ZAKAYEV IS NOT A TERRORIST BUT A MAN OF PEACE; MOSCOW SHOULD NEGOTIATE
Boris Berezovsky, one of Russias famed oligarchs
behind Boris Yeltsin, now lives in exile in London, where Global Viewpoint
editor Nathan Gardels spoke with him on Nov. 11. In 1996-97 Berezovsky
was also deputy of the Russian Security Council in charge of negotiations
with the Chechen separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, whom Russian President
Vladimir Putin has labeled a terrorist. Last week, the Russian general
prosecutor indicted Berezovsky on charges of grand theft and demanded
his extradition from Great Britain.
NATHAN GARDELS: Historically, Russia has never existed as a liberal
system. Only czars and commissars have ruled the regions from the center.
Isnt Chechen separatism thus symptomatic of a larger problem of
how to build a new political system for the Russian federation?
BORIS BEREZOVSKY: This is the heart of the matter. It is the crucial
point that Vladimir Putin does not understand.
One of the basic principles of a democratic, liberal country is the decentralization
of power. In 1993, this principle was incorporated in the new Russian
constitution, which enabled the election of governors who were to have
control over their regions and mayors who would have control over their
cities. The idea was that that power would no longer be vertical, or centralized,
Of course, the problem is how to promote decentralization -- both as a
political system and a market economy -- without disintegration.
That is the democratic dilemma we faced for 10 years under Yeltsin. I
believe we had passed through the worse stages of disintegration and were
on the way to constructing a new, more open and autonomous state system.
Here is the problem: Both Yeltsin and Putin tried to promote a new union
of Russia and Byelorussia. But why hasnt it been successful? After
all, 90 percent of Russian citizens and 90 percent of Byelorussian citizens
support this idea. The problem is that today there are only two options,
each of which presents more problems: Either Russia and Byelorussia are
equal partners or Byelorussia will be part of Russia. Byelorussia wont
stand for anything less than equality. But if we are equal, then all the
others from Chechnya to Dagestan will ask, why arent we also equal?
Is it because we are Muslims, not Christians? This just demonstrates that
under the previous construction, we are not able to solve any of Russias
problems with its regions or neighbors.
But rather than grapple with these difficulties through negotiation, Putin
has moved now in another direction: He is trying to restore for Russia
the same heavy-handed, centralized system of control just like old Soviet
Union was organized, including through a renewed military campaign against
This is his big mistake. It didnt work for the Soviet Union, and
it wont work for Russia. It is a stupid approach that has made the
situation in Chechnya much worse.
This is why I oppose Putin. It is not a personal conflict that we have,
but a conflict between two completely different visions of the construction
of a new Russia.
GARDELS: Now that the Chechen terrorists have struck at the heart
in Moscow, isnt a military response instead of negotiations more
BEREZOVSKY: After the theater attack, Putin has followed (Israeli
leader) Ariel Sharon and said no negotiations
It is true that some Chechens are terrorists, but all Chechens are not
terrorists, any more than all Palestinians are. In both cases, the source
of the problem is not terrorism itself, but the frustrated quest for self-determination.
If Israel, a tiny country with the most superb security in the world,
cant protect its people from suicide bombers and other terrorist
acts, how is Russia, a vast country with an incompetent and impoverished
security apparatus, going to do so?
Russia today is a poor country that is unable to protect itself. So, when
President Bush asked Russia to support its war on terror after Sept. 11,
Putin should have asked in return for financial aid as well as intelligence
cooperation and training to confront our own Islamic extremist threat.
Instead he said, Bush, please close your eyes while I crush
Since he has recentralized power, Putin himself is the one responsible
for failing to protect Russians -- and this is true on several levels
as demonstrated by the theater attack. The security services had no intelligence
on the theater attack in Moscow and had not even informed the president
that such a thing might happen. The Ministry of Internal Affairs failed
to detect that 50 people armed with weapons and explosives arrived in
Moscow. At Putins order, the theater was stormed with gas, killing
all those people. And then his authorities withheld information, like
in the days of the old Soviet Union, on the nature of the gas so the victims
couldnt be properly treated.
My information is that there was another option: The terrorists were willing
to release the hostages if Putin only (ital) reconfirmed (unital) a statement
he already made a few months earlier that he was prepared
to negotiate for peace in Chechnya.
GARDELS: Putin has charged that Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen president,
is linked to terrorism just as Sharon has labeled Arafat a terrorist.
You have personal experience negotiating with Maskhadov and his people.
Is he linked to terrorism?
BEREZOVSKY: In 1996-97, when I was deputy chairman of the Russian
Security Council in charge of of negotiating with the Chechen leaders,
I did not find any evidence of connections to Islamic terrorist groups,
nor did I find Maskhadov under their influence.
It is useless now to talk with those Chechens Putin welcomed to the Kremlin
in recent days since they have already agreed to have peace with Moscow.
