Tamara's Column

Boris Berezovsky: Ivanishvili plays according to the rules set by the Russian government

Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky arrives at a division of the High Court in central London
Andrew Winning / REUTERS

Fugitive Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky is one of the most controversial figures in Russian politics. Once a supporter of Vladimir Putin, Berezovsky clashed with the Russian leader soon after Putin’s election as president in 2000. Having found political asylum in Great Britain, the notorious billionaire has relentlessly tried to influence Russian politics from his self-imposed exile. His anti-Putin vendetta and suspicious past have prompted the Russian government repeatedly to demand that Berezovsky be extradited back to Russia – so far without result.

Before the presidential elections in Russia this year, Boris Berezovsky predicted “bloody revolution” against Putin and also proposed establishing a “Christian-Democratic Revolutionary Party” to oppose the regime. After the elections, the billionaire offered a $17-million bounty to anyone who detained Putin at his 7 May inauguration.

Boris Berezovsky’s high-stakes litigation against fellow Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has brought to light shocking details of how business and politics have been manipulated in Russia for the past twenty years. The recent London court case focused international media attention on Berezovsky’s allegations that Abramovich, in cahoots with the Russian government, cheated him and Badri Patarkatsishvili out of billions of dollars by forcing them to sell their assets in profitable Russian companies at bargain prices. The fugitive tycoon also has a pending court claim against certain assets of the estate of close friend and business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died suddenly in 2008.

On 3 May – just days before Vladimir Putin was again sworn in as President of Russia – Boris Berezovsky sat down with Tabula in London to discuss the situation existing in Russia and prospects for the Putin regime. In this interview with Tabula, Berezovsky also opines on the political debut of Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.

- Not long ago, you predicted “bloody revolution” against Vladimir Putin. Do you really believe that the regime in Russia can be changed and that that will happen by force?

I think that there is no chance of a formal transfer of power through elections under Putin’s regime. I mean that the regime has reached such a level that it will do everything it can to maintain power. That is because the regime itself, Putin and his milieu understand that they are criminals – they have committed lots of crimes.

One of the most recent crimes was the usurpation of power. Putin has come to power again in breach of the Constitution of Russia, and it is important to understand that. Vote-rigging, the number of people casting votes for him or the types of fraud employed during the recent presidential elections, all that can be challenged in courts and can be discussed publicly. But what is not subject to any discussion, and fits within the limits of formal logic, is that the Constitution of Russia rules out a third term of presidency. The word “consecutive” which the Constitution includes means absolutely nothing. Discussions on that topic started as early as 1998. There is a ruling of the Constitutional Court on that issue. There is also a comment made in 2009, which was approved by Judge [Valery] Zorkin [President of the Constitutional Court of Russia] – the one to whom Vladimir Putin is going to make an oath on 7 May. Back then, Zorkin delivered a judgment saying that a third presidential term runs counter to the Russian Constitution!

You must have noticed that the Russian government tried to direct all the discussion about elections into a certain stream – whether or not merry-go-round voting [busing voters from polling station to polling station for repeat voting] took place; what percentage [Putin] received, etcetera. That has nothing to do with the essence of the issue! The main issue is that Putin had no right to be elected for the third presidential term. Everything else is of secondary importance, is nonsense. Therefore, the slogan of the opposition “For Fair Elections” is a pure KGB ploy. That cannot be regarded as “elections.”

As regards decency – go and try to defeat professional thimble-riggers. You will never succeed. They employ all the levers. They got sixty-four percent for [Putin]? Had they wanted, they would have gotten ninety percent. Therefore, the government in Russia has lost legitimacy entirely. It discusses everything but the third presidential term because it knows perfectly well that there is no explanation for that. The authority understands that it is a wrongdoer. Many people understand that in Russia.

Therefore, the place of government is at the gallows or, in the best case scenario, at the Hague court. Everyone understands that and, therefore, there cannot be any talks about a democratic transfer of power, that can be done by forceful means alone. How bloody will that path be is another question. It may happen just like it happened in Georgia. Did [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili not come to power by force? Shevardnadze was crowded out of the Parliament.

- Yes, the Rose Revolution happened after the election was rigged…

That does not matter. The important thing is that there is only a forceful solution. That’s why, just recently through my blog and Facebook, I called openly for a revolt because people have the right to rebel, according to the Declaration of Human Rights which Russia also signed. The Declaration says that when the government violates the law, when it becomes arbitrary, the people have the right to rebel.

The Russian government kicked up a fuss, started talking about my extradition, saying “Look, Berezovsky calls for a coup.” I do confirm – yes, I have called for that and called on the Russian government to demand my extradition from Britain. Then, I will be able to voice my stance in British courts and let them prove legally that Putin’s third term is unconstitutional.

