A Russian liberal opposition group has cut off ties with its chief financial backer, exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, for making overtures to his former public adversaries in the Communist Party. Critics say the onetime Kremlin insider and bitter opponent of President Vladimir Putin is an opportunist who will cooperate with anyone, regardless of principle. The businessman justifies his about-face by saying that any opposition group in Russia must be encouraged. But with his latest move threatening to split the Communist Party, what is Berezovsky's real agenda? RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer spoke with Berezovskii today and filed this report.
Moscow, 11 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A small group of Russian opposition legislators called Liberal Russia has voted to expel its cofounder and main financial backer, Boris Berezovskii, after he suggested an alliance with the Communist Party.
Berezovsky says a Communist opposition group is better than none at all, but Liberal Russia members insist their former co-chairman's plans would discredit the group by compromising its principles for the sole sake of opposing President Putin.
The Communists' response has been mixed, leading to widespread speculation that the developments threaten to bring to a head divisions that have plagued the party for years.
The alliance between Berezovskii and Liberal Russia has been an uneasy one since the groups' inception in 2001, not least because of Berezovskii's notoriety. The ties were tested to the limit when the tycoon recently began to float the idea of cooperating with conservative forces.
The call came to a climax in an interview Berezovskii recently gave to the extreme nationalist "Zavtra" newspaper. Liberal Russia members voted to oust the tycoon on 9 October. With him goes $100 million in promised backing.
In an 11 October interview with RFE/RL, Berezovskii said the real reason for the controversy surrounding his recent statements is his attempt to address "patriotism," something critics from all sides of the political spectrum resent.
"The topic of patriotism is very significant for Russia," Berezovskii said. "Everyone battles for that label, that brand. So how is it that Berezovskii, who is sitting somewhere far away in London, got up the courage to also address that topic?"
The oil and media magnate said his former liberal colleagues are afraid of the topic, saying they think "patriotism has been privatized by Russia's nationalist-fascists." But he added that does not mean the idea should be rejected outright.
In any event, Berezovskii denied ever saying he wanted to form a union with the Communist Party in the first place. He said party members misinterpreted his words.
"What I said was that it is necessary to position oneself as a patriot correctly, and first of all it is necessary to understand who patriots are and what they are really capable of doing for Russia," Berezovskii said.
He said he now has no plans to work with any specific organization but will cooperate with those who share his desire to build a "real, not a puppet, opposition."
A former top Kremlin power broker who amassed a large fortune in part through shady privatization deals, Berezovskii is credited with helping mastermind Putin's rise to office. He subsequently fell out with the Kremlin after criticizing the president for cracking down on democratic institutions and individual liberties. He now lives in self-imposed exile in London to escape charges of corruption he says are politically motivated.
Berezovskii is well-known for his shock tactics. His latest surprised many because the businessman helped spearhead a massive media smear campaign in 1996 against Communist Party presidential candidate Gennadii Zyuganov, running against then-President Boris Yeltsin.
The tycoon helped found Liberal Russia in 2001, together with a group of Duma deputies who split from another liberal party, the Union of Rightist Forces. Co-leader Sergei Yushenkov said the group's differences with Berezovskii seemed reconcilable at first, but subsequently became too large to ignore. He told RFE/RL that the loss of $100 million is a blow, but that Berezovskii's propositions would discredit both the liberal idea and the possibility of a real united liberal opposition.
"We naturally in no way want to enter into a union with the nationalist-patriots for the sum of $100 million -- with nationalist-patriots and Communists who today support authority in its very worst forms. It's no opposition at all," Yushenkov said.
Berezovskii said the party's stated reason for ousting him is simply a pretext. The real motive, he said, is to win official registration, something the Justice Ministry has denied because of what it says are "inconsistencies" in the group's charter.
If Liberal Russia is a marginal group at best, Berezovskii's potential new allies are part of one of the country's largest political organizations. The Communists have the most seats of any party in the Duma and currently boast a public-approval rating of around 31 percent -- ahead of the powerful pro-Kremlin United Russia Party with 28 percent.
But the Communists have been sidelined in parliament. Once able to bog down government reform, the Communists were co-opted by the new pro-Kremlin Unity Party in early 2000 after agreeing to a deal dividing the Duma's main committees.
The Communists received another blow last spring when Unity, now leading the larger United Russia bloc, got together enough votes to kick the Communists out of the chairmanship of eight of 10 committees.
Since then, the party has vowed to take to the streets. Moscow newspapers, meanwhile, say there are signs that long-running divisions within the party might become irreconcilable over the issue of cooperation with Berezovskii.
Zyuganov has recently toned down his once vitriolic criticism of the tycoon but has not yet indicated whether his party will, in fact, cooperate with him. Several high-ranking party members have said the matter will likely be discussed in a party conference later in October. But Communist Party number two Valentin Kuptsov said the party will issue a statement today denying the possibility of cooperation.
Kuptsov is a rival of Zyuganov's who secured the party leadership in the last decade with the help of "Zavtra" Editor Aleksandr Prokhanov. Prokhanov is also co-chairman of the People's Patriotic Union, the blanket organization of which the Communist Party is a member.
Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznyov said his Russia movement will leave the union if it does not remove Prokhanov from office.
Berezovskii said the fact that the Communist Party has directed so much attention to his "Zavtra" interview indicates the party is "rotting from within." He added that the process is natural and linked to an attempt to find a new public face. He said the party has no future in its present form and must move in the direction of "modern social democracy" behind a younger generation.
Andrei Ryabov, a scholar-in-residence at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said any talk of a united left-right opposition group is unrealistic. He said any such plan would fail -- chiefly because of the differences between both sides' electorates.
"The liberal electorate is distinctive as a rule because of its strong feeling of anti-communism. At the same time, the Communist electorate views pro-Western reforms and right-wing leaders' liberal rhetoric very negatively. Precisely for these reasons, the creation of a stable coalition is impossible," Ryabov said.
Ryabov said Berezovskii's latest moves are less a realistic strategy than they are an attempt to stimulate the creation of a viable opposition in general. He said Berezovskii may, indeed, cooperate with the Communists, albeit behind the scenes. Doing it quietly would be necessary if only because Communist voters still revile Berezovskii as a main player in Yeltsin's administration, which they accuse of ruining the country.
"It's not as if people from London will be arriving with briefcases of money for the Communist Party," Ryabov said. But he said the party could benefit from cooperation with Berezovskii.
"As is well known, Berezovskii is distinctive for the highly technical nature of his intellect and the ability to predict the needed political combination. He also has the ability to build a certain effective model of cooperation through his control of media outlets, which the Communist Party could use in its battles with political opponents -- and to receive support from important media that influences those making decisions. All that's possible," Ryabov said.
Russian newspapers have speculated that Berezovskii is secretly working for the Kremlin by trying to ally himself with -- and discredit -- various opposition groups. But Ryabov said cooperation with the Communists has, in fact, become a viable alternative for Berezovskii.
"Today's Communist Party is not the party it was in 1996, when it seemed to be two steps away from real presidential power," Ryabov said. He added that there is evidence of "serious progress in [the party's] understanding of the pluralistic principles of multiparty democracy."
In September, the Communists spearheaded opposition to a ban on conducting referendums within a year before presidential or parliamentary elections are held. Party leaders also protested against a bill that would raise the minimum number of votes parties need to be elected to the Duma from 5 percent to 7 percent.
Berezovskii has cooperated with the Communists in the past. Both sides are known to have colluded in 1998 to oppose the government headed by then-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko. But Ryabov said that whether cooperation this time will be long-term or short-lived is anyone's guess.