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Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's eight famous" "oligarchs" who rose to fortune and power during Boris Yeltsin's term as Russian president, now lives in political asylum in London, where he spoke to Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Nov. 4.

NATHAN GARDELS: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, is in jail and nearly half of the stock in his Yukos oil company has been seized by the state. You suffered a similar fate under Russian President Vladimir Putin. What is going on in your view?

BORIS BEREZOVSKY: You can only understand what is happening in Russia today by looking at what has transpired over the past three and a half years since Putin came to power.

In spring and summer 2000 Putin initiated the first step in his plan to turn Russia away from the decentralization and diversification effected under Boris Yeltsin and back toward the strong central state we knew in Soviet times. In those months he signed a number of decrees dismantling independent centers of power that had been devolved to other branches of government and regions and restoring that power to the center. His aim was the opposite of democracy: to concentrate power in one hand -- his own.

The second step was to destroy the independence of the mass media by bringing it under the influence of the Kremlin and his personal control. In this case, he didn't seize the shares of the media companies like he has done with Yukos; he just nominated his directors to those companies and made sure they dominated. This is when (Vladimir) Gusinksy and myself battled with him and were driven from Russia.

The next logical step was to take control of the economy, which he is doing now. In the end, he knows, he can't control political power without control over the economy. Since 80 percent of the Russian economy today is private, that means bringing business to heel. Khodorkovsky was the best example to send the message to all businessmen in the private economy. In effect, Putin was saying: If I can do it to him, I can do it to you.

Putin personally had Khodorkovsky arrested. For the small businessman down the line, it will be just the local ex-KGB cop knocking down the door and saying, "This is no longer your shop; it is my shop."

So, why do this now to Khodorkovsky? The answer is that the party Putin supports and on which he plans to ride for the future, United Russia, has, according to polls, about 10 percent popular support. The Communists have 40 percent. Yabloko, the right-wing party, has 15-20 percent.

With such numbers he cannot control parliament without the Communists. And without control of the parliament, he cannot be reelected.

GARDELS: You are an astute political actor. An attack on oligarchs such as yourself, who, after all, are widely regarded to have made their fortunes illegally, is surely a popular move?

BEREZOVSKY: Yes, he is playing to the crowd. In my own unfortunate situation, 10 or 11 charges were made against me by the state prosecutor, none of which has been tried in court. I know, like everyone else, that everything was not legally clear in Russia's move to private enterprise under Yeltsin. But just like the others being prosecuted, this is all primarily politically motivated. The British government has recognized as much by granting me (ital) political (unital) asylum here in London.

GARDELS: Does Khodorkovsky's arrest signal the ultimate ascent of the so-called "siloviki," or ex-KGB operatives around Putin, to power?

BEREZOVSKY: Yes. More than 75 percent of the top-level functionaries in Putin's government are "siloviki."

GARDELS: Will you work with Khodorkovsky in financing and leading political opposition to Putin?

BEREZOVSKY: Yes. Though we will work through different parties, we have the same ideology. And now we have the same adversary.

GARDELS: What would you say to Western political leaders and foreign investors about Putin?

BEREZOVSKY: They need to recognize, at last, that what Putin is doing is just the opposite of democracy. Economic growth has dropped in Putin's term from 6 percent to just above 4 percent because he has stopped reforms.

It is up to us Russians to remove Putin from power, and we can do that. We are responsible for our country. But the West should lift the wool from its eyes and recognize that the Russia Putin is building will not be a good neighbor. Western leaders need to stop supporting him and giving him legitimacy for short-term political gain -- such as helping on Iraq or terrorism -- when his long-term goals are not theirs at all. The West supported Stalin, and look what it got them, and what it got us.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/4/03)