Berezovsky quits Duma at 'ruining of Russia'

Patrick Cockburn
Tuesday 18 July 2000 00:00

Russia's most powerful oligarch resigned from parliament yesterday, saying he did not want to be involved in the country's ruin and the restoration of an authoritarian regime.

Russia's most powerful oligarch resigned from parliament yesterday, saying he did not want to be involved in the country's ruin and the restoration of an authoritarian regime.

The surprise resignation of Boris Berezovsky comes as President Vladimir Putin widens his offensive against the business elite, known as the oligarchs, who have made great fortunes through taking over the assets of the Soviet state for knock-down prices over the past 10 years.

"I do not want to enjoy parliamentary immunity" said Mr Berezovsky, formerly a close associate of Mr Putin. He wanted to be in the same position as other oligarchs, not members of the Duma, at a time when the Kremlin was waging a campaign against big business.

Most Russians will find it hard to take seriously Mr Berezovsky's presentation of himself as a martyr in the cause of political and religious liberty. He is considered to be the apotheosis of the businessmen who used their connnections to make money under the former president, Boris Yeltsin.

Mr Berezovsky also said he was resigning because he opposed Mr Putin's plan to strengthen the rule of the Kremlin over provincial governors, who are to lose their posts in the upper house of parliament. "The conduct of the majority of Duma members [in backing the plan] is absolutely irresponsible," he said, accusing them of becoming the legal department of the government.

The motives of Mr Berezovsky are perplexing. He was an important supporter of Mr Putin during the election in March when his television station, ORT, gave the President its total support. His companies were not among those, such as Gazprom, the national gas company, and Avtovaz, the biggest car maker, which faced demands last week for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Mr Putin is showing that, while he was put into power by those who wanted to maintain the status quo of the Yeltsin years, he does not intend to remain their man. In his state-of-the nation speech 10 days ago he attacked businessmen who "feel comfortable in conditions of disorder, catching fish in muddy waters and wanting to keep things as they are".

Mr Berezovsky is the most important member of the so-called "family" of Mr Yeltsin, the group of insiders, which promoted Mr Putin to Prime Minister and then to the presidency last year. Its other members include Alexander Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, Roman Abramovich, a businessman who has prospered under Mr Putin, and Tatyana Dyachenko, Mr Yeltsin's daughter.

In distancing himself from the people who brought him to power, Mr Putin is relying largely on the KGB security service, in which he was a career officer. This is quite a narrow base against the multitude of enemies the President is now making - including the powerful provincial governors - but any action against the oligarchs, deeply unpopular in Russia, will receive massive popular support.

The danger for Mr Putin is that he may be taking on too many powerful opponents at the same time. The governors in Russia's 89 regions often rule like feudal dukes within their own domains. They are largely the old Communist élite transformed into capitalists. They will oppose any attempt by the centre to reduce their power. At the same time, Mr Putin's officials and allies are eager to recut the economic cake in their own favour.

Mr Putin's first moves against the oligarchs - the police raid on the headquarters of Vladimir Gusinsky, who controls the NTV television channel, and was a known opponent of the President - seemed as though it was a matter of paying off old scores.

Now that Mr Putin has opened an offensive against many of the other oligarchs Russia is facing a prolonged struggle for power.

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