Berezovsky defies order to meet Putin prosecutors

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The Independent Online

Boris Berezovsky, Russia's most famous business tycoon, refused to meet prosecutors investigating an embezzlement case yesterday and remained in self-imposed exile.

Boris Berezovsky, Russia's most famous business tycoon, refused to meet prosecutors investigating an embezzlement case yesterday and remained in self-imposed exile.

Mr Berezovsky, a media magnate recently ousted from the Kremlin inner circle, said he had decided to stay abroad because of "growing pressure from the authorities and from President Putin personally".

Prosecutors want to see Mr Berezovsky about alleged embezzlement of funds, through companies in Switzerland, from the Aeroflot airline. Mr Berezovsky, who is believed to be in America, said Mr Putin's presidential campaign and the pro-kremlin Unity Party were financed by profits from Aeroflot and its Swiss partners.

Mr Putin, who has promised to "strike the oligarchs on the head with a stick", has Russia's two leading media magnates on the run. This week a warrant was issued for the arrest of Vladimir Gusinsky, the head of the Media-Most Broadcasting and publishing empire, who left Russia in July after three days in jail. He is "in Europe".

Boris Gryzlov, the head of the Unity Party in the Duma, denied receiving money from Aeroflot or its Swiss partners. He said yesteday that Mr Berezovsky and Mr Gusinsky were trying to conceal financial wrongdoing by pretending they were struggling to preserve freedom of speech in Russia. Mr Berezovsky has accused Mr Putin of leading "an ethnic war in Chechnya which has no prospect of victory".

The tycoon says the President is destroying local selfgovernment in his campaign against provincial governors and is also trying to gain control of the mass media.

Mr Putin has frequently criticised the oligarchs, whose influence is deeply resented in Russia, and sees them as trying to blackmail the Kremlin by manipulating the news.

Mr Berezovsky and Mr Gusinsky were close to Boris Yeltsin and helped to re-elect him President in 1996. Mr Berezovsky, who controls 49 per cent of one of the two state TV channels, supported Mr Putin in the presidential election in March.

He now says: "I was mistaken to think Putin is far-sighted and strong enough to understand the necessity of allowing an opposition to exist."

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