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Russia: Berezovsky's Appointment Signals Money's Entry Into Politics

Prague, 31 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Socialism equals Soviet power plus electrification. That was the Bolshevik slogan when Vladimir Lenin stood at the helm of the infant U.S.S.R. back in the early 1920s.

These days, there seems to be a new equation in the new Russia, and it is even simpler: money equals power. Big money backed President Boris Yeltsin successful re-election campaign this summer, and big money now wants political power. Thanks to Yeltsin's illness, all appears to be working like clockwork.

Who holds Russia's big money? A handful of men, like Boris Berezovsky, who found themselves in the right place with the right connections when Russia's giant state monopolies were privatized a couple of years ago.

Many of these so-called "new Russians," including Berezovsky, became overnight millionaires thanks to Anatoly Chubais's economic reform program. They financed Yeltsin's re-election campaign, which Chubais ran. The undeclared millions which they poured into the campaign helped saturate the airwaves with pro-Yeltsin coverage, the streets with pro-Yeltsin literature and workers' pocketbooks with much-needed back wages. Yeltsin came from behind comfortably to beat his Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov and win a second term.

Two days ago, Chubais announced the appointment of Boris Berezovsky, a banking, car and media magnate, as Deputy Secretary to Russia's powerful Security Council. Predictably, this infuriated the existing political establishment.

Russia's democrats and Communists may not see eye-to-eye on the issues, but two things unite them: an aversion to sharing power and a shortage of cash. They hate Chubais, whom they accuse of usurping Yeltsin's functions, and are keen to stop the formation of a new moneyed ruling clique.

Berezovsky is rich. He heads Russia's vast LogoVAZ empire, which controls car dealerships, banks, and a large portion of the Ostankino television channel, Russia's principal braodcaster.

But that seems to be his main qualification. He has never held political office. And there have been persistent rumors of his link with the underworld. Berezovsky has escaped several assasination attempts. His driver was killed two years ago when his car was blown up. Recently, former Yeltsin bodyguard Aleksandr Korzhakov, himself a shadowy figure, said Berezovsky had asked him to organize the assassinations of several leading bankers and politicians. Berezovsky has denied the accusations. But they have done little to improve his image as a brash tycoon on the make.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said yesterday he saw "nothing unusual" about Berezovsky's new post. And Security Council chairman Ivan Rybkin said the appointment was logical, since Berezovsky would be put in charge of Chechnya's reconstruction -- a financial matter.

Journalist Dmitry Pinsker, who reports on politics for the Russian weekly "Itogi," acknowledges that "Berezovsky certainly has practical experience in handling large sums of money." Today he told RFE/RL from Moscow, however, that "Moscow's political circles are totally baffled by the appointment," especially when Yeltsin, incommunicando at his sanatorium, is about to face crucial surgery.

Today's "Moscow Times" says Chubais is "tempting fate" and may have overreached himself by provoking such a hostile reaction from both the opposition and many Yeltsin loyalists.

But journalist Dmitry Volkov, a veteran political observer at the newspaper "Segodnya," says Chubais is already the most-hated man in Russian politics. He is not out to win a popularity contest and couldn't care less if his popularity rating drops from "two percent to one percent." "Chubais owed Berezovsky a favor," says Volkov, "and this is just an indication of his current strength."

But, he adds, the tables could turn, especially if Yeltsin doesn't recover from his operation, and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin becomes a contender for the presidency. Under that scenario, Chubais could soon fall out of favor. In any case, says Volkov, "making predictions in Russia is a dangerous business." Better just to make money.