But that call went unanswered. The [Russian] Prosecutor General’s office stays silent, although it actively demanded earlier that I be arrested for [my] calls for coup. But I do not call for “coup”; I call for revolt, for toppling this government. I declare that openly to you as well.

- Everything is clear about Putin, but what do you think about Putin’s opponents in Russia, about the Russian opposition?

I would say that the opposition should be divided into two groups. These two groups have different mentalities. Outstanding representatives of the first group are, for example, Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov, while the second group is represented by Aleksei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and others. There is a principled difference between these two groups. I call Udaltsov and Navalny a “non-Soviet generation” – not in physical terms because of their age, but because their mentality was mainly shaped during the Yeltsin era in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They are people grown up in an open, transparent world.

The Gospel says, “There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.” This prediction is coming true before our eyes. If earlier covered things were revealed, say, ten years, sometimes even centuries later, today everything happens in real-time. The main result of such a mentality is the denial of lies. They inherently deny lies. Coexistence with lies is discomforting for them because it is impossible to lie in a way and manner one lied in the past. I am not saying that Nemtsov and Kasparov lie. I think they are straightforward people, but their mentality is cardinally different. The mentality of those born in the Soviet Union is somewhat conspirological – and that holds true for me as well.

How efficient is the opposition? I think that the “non-Soviet generation” is more efficient than the older generation, excluding, perhaps, several persons. In my view, one segment of the opposition does not understand that there is no other way but a forceful one whereas the younger generation understands that. The most obvious articulator of inevitability of a forceful path is, of course, Udaltsov.

At the same time, for example, Navalny said something that very many people used to say before – Putin and his milieu are swindlers, thieves and criminals. I myself have been repeating that since 2000. I was not heard, but Navalny is. Why? Here lies the difference between the first word in politics and the first word in science. In science, the first person is the one who made the invention first. In politics, the first is the one whom people listened to first. Navalny said nothing new, but he came to the fore at the very moment when the society was ready to listen. Moreover, he hit the mark several times. That proves once again that those who are a bit older – Nemtsov, [Vladimir] Ryzhkov and others – speak about correct things, but people do not understand them because of how and at what moment they speak. Machiavelli once famously said that “politics is the art of the possible.” Possibility means here and now. Tomorrow will be late; yesterday was early.

- You think that Navalny is the future…

But the opposition has a colossal problem. They lack a clear ideology which would be heard and understood by the people. They say that the key thing is to get rid of Putin. There are talks that the opposition has no clear-cut leader. I categorically disagree with that. The opposition has a leader who was reared by the government for years. That leader is Mikhail Khodorkovsky – after Khodorkovsky leaves the prison… with [Platon] Lebedev, of course. Lebedev’s role is no less important, maybe even more important. Lebedev fits in with the mentality of a larger segment of the society with his conspicuous, but no less consistent, behavior than that of Khodorkovsky. Together, they are a real tandem in contrast to that primitive [Putin-Medvedev] tandem.

- Yes, but Khodorkovsky is now in jail….

What I am saying is that, had the opposition not been scared to name Khodorkovsky and Lebedev as its leaders, things would have taken a different turn. They shun that because each of them wants to take the pedestal. Competition, ambitions – that is normal. There is no politician without ambitions. But, I think – they make a mistake when they do not formulate their position and, through that position, do not try to shape others’ opinion as well – that the leader exists. There is no ideology. I have made a proposal of founding a movement “Voskresenie” [Resurrection]. I formulated ten ideas which will become the foundation of the ideology. I am not the only one; others also try to do that. The main thing is to create such an ideology that will be supported by the majority of opponents of the regime.

- Is that the reason for adding a religious connotation to it?

Religious connotation derives from my own mindset, which I am trying to impart to others. Even more, I believe that Russia is a pagan country; it has not become a Christian state yet. Leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church today demonstrate that they are pagans rather than Christians.

- Do you mean the “Pussy Riot” case?

Not only that, there are many other high-profile cases – the [scandals about the] Patriarch’s watch, apartment; in fact, everything that surrounds him… The important thing is that there is no ideology which would be accepted and shared by the largest part of the opposition. They do not want to admit that there is a leader, and they lack intellectual capacity to put forward an ideology that will unite the opposition. However, as the recent history proves, that is not necessary for toppling regimes. What we have seen – in Tunisia, Egypt – was neither a clearly formulated alternative ideology nor clear-cut leaders. Nonetheless, everything was done successfully. And still, I think that intellectual demands in Russia are higher.

- Do you support any of the groups in Russia today?

I am a group myself and, therefore, support myself and those people who share my ideas.

