Friday, April 13, 2007

Boris Plots A Coup

Boris Berezovsky, the multi-millionaire Russian businessman in exile in London, has used an interview in the Guardian to announce he's plotting to overthrow the government of President Putin. Berezovsky has been just about Putin's biggest critic ever since he fell out with him after being sidelined following Putin's election in 2000. Berezovsky was also close to his own former bodyguard and fellow dissident, Alexander Litvinenko, before his apparent murder by the Kremlin last year.

Berezovsky's not the first of the so-called oligarchs (the businessmen who made a fortune when Soviet state assets were privatised in the 1990s) to turn against Putin's regime. Mikhail Khodorkovsky ran the massive oil firm Yukos and funded anti-government politicians, until Putin had him jailed on a trumped up tax evasion charge, and gave all his oilfields to the state-run companies instead.

