Putin told: curb 'odious oligarch'

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No sooner was Vladimir Putin elected last week than speculation arose as to how the new Russian President might treat the man demonised as the "modern Rasputin" and "the most odious oligarch": Boris Berezovsky. One possibility seemed to be that if Mr Putin began changing the system of crony capitalism that flourished under Boris Yeltsin, he might allow the media mogul to go into exile abroad.

The day after the election, Mr Berezovsky, owner of Kommersant newspaper and an influential shareholder at ORT, the first television channel, appeared at Moscow's luxurious Baltschug-Kempinksi Hotel for an interview with the BBC. Since then, he has kept a very low profile. He was absent from the State Duma, where he is a deputy with immunity from prosecution. "He is on a business trip outside Moscow," was all that his secretary would say.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Berezovsky welcomed Mr Putin's election, predicting that it would be good for Russians and foreign investors alike. As for his own plans, the tycoon said that he did not intend to "run" from his country.

However, he was quoted as saying in an interview with Interfax news agency: "In response to Putin's proposal on giving up ORT, I asked for the possibility for myself, as an oligarch, to be able to leave the country peacefully. Putin was not against my departure from Russia." On the subject of the fate of the crony capitalists, the daily Izvestia quoted a senior official in the Kremlin administration as saying: "We will send the most annoying gentlemen for indefinite leave to some island."

Those who suspect that Mr Putin, far from being the avenging policeman, is interested only in a cosmetic clean-up of the corruption bequeathed by his patron, Mr Yeltsin, believe he might make scapegoats of minor figures. Alternatively, he might give meaningless "punishments" to major figures such as Mr Berezovsky.

If Mr Berezovsky does go abroad, his exile could be part of an elaborate game. For it is interesting that one of the newspapers that has given most prominence to calls for Mr Putin to curb Mr Berezovsky is in fact owned by Mr Berezovsky. Writing in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the political scientist and former presidential aide Andranik Migranyan urged Mr Putin to increase state control over ORT while he was still in a strong position following his election victory.

Obshaya Gazeta commented: "It might be natural to begin restoring order with the liquidation of some odious oligarchs of the Berezovsky type. The people would adore him [Putin] ... the élite [the bureaucracy] would be glad to get rid of an ambitious parvenu with whom everybody is bored."

It will be from the make-up of the new cabinet, expected after Mr Putin's inauguration in May, that we will see which, if any, oligarchs are still in, and what power they retain.