MOSCOW -- Mikhail Kasyanov, a member of Boris Yeltsin's political elite and prime minister in the early years of the Putin presidency, has published a book detailing his transition from the political elite to the political opposition.
"Without Putin" offers a scathing critique of the current prime minister and former president, including claims that Putin kept his former mentor, Boris Yeltsin, locked in a "golden cage" and isolated from his supporters in the years before his death.
The Moscow book launch was an expensive affair, more like a star-studded celebrity event than a forum for an opposition leader. Fine wines flowed, the air was thick with cigar smoke, and at one point a fan asked the guest of honor to autograph his T-shirt.
Despite the book's title, Vladimir Putin, the former president and current prime minister, is a near constant presence in the book.
Kasyanov claims, among other things, that Putin turned on his former mentor, Boris Yeltsin, who tapped the little-known Putin as his replacement when he announced he was stepping down from the presidency in December 1999.
From that point on, Kasyanov says, Yeltsin was kept in a "golden cage," isolated from his supporters and political life.
On his 75th birthday in 2006, Yeltsin reportedly wanted to have a party at home. Instead, relates Kasyanov -- who rose up through the ranks of the Russian Finance Ministry to become minister during Yeltsin's presidency -- Yeltsin was forced to hold his celebration at the Kremlin, where the guest list was strictly controlled. (Kasyanov, for one, was not invited.)
Yeltsin died the following year. 'Grimmer Time'
Kasyanov survived the political transition to serve as Putin's prime minister, only to be dismissed four years later. He now takes a dim view of the steady erosion of liberties that he says Putinism has wrought on Russia.
"We're going to have a grimmer time of things, whether we want it or not," Kasyanov said. "But it won't be a Brezhnev-style stagnation, as we all know from the books and films of the time that Brezhnev wasn't a mean person. Here, we now see a very tough attitude regarding the fate of the people."
"Without Putin" is written as a series of dialogues between Kasyanov and journalist Yevgeny Kiselyov, an outspoken broadcaster who saw his own star fade during the Putin regime.
In the introduction, Kasyanov notes the strange trajectory his career has followed, from prime minister to opposition leader. In Putin's cabinet, Kasyanov -- an economist by education -- successfully launched a series of economic and public-sector reforms, and his time in the post saw Russia's economy grow by nearly one-third.
Since his dismissal, however, he has become an outspoken member of the political opposition, attempting a presidential run in 2008 and helping to organize both the Other Russia opposition coalition and the March of Dissent anti-Kremlin rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Surprised By Revelations
In 2007, Kasyanov -- who also heads the oppositionist Russian Popular Democratic Union -- personally clashed with riot police at a March of Dissent, an experience he notes with some irony in his book.
"If somebody had told me at the start of 2004, when I held the No. 2 post in the Russian Federation, that in something like three years later the OMON would try to forcefully detain me in the center of Moscow, I would have laughed," Kasyanov writes.
So while the Kremlin elite were nowhere in evidence at Kasyanov's book launch, nearly all of the Moscow dissident community was in attendance.
Aleksei Venediktov, head of outspoken radio station Ekho Moskvy, said he was surprised by some of the revelations in "Without Putin."
Kasyanov at his presidential campaign headquarters in Moscow in January 2008.
"I didn't have any dealings with Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin], almost no dealings, after he retired from the presidency. So his feelings as conveyed by Mikhail Kasyanov are new, although I had heard signs of it through members of his family," Venediktov said.
"All the rest is intriguing, as not only Mikhail Kasyanov but also Yevgeny Kiselyov were political players -- and a conversation between two players, rather than between a player and a journalist, is intriguing."
Not everyone at the book-launch party, however, shared Kasyanov's sympathy for Yeltsin.
Eduard Limonov, a Kasyanov ally whose banned National Bolshevik Party is a member of the Other Russia coalition, was scathing in his assessment of the legacy of the former president, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union and led Russia into a post-Soviet decade that was both heady and chaotic.
"He is guilty of the destruction of the Soviet Union, and I can't say anything nice about him," he said, "Even if he did not have a golden cage, he deserved to be put in an iron cage."
But most of the criticism at the party was reserved for Putin, the main focus of the book. In it, Kasyanov documents his growing disappointment with Putin during the early years of his presidency.
He cites the 2004 Beslan school siege and Putin's subsequent drive to solidify a "power vertical"
amassing power at the center, as the moments that finally compelled him to enter the opposition.
Kasyanov also describes his disenchantment with Putin's treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos energy giant, who was one of the wealthiest men in Russia when he was arrested in 2003 on tax-evasion charges.
Khodorkovsky had angered Putin with his political outspokenness, and many believe his arrest was politically motivated. He is currently serving an eight-year term in a remote Siberian prison; a current trial on additional charges may add decades to his sentence.
Kasyanov, as prime minister, spoke out against Khodorkovsky's arrest and says he is prepared to testify in the former oligarch's new trial. Oligarchs Offer Deal
Among the revelations in Kasyanov's book is an unusual pact that Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs tried to broker with Putin and the Russian government.
Khodorkovsky, according to Kasyanov, wanted the government to pass a law that would prevent any of the controversial 1990s privatizations from being reversed. In return, the oligarchs -- acknowledging they had grossly underpaid for their companies in the free-for-all that followed the Soviet collapse -- would pay compensation directly to the government.
Kasyanov quotes Khodorkovsky as saying: "We ourselves know better than anyone how much, in our time, we underpaid the state. There's a general understanding between us of who has to put in how much. Someone will contribute $1.5 billion. Another $3 billion; another $5 billion. We'll decide between ourselves."
The deal, which would have contributed an estimated $20 billion to a special fund to improve Russia's failing infrastructure, was presented to Putin -- but never went any further.
"I think that [Putin] understood that if you pass such a law, you let rich businessmen and leading industrialists off the hook," Kasyanov writes. "And it seems that was not in his plan."
Excerpts from "Without Putin" were published in newspapers ahead of the launch. Khodorkovsky lawyer Vadim Klyugvant said his client was among those who were eager to read the excerpts.
"Khodorkovsky read them, and he was very interested," said Klyugvant, "Even though he was, let's say, well-informed during those times, he still learned some new, important, and interesting details."
Khodorkovsky is not the only one who has been avid to read the book. In an apparent reference to the Kremlin elite, Venediktov said, vaguely, "I don't know about the first person, but the second and third have read it."