Berezovsky defies Kremlin call for control over television news

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The Independent Online

Boris Berezovsky has made another move to cast himself in the role of persecuted dissident. But sceptics believe that theRussian business tycoon and arch political game player is simply crying wolf to further his own interests.

Boris Berezovsky has made another move to cast himself in the role of persecuted dissident. But sceptics believe that theRussian business tycoon and arch political game player is simply crying wolf to further his own interests.

Mr Berezovsky, who wielded what critics called a Rasputin-like influence over the former president Boris Yeltsin and who was instrumental in getting Vladimir Putin elected this year, grabbed media attention on Monday by accusing the Kremlin of bullying him into give it his shares in Russian Public Television (ORT). He would not yield to this "pressure", he declared, but instead transfer his 49 per cent stake to the journalists at the station.

The Kremlin wanted to force him out of ORT because of the channel's criticism of the way President Putin had handled the sinking of the Kursk submarine three weeks ago, Mr Berezovsky alleged. A top official from the presidential administration had told him to surrender his shares to the state or "follow in the steps of Gusinsky," he said. This was a reference to Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of independent NTV, who was briefly jailed in June on embezzlement charges that the prosecutor later dropped for lack of evidence.

"If I accept the ultimatum, television news will stop in Russia," Mr Berezovsky said in an open letter to Mr Putin. "It will be replaced by television propaganda controlled by your advisers." The tycoon suggested the state should follow his lead and transfer its 51 per cent stake in the channel to a co-operative of journalists.

The Media Minister, Mikhail Lesin, said he was unaware of a Kremlin threat against the mogul and hinted that Mr Berezovsky might change his mind. "So far, we have no grounds to believe that this is his final position," he said.

Analysts suspected that Mr Berezovsky, who announced earlier this summer he was going into "constructive opposition" against the Kremlin, was playing an elaborate mind game. It looked like a public relations stunt aimed at winning public sympathy and perhaps providing him with protection should the government decide to seize his assets, said Anna Kachkayeva, an expert on the Russian media.

"What he is trying to do now is to get rid of the shares while preserving his control over them," said the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets newspape r. "It has already happened at Sibneft [a leading oil company] and Aeroflot. He has no shares but the key posts are given to his people. Berezovsky remains the cleverest political schemer in Russia."

One possibility is that the unpopular Mr Berezovsky retains political influence but is trying to appease the public by seeming to be a victim. Alternatively, he may have had a real falling out with the Kremlin and be trying to protect his assets in case it moves against him.

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