After more than two years of self-imposed exile in London, Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky was finally arrested by British police last week. Berezovsky faces extradition to Russia on charges that between 1994 and 1995 he and a colleague defrauded a Russian regional administration of 60 billion rubles, roughly $15 million dollars at the time.
Berezovsky was an influential member of the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle, and one of the country's most powerful and controversial "oligarchs"--the handful of businessmen that amassed great wealth after the fall of the Soviet Union. But since coming into power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has targeted the likes of Berezovsky in his anti-corruption drive. Berezovsky-whose first extradition hearing is on Wednesday--has made no secret of his dislike for the president, claiming that this is Putin's way of clamping down on criticism.
Released on bail last week, Berezovsky spoke to NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant by telephone. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You have been at odds with the Russian authorities for years. Why has this extradition request come through only now?
Boris Berezovsky: This is just one part of a long story. Every step I take against Russian officials has an immediate reaction. When ORT [a television channel once controlled by Berezovsky] aired pictures of Putin relaxing on vacation as wives and mothers were crying over the Kursk submarine tragedy [in 2000], Putin gave orders to reopen an old case against me.
When I began to investigate the apartment bombings in 1999 that gave the administration support to start the war in Chechnya, they opened another case against me. More recently I began looking into the hostage-taking [at a theater] in Moscow, and now the authorities are pushing this extradition case.
You claim this case is political. How so?
Later this year Russia has parliamentary elections. I present a unique situation for the Kremlin. I'm trying to create an opposition party and I'm the only person in Russia who is able to finance such a thing. All the others who have money depend on the Kremlin. I think the authorities want to send a message that Berezovsky is a criminal and no longer a political player.
The fraud charges against you are serious.
The deal in question was totally transparent [and] was approved by the Samara regional Parliament and officials from various ministries. This was a typical barter deal. Almost all Russian companies operated in this way in the mid-'90s.
You were known as one of Russia's oligarchs. How do you feel about this image?
The reality of the whole oligarch question is really not as it's been described. Until 1995 I was in business, then I decided to move into politics. This is typical in the United States. Take George W. Bush or Dick Cheney for example. There's nothing strange about this, but Russians were not used to the idea. I think it's a positive thing that people who really understand the meaning of the word "economy" and "business" are involved in Russian politics.
Have Putin's efforts to clean up corruption had much success?
No. Corruption is on the rise and is larger than in Yeltsin's time.
You've said that Putin manipulates the media. Others have accused you of doing the same. Who's the manipulator?
This is a very complicated PR game. It has been played both against me and Vladimir Gusinsky [another Russian businessman who owned a media empire several years ago] because we fought against the state machine. Now the state is producing propaganda and nothing more. The reason the government started to fight us is obvious: we controlled the mass media and Putin wanted to limit freedom of speech.
What is your opposition party fighting against?
The main problems now for the Russian authorities are elections and controlling the press. They want to get a constitutional majority in Parliament in order to increase the presidential term from four to seven years, to integrate regions so [they're] more easily controlled, and to make it so you don't elect governors but nominate them. They are aiming to destroy all the democratic [institutions] that were created by Yeltsin.
You were reportedly very close to Yeltsin's inner circle.
Yeltsin and I were never friends. I never tried to be friends with him; I just wanted to be useful in his reforms. We were not close, but he understood me perfectly and I understood him. We were not like a "family" as people have said and I was never involved in his private life.
Are you in still in touch with him?
No, not at all. But I do send him a telegram every year on Feb. 1 to congratulate him on his birthday.
Does he send you a birthday card each year?