Like his fellow media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky remains an outspoken and controversial figure on Russia's political scene. RFE/RL correspondent Natalya Golitsina spoke with the Russian businessman yesterday in London, where the 4th Annual Russian Economic Forum is underway. Berezovsky discussed the NTV crisis, his love-hate relationship with Gusinsky, and his "gratitude" to Ted Turner for joining the fight for Russia's free press.
Prague, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Berezovsky, a former Kremlin insider who once presided over massive financial holdings, has seen his fortunes dwindle of late. The former oligarch left Russia last year amid allegations of corruption, but his opinions on what is happening in his country remain strong.
Berezovsky's interests in Russia are now largely limited to the media business, primarily his Kommersant publishing house and the TV-6 television channel, of which he owns a 75-percent stake. His position is notably similar to that of fellow oligarch-in-exile, Vladimir Gusinsky, who has been living in Spain pending extradition to Russia on fraud charges.
The two men, both members of the country's largest non-state media holdings, are long-standing rivals. But the current controversy over the fate of Gusinsky's NTV network has given Berezovsky the opportunity to offer an olive branch of sorts to his former adversary.
Berezovsky, who made an unexpected appearance this week at the 4th Annual Russian Economic Forum in London, told our correspondent that the bid by state-controlled Gazprom to take over NTV was no less than a full-fledged assault on Russian press freedom:
"The main thing is [that freedom of the press] is an absolutely fundamental problem today. And it has worked out that the question of NTV's existence -- meaning, in its current form, not just holding onto its logo, but its current form -- is also the question of democratic, liberal values in Russia today, 10 years after the revolution. If NTV ceases to exist in its original form, it's just one more step backward."
Berezovsky said he recently visited Gusinsky in Spain to offer what he called "moral and material" support for the embattled owner of the Media-MOST company, whose holdings include NTV. The two discussed a possible merger of two channels to create a new forum for displaced NTV journalists. Berezovsky said he also offered his former rival "concrete" financial help in the form of $50 million.
"I acted concretely. I offered material help, very concretely, of $50 million. This is a lot of money, as you understand. And Gusinsky and the company accepted my support, and I paid that money. I also proposed that, in the instance that NTV continues to be ruined by the government, that they can use TV-6 to broadcast those programs that are taken off NTV."
Asked about the possible entry of U.S. media magnate Ted Turner into the NTV debate, Berezovsky said Turner's bid was, if nothing else, a welcome new voice on the side of free speech.
"I've know [Ted] Turner for a pretty long time, and I can say that he's a sincere person. He, like most Americans, is an idealist. He doesn't understand a lot about what's going on in Russia, but he's a sincere person. And the fact that he's ambitious is also very good. I think his position [on buying a stake in NTV] is very rational, as it comes from America. To what degree it can be realized -- that's another question. But I personally am grateful to Turner. He has added another weight to help tip the scales for free speech in Russia. That means a lot."
Berezovsky also alleged that the true culprit behind the NTV takeover bid was not relatively minor players like new General Director Boris Jordan or new board chairman Alfred Kokh -- whom Berezovsky described as "rational, but weak."
Instead, he said it was Russia's "special services" -- specifically the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the KGB, which is helping Russian President Vladimir Putin succeed in his bid to create a "vertical power structure" and rid the country of alternative media.
Berezovsky did not elaborate on the allegations.