All large Russian fortunes were made in much the same way through dividing up former state assets. But they all get spent differently. As befits capitalists, many of Russia's wealthy spend their money making more money. But then there's Roman Abramovich, co-owner of one of Russia's largest oil companies, Sibneft. Abramovich has spent a lot of his money becoming governor of remote and sparsely populated Chukotka, which he says he wants to bring closer to modern civilization.
Another Sibneft co-owner, Boris Berezovsky, spends his money financing the political opposition the recently formed Liberal Russia movement and independent media outlets.
Berezovsky took an active stand in the conflict over NTV, inviting that channel's journalists, led by Yevgeny Kiselyov, to join TV6, which Berezovsky owned. TV6's news programs soon became more critical toward the authorities, and the channel's ratings went up. Then LUKoil, Russia's largest oil company, which is closely linked to the state, stepped in and reportedly offered Berezovsky $200 million for a controlling stake in TV6. It's not hard to guess that in the event of a refusal, the tycoon risked losing his channel entirely and getting nothing in return, but he apparently turned down LUKoil.
Berezovsky seemed initially to be counting on having a solid position unlike Vladimir Gusinsky's NTV, which was liquidated last year, TV6 was not laden with debt. Berezovsky owned a 75 percent stake, while LUKoil held only 15 percent. Certainly, the arbitration court judges took political bias to new heights when they used a legal provision against TV6 that had already been deleted from the statute books.
After being taken off the air on a trumped-up pretext, Kiselyov's team entered an agreement with the channel's new potential owners a diverse group of industrialists who invited as their chief political patron none other than Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister, foreign minister, head of foreign intelligence and Politburo member. With an overseer like Primakov, there were no illusions about TV6 keeping its independent political line. Primakov is known for his strong-state views and for not always getting along with journalists. What's more, Kiselyov has already said that he especially appreciates Primakov for his contacts with President Vladimir Putin.
Two of the most independent journalists, Andrei Norkin and Eduard Matskyavicius, have already left Kiselyov's team, but the majority is still together and has the best chance of winning the TV6 frequency at a March 27 tender auction run by the Press Ministry. This will give the Kremlin propagandists the formal opportunity to say that there is not a threat to freedom of speech in Russia, and that, if an unpopular oligarch loses his property, no one's going to shed a tear. Surely Berezovsky wasn't so naive that he didn't see what was coming and let $200 million go down the drain.
Subsequent events show that he was simply playing a different game in which keeping a hold on TV6 wasn't the main goal. In fact, the goal is such that a truce with the authorities for the sake of $200 million was out of the question.
Having settled in London, Berezovsky has in effect declared war on Putin, saying that the then-prime minister knew that federal secret services were involved in the apartment-block bombings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk in September 1999. The government used the bombings as grounds to begin military operations in Chechnya that helped Putin get elected president.
At a news conference last week in London, his home-in-exile, Berezovsky showed a French-made documentary about the bombings. (The film was shown this week in Moscow, courtesy of two Duma deputies from Berezovsky's fledgling Liberal Russia bloc.) This raised laughter from the oligarch's opponents, who asked what new evidence the French could possibly have come up with.
But the film wasn't the only evidence, and perhaps not the main evidence. The real sensation was the arrival of a witness, the former director of a scientific research institute that worked with explosives, who said the secret services had organized the theft of hexogen from military stockpiles. Hexogen was the explosive used in the Moscow bombings. Berezovsky thus provided some circumstantial evidence to support his claim, though there is still no direct evidence.
But more than the disclosures made in London, the main event was the official reaction in Moscow. While Berezovsky was showing the film to journalists, Putin spent the day talking with Russian athletes and said not a word about the accusations against him. The Federal Security Service said it had no intention of getting into a "polemic" with Berezovsky, as if only a trivial issue were at stake. And the Prosecutor General's Office introduced an element of farce by announcing that Berezovsky had financed Chechen terrorists and was involved in the kidnapping of Gen. Gennady Shpigun, who was killed by terrorists. The prosecutors said an international arrest warrant would be issued for Berezovsky as soon as they had collected all the necessary proof. So, for all their threats, the prosecutors essentially admitted they had no proof.
In this respect, it's hard not to remember earlier, strange facts such as the FSB "training" exercise in a Ryazan apartment block that never did receive a convincing explanation, or the trial of terrorists charged with the apartment block bombings that was held last year in Stavropol. At that trial, the court ended up admitting that the accused were neither Chechens nor involved in the bombings. Thus, 2 1/2 years after the acts, there is still no proof to confirm the "Chechen hand" in the bombings that set off a war that still rages today.
The authorities' helpless and feeble reaction to these accusations raises the prospect that the secret services believe Berezovsky is not out of ammunition yet. Only the expectation that new accusations are coming can logically explain the prosecutors' seemingly illogical behavior, which consists of heaping threats on Berezovsky but so far doing nothing more than issuing a nationwide warrant for his arrest, knowing that he's not in the country.