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Wednesday, 19 July, 2000, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Berezovsky: Unlikely democracy crusader
Berezovsky quits parliament
Boris Berezovsky hands in his deputy's mandate
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

The tycoon Boris Berezovsky has raised serious questions about the Russian government's policy towards the regions - but while some Russians may share his concerns, few will take him seriously.

As one of Russia's oligarchs - businessmen who have built huge fortunes thanks to a close and shady relationship with government - he makes an unconvincing standard-bearer of democracy.

Mr Berezovsky once campaigned for the postponement of elections that he thought the Communists might win, because of the threat to his business interests.

And in all elections since 1996, Mr Berezovsky has distorted the result by orchestrating a massive media campaign in favour of his chosen candidate - most recently in favour of Mr Putin himself.

Master of intrigue

In the March presidential election this year his media empire effectively destroyed the political careers of two men previously seen as strong candidates - the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, and the former premier Yevgeny Primakov - by means of smear tactics.

If he'll benefit from jailing Berezovsky, he'll jail him

Boris Berezovsky, on President Putin
Mr Berezovsky would be a strong contender for the title of the most unpopular man in Russia - and his resignation from parliament is widely interpreted as another piece of manoeuvring from a master of political intrigue.

Quite where this manoeuvring is leading, however, no-one knows, except possibly Mr Berezovsky himself.

Mr Berezovsky says he is gathering support among parliamentary deputies, and among regional governors, to create a party of opposition to President Putin - but it's hard to see why this should be easier for him to do from outside the parliament.

Among some of the Russian media there is still a suspicion that he is merely creating a smokescreen, and actually remains a member of Mr Putin's inner circle.

Clutching at straws

Supporters of this theory point out that while several of the most powerful Russian businessmen, or their companies, have been charged with tax evasion, Mr Berezovsky and his protege Roman Abramovich - head of the Sibneft oil company - have so far remained untouched.

Boris Berezovsky
Boris Berezovsky: Convert to democracy?
They could even stand to profit, the theory goes, from the misfortune of their rivals.

An alternative theory says that Mr Berezovsky is clutching at straws, trying any trick to preserve his political influence, after being given the cold shoulder by Mr Putin - a leader he helped to choose as Mr Yeltsin's successor.

Some journalists have pointed out that Mr Berezovsky was himself called for questioning on Friday in connection with a case of suspected embezzlement at Aeroflot, and could soon find that he too is facing criminal charges.

A case was opened against him in 1999, but soon petered out - though whether this was for lack of evidence, or because he enjoyed political protection, was never fully explained.

Show trials

By resigning his parliamentary seat Mr Berezovsky is throwing away his deputy's immunity from prosecution - though he is probably correct when he notes that this was worthless anyway.

Vladimir Putin with binoculars
Vladimir Putin: Berezovsky in his sights?
"Putin is a rational man, if I've understood him correctly," he told the Izvestia newspaper.

"If he'll benefit from jailing Berezovsky, he'll jail him. If he won't benefit from it, he'll leave him at liberty."

Among Russian liberals there are many who agree with Mr Berezovsky that there is something dangerous about the increasing concentration of political power in the hands of the president.

There are also those who fear that the investigations launched into the oligarchs' business dealings seem more like show trials than a strict and just application of the law.

However, there is little chance of liberals embracing Mr Berezovsky as one of their own - neither now nor any time soon.

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28 Mar 00 | Business
Russia's new oligarchs
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