- How much time is left, in your opinion, to the incumbent government?

With Russia, you never know. As [Nikolai] Berdyaev once said, “We Russians are extremists,” and what other countries consider Utopia is real in Russia. Therefore, I think that that can happen even tomorrow. Look how scared the Kremlin is about the “March of Millions” scheduled for 6-7 May. Even though they are trying to play down the importance of the protest by saying that a mere twenty thousand will participate in it, they are at the same time chasing after Udaltsov anywhere he goes, trying to isolate him. And what is important, in my view, is that it has become crystal clear that the level of aggression is on the rise among the opposition. Division is taking place – there are some who prefer to wait two or three years, pinning hopes that the regime will fall. But, on the other hand, there are people who intend to prevent Putin from entering the Kremlin.

I think that, at the end of the day, these radical forces will win. When will that happen, I cannot say. It may happen on 7 May or this autumn. But it will happen by all means. That is simply inevitable. Have you seen shots of the pro-government demonstration on 1 May? They, the government, live outside real time.

If you remember, in the mid-1980s when the Soviet Union existed and Georgia was part of it, those who thought about their homelands and were concerned about the fate of their homelands welcomed the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev to power with great enthusiasm. Gorbachev started steering that enormous train and took it toward the brighter future, democracy – as he called it, “socialism with a human face.” Perestroika, glasnost and other things started. But Gorbachev got off the train and Boris Yeltsin took over the wheel. It did not matter that the Soviet Union broke up naturally. What mattered was that everyone followed Russia’s example, including Georgia. They embarked on their paths toward democracy. Russia was the leader of that process for many years. There were, however, mistakes, problems in that process. But Gorbachev was left somewhere far behind, was not seen any longer. Then Yeltsin was replaced by Putin and, all of a sudden, everyone spotted Gorbachev. Gorbachev remained where he was, but he is closer to what is happening now. The train moved backward so far that Gorbachev appeared to be ahead of it! Such a paradox happened.

I want to say that there are laws of social development. They cannot be resisted. We should also take into account that the Twenty-First Century differs much from even the Twentieth Century. The speed of circulating information has shortened time. Speed of any process has accelerated. Yes, it has been long – since 2000 – that I have been saying that the regime will topple. I was told back then that I was “nuts” and Putin was good, that I was “an oligarch” and Putin cleaned the country from people of my ilk. But they have forgotten all that. Everyone has already received an answer to the question, “Who is Mr. Putin”? The question posed today sounds like: “What shall we do”?

Today, the West – Europe and the United States – is totally hypocritical; intellectually and, in terms of willpower, weak. It may seem embarrassing for me to speak about that because that very West sheltered me. But I was sheltered by British justice and not by politicians. Politicians were against it and they hate me. They would readily forget [Alexander] Litvinenko as well, who was poisoned in the middle of London, in order to negotiate with Putin for natural gas, oil, etcetera.

- You are in litigation with Badri Patarkatsishvili’s family. What are your claims and did Patarkatsishvili really cheat you, as the media report?

The court proceeding is not conducted against the family, but against the estate, the inheritance, the administration and structure which is called “inheritance.” It is a separate issue that concrete people stand behind that inheritance – Badri’s wife and his relatives. I do not want to comment on that because it would be incorrect. I do not have any claims against Badri, as to my friend with whom I spent a marvelous twenty years of my life. What happened is my personal problem because I am that sort of a person – I trust people unconditionally. I trusted Putin and Abramovich as well. In this regard, my litigation is the projection of myself in the relationship with Badri. I cannot say more than that at this stage. But when everything is over, I will be ready to speak extensively.

- After the death of Patarkatsishvili, you were blamed for pressuring him in order to gain influence over Georgia. Patarkatsishvili’s relative Joseph Kay talked about that. You denied those accusations. Did you talk with Patarkatsishvili about his political activity? In your opinion, what did he want then?

Since you mentioned Joseph Kay, I want to declare outright that Joseph Kay is a swindler, thief and that has nothing to do with Badri. He deceived Badri, deceived others. There also was [lawyer Emanuel] Zeltser – another swindler. Therefore, I prefer to comment on Badri’s plans of those times, without basing that on the words of those swindlers.

It is an undisputable fact for me that Badri loved Georgia and did a lot of things for Georgia. I am talking about his charitable activity, huge projects that were important for Georgia, large capital that he brought to Georgia. He was one of the first people who accumulated his capital in Russia and invested the largest part of it in Georgia, in the development of the country. Badri supported Saakashvili when he was coming to power. In this regard, I think that Badri always supported what he believed would give Georgia a chance to become an effective, modern, independent country. I and Badri were very close friends. He never made serious decisions alone, always turning to me and others for advice. But the talk that I was demanding something and Badri was against seems very primitive reasoning.

