlin? And what was your role in bringing Putin to power?
BEREZOVSKY | Putin will continue Yeltsins 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 presidentbecause 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?" Im 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 doesnt do it within a reasonable period of time he will no
doubt become a dictator. But understand me: It doesnt 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 dont 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 Russias 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 dont see any evidence that he is a strategic thinker. He is
a reformer, Im sure. And he has a strong will. What is his scale?
I dont know.
Russia has two basic strategic problems that Putin must address. First,
what is Russia? Second, what is Russias 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,
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 dont 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
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 Russiano onewho 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 wont 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
BEREZOVSKY | Im sure that many Russians made mistakes, some
knew they were mistakes; others didnt. 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 | Doesnt 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 outto make it ft
Russias 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 198586 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
In short, the mentality of the country has changed and even the Communists
have come to understand they are historically finished, that they have
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
wont mean the Communists. There is instead a big space for social
democracy in Russia. Im sure they will find their position.
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