Today's date:
Winter 2003


Putin Is Wrong in Chechnya

Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's famed "oligarchs" behind Boris Yeltsin, now lives in exile in London, where NPQ 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. Recently, the Russian general prosecutor indicted Berezovsky on charges of grand theft and demanded his extradition from Great Britain.

NPQ | Historically, Russia has never existed as a liberal system. Only czars and commissars have ruled the regions from the center. Isn't 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, but self-organizing.

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 worst 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 hasn't 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 won't stand for anything less than equality. But if we are equal, then all the others from Chechnya to Dagestan will ask, why aren't 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 Russia's 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 Chechen separatists. This is his big mistake. It didn't work for the Soviet Union, and it won't 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.

NPQ | Now that the Chechen terrorists have struck at the heart in Moscow, isn't a military response instead of negotiations more appropriate?

BEREZOVSKY | After the theater attack, Putin has followed (Israeli leader) Ariel Sharon and said "no negotiations" with terrorists.

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, can't 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 Chechnya."

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 Putin's 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 couldn't be properly treated.

My information is that there was another option: The terrorists were willing to release the hostages if Putin only reconfirmed a statement he already made a few months earlier that he was "prepared to negotiate for peace" in Chechnya.

NPQ | 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 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 doesn't 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.

Putin's 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 don't 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 people's war."

NPQ | You are financing the defense of Ahmed Zakayev, 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 didn't they arrest him?

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.

NPQ | 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 don't want this deal. They still have the empire mentality. They say, "Russia is powerful. If the Chechens don't do what we want, we'll just kick them." This is the basic instinct.

NPQ | 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 Aero?ot 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.

NPQ | 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 don't 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.