You are not going to end the war until you negotiate with those who have
arms in their hands. The only one to negotiate with is Maskhadov. He doesnt
control 100 percent of the armed separatist forces, but he does control
or influence most of them.
Putin is going about it exactly the wrong way. He is always trying to
split the Chechens. Under Yeltsin, our negotiations were successful for
two reasons. First, the president made a strategic decision for peace,
not war. Second, our highest priority was to unite the Chechens behind
Maskhadov. Otherwise, we could make peace with Maskhadov, but the others
would continue to fight.
As in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, time is running out. Every day
the situation is getting worse. A new generation far more radical than
Maskhadov is coming to power, kids who have known nothing but war and
grown up with guns in their hands since they were 10 or 15 years old.
At least Maskhadov and his circle, such as Ahmed Zakayev, are people with
a Russian mentality and culture. We can understand each other. This next
generation is very different. They are capable of anything and willing
to fight to the end.
Putins policy has further radicalized this new generation. The first
Chechen war under Yeltsin was a war for the unity of Russia. This second
Chechen war under Putin is a war against the Chechens. Now, unfortunately,
almost to the person, Chechens hate Russians.
In this sense, Bush and Putin have a parallel mentality. The world supported
America in its Afghan campaign after Sept. 11 because they saw it as in
defense of civilization. Now the war is against Iraq, not for civilization,
and people from the Islamic countries to Europe dont support it.
I was with Zakayev in London just before he went to Copenhagen (where
he was arrested under pressure from the Kremlin, which accuses him of
being connected to the Moscow theater attack -- ed). I asked him how Chechen
rebels could have launched a missile that brought down a helicopter and
killed 119 Russian soldiers only 150 meters from Russian military headquarters.
He said: The population has become so angry that if a Chechen
fighter stops any car anywhere in Chechnya and asks the driver to transport
this weapon from here to there, everyone will say yes. It has become a
GARDELS: You are financing the defense of Ahmed Zakayev, now under
arrest in Denmark, who the Kremlin charges was part of the Moscow theater
attack. What are your reasons?
BEREZOVSKY: First, Ahmed Zakayev is the strongest advocate for
peace in Chechnya. He has always been against any terrorist acts. I am
sure he did not support the Moscow attack. It is absolutely clear. I know
him really well.
Second, I am sure that the Russian general prosecutor is fabricating the
case against Zakayev to find a scapegoat. The evidence the general prosecutor
gave to the Danish authorities to demonstrate his terror links concerns
his activities from 1996 to 1999. But in November, 1999, Zakayev was in
Moscow. If they knew he was a terrorist then, why didnt they arrest
Third, and most importantly, Zakayev is a key case for Europe and the
international community. Either all Chechens are terrorists -- which is
absurd because if a man of peace like Zakayev is labeled a terrorist,
then anyone who is Chechen must be a terrorist -- or we need to be able
to distinguish between Chechen terrorists and Chechen separatists. Zakayev
defines that distinction, and the world must know it.
GARDELS: What would be the objective of negotiations with Maskhadov
and his separatist allies?
BEREZOVSKY: I am absolutely against independence for Chechnya,
as I was when I was chief negotiator back in 1996-97. If we give independence
to Chechnya, then the next day we have to give it to Tartarstan, then
the day after to Ingushetia and so on. It would mean the collapse of Russia.
And I am against the collapse of Russia.
The basis for agreement is this: a united economic and defense jurisdiction,
possibly with a Russian supreme court, but Chechnya would have political
and cultural autonomy. This was agreed already with Maskhadov in 1996-97.
But there are highly influential elements in the Kremlin who dont
want this deal. They still have the empire mentality. They say, Russia
is powerful. If the Chechens dont do what we want, well just
kick them. This is the basic instinct.
GARDELS: The day after you announced your support for Zakayev,
you were indicted by the Russian prosecutor, and the Russian government
requested your extradition from Great Britain. Is there a connection?
BEREZOVSKY: Yes. Every time I take a strong stance -- going back
before Putin when Yevgeny Primakov was prime minister -- my political
enemies have used state charges of corruption to try to bring me down.
With Primakov, it was the Aeroflot case, which was opened and shut down
several times by the prosecutor, depending on the political winds.
Now, immediately after I announced my defense of Zakayev, they accuse
me of stealing 2,033 cars. It is ridiculous.
GARDELS: do you think Great Britain will extradite you to Russia?
BEREZOVSKY: Well, Great Britain wants good relations with Putin. At
the same time, they understand this case is politically motivated. Unlike
in Russia, the judicial system here is separate from the executive branch.
I know what I did and am not responsible for what they charge, so I will
defend myself and believe I will receive a fair hearing.
I dont feel any pressure here from officials. On the other hand,
it has been one year since I applied for residency here in London, but
I have not yet had an answer.
(c) 2002, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 11/12/02)