I reiterate that the key priority for Badri was Georgia. He believed that, after coming to power, he would do thing better than Saakashvili. That was his only motivation.

Even more, Badri proved that he could create something very important for a society on a bare place - I mean the Imedi TV company. That was the first professional independent channel in Georgia. That will not disappear anywhere. Like [Russian TV channel] NTV, even though practically in ruins today, has changed Russian TV journalism forever, so has Imedi changed the Georgian TV industry and journalism forever. I cite this as an example which the whole of Georgia knows was created by Badri.

- However, many assert that Imedi was a political tool in Badri’s hands, that he established it for that aim…

The tool in his hands was truth, the free circulation of information. He set up a TV company which was able to freely and independently formulate its own position and the position of society. That is an example that Badri was able to build. That is a conspicuous fact. Badri’s intentions were determined only by that. People may differently appreciate what Saakashvili and his government have been doing during past years, including those repressive methods which were used against Badri, Imedi, independent media. I condemn that, of course.

But there is one important factor: Saakashvili has indeed managed to start the construction of an independent, democratic Georgia. True, there have been many shortcomings, flaws, problems. But I, as an absolute enemy of the regime which exists in Russia, stand on the side where Saakashvili stands. I believe that independence can be retained only in the way Saakashvili does in the relationship with Russia.

True, today thousands of Georgians have problems because of those close ties with Russia which have been severed. But I see no other way in the conditions of the regime existing today in Russia. Since Russia has turned back to autocracy, some countries have tried to maintain a democratic vector. I mean Ukraine and Georgia, first of all. I do not want to say that everything ended in fiasco in Ukraine. Five years of [Viktor] Yushchenko’s rule have significantly changed the mentality of the nation, but in many areas Ukraine is moving backward. It is difficult to stand up to such a neighbor as Russia. Georgia, however, succeeded in that. Georgia maintained a democratic vector of development. Consequently, I still believe that all efforts should be directed toward changing the situation in Russia, to turn around Russia toward democracy again. Then everyone, including Georgia, will sigh with relief. And then, if we talk about the existing situation in Georgia, it would be very easy to decide whether or not to carry on with what Saakashvili is doing. I know Bidzina Ivanishvili very well, although we have not had any contact for quite a long time now. If the top priority of the government is to continue the independent politics and not to succumb to pressure on the part of Russia, then I strongly doubt that Ivanishvili will carry on that policy.

- That is what Ivanishvili’s opponents assert. They believe that it is impossible for Ivanishvili to carry out politics which will be independent from Putin. What is your take on that?

I judge based on indirect signs. I know that Ivanishvili has no problems in Russia. For me, that is always an accurate criterion that the businessman plays according to the rules set by the Russian government. Understand it as you wish, but that is one-hundred-percent proof of his interaction with the Russian government. There are no businessmen in Russia who do not have problems with the government and, at the same time, are not supporters and carriers of its politics. Since Georgia is a principled part of Russian foreign policy – and based on this, as well as other factors which I do not want to discuss now; moreover, I do not want to look vulgar, as if I am busy with conspirology – I believe that Ivanishvili will not be able to keep up an independent vector of Georgia’s development. At the same time, I do not say that Ivanishvili is tied with the Russian government today. However, I do not rule out that option as well.

- How do you understand Ivanishvili’s role in the so called “Semibankirshchina” [group of bankers] who supported the campaign to elect Yeltsin for the second presidential term in 1996?

Even though Ivanishvili was not among outstanding representatives of that group, he was on the front line. In this regard, Ivanishvili’s contribution was great indeed. He was one of those who convinced [presidential contender Aleksandr] Lebed, who was a decisive figure in the battle between Yeltsin and [Communist Party candidate Gennady] Zyuganov, to support Yeltsin [in the run-off election]. I remember several meetings with Ivanishvili and his partner [Vitaly] Malkin back then. I also remember their meetings with Lebed, whom I also knew. But, in contrast to Ivanishvili, I did not have smooth relations with Lebed.

- What sort of relations did Ivanishvili have with Lebed?

I know nothing about that. At least, from my relations with Lebed, I can say that he was not a mercantile person; to put it roughly, he was not easy to buy. Of course, Lebed was a controversial figure in Russian politics, but, unlike the current Russian government, for him the interests of Russia were superior to material interests. I have never heard from Ivanishvili that he had any business projects or anything like that with Lebed. But Lebed trusted Ivanishvili and Malkin very much and took heed of their opinions, which became one of the important factors for his decision [to support Yeltsin in the presidential run-off election in 1996].

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 100, published 14 May 2012.