If anyone had reason to sympathize with jailed Russian mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky last week, it was Boris Abramovich Berezovsky. He was among the leading members of Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin "family," a group of businessmen and courtiers considered the power behind the throne during the last years of Yeltsin's rule. Back then the controversial tycoon had reason to be proud of his reputation as Russia's top oligarch, one of a group of politically connected businessmen who acquired vast interests in banks, oil companies, television stations and newspapers in a series of controversial privatization deals in the mid-1990s. As the don of Russia's newly moneyed elite, he played a key role in bringing to power Yeltsin's chosen successor, a little-known bureaucrat from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin.
But Berezovsky quickly fell afoul of Putin, and he left for self-imposed exile in London in 2000. Shortly after, Berezovsky became the first of Russia's oligarchs subjected to a criminal investigation, and was a wanted man in Russia. It's an honor he now shares with fellow mogul Khodorkovsky, who was arrested last month on fraud charges, which many consider to be politically motivated. Berezovsky spoke to NEWSWEEK's Owen Matthews last week from his office in London:
MATTHEWS: Were you surprised by the arrest of Khodorkovsky?
BEREZOVSKY: It wasn't news to me. In 2000 I warned all businessmen that this was what was going to happen. Khodorkovsky was the captain of the business class, so it's not a surprise to me that he became a victim of the new authoritarian regime in Russia. Nevertheless this is a significant development.
Khodorkovsky was the biggest and the most transparent capitalist in Russia. If the Kremlin can do this to him, they can do it to absolutely anyone. It proves that Russia's judicial system is the absolute servant of the executive. The main basis of the rule of law in Russia has been destroyed--the separation of powers between the judiciary and the Kremlin.
Do you think Putin has overstepped the mark?
He did that some time ago already. Putin cannot be re-elected legitimately [in 2004]--he can only stay in power at the point of a bayonet. The people decide nothing; Russia's elites will decide who will be the next president. And most of the elites are against him.
Is your dislike personal?
I am not interested in Putin personally. I am categorically against his politics. He is taking Russia down this authoritarian path. Remember, it wasn't Putin who kicked me out of Russia. I left myself after protesting his policies. Putin's not even a bandit in power but a punk in power. All the people around him are punks. He's unpredictable, [but] a bandit is predictable.
Why did you help bring him to power?
I'm a bad judge of people. That's all I can say. I thought he would continue reforms, I thought he would be a good successor [to Yeltsin]. And I wasn't alone in thinking that. You in the Western press said how great he was, and you're still saying it.
Even after the Khodorkovsky case?
Putin's still a good friend of Bush, of Chirac, of Schroder; Mr. Blair calls him "my friend." What difference does it make to the West whether he's a democrat or not? What's important to the West is stability. It's a completely hypocritical position. It has a certain tactical rationality but strategically it's fatally wrong. He's a dictator, completely antagonistic to democracy, a fascist of the highest order.
Who will be targeted next?
All [the oligarchs] will be. Do you think that this is happening only on racial lines? At the beginning it's easier to expropriate Jews. [Both Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky are Jewish.] But later it will be easier to take on the others. A civil war has already begun in Russia.
With whom on each side?
Not just a few oligarchs. Putin and the special services are on one side. Forget the people. On the other side are the governors, the media and most importantly capital. Every businessman and property owner has seen that they made a mistake. Putin isn't protecting their interests.
So are you doing anything to unseat him?
There are cases of a political opposition fighting and winning a campaign from abroad. I mean, for example, Vladimir Lenin. [The difference is] we have our own money, we don't have to wait for anyone's support. I have two or three billion, that's enough.
What will happen to Khodorkovsky?
They let [oligarch Vladimir] Gusinsky out of jail [in 2000] and very much regretted it. He came out a hero, and now they're pursuing him around the world. They won't make that mistake again. Khodorkovsky will stay in jail until we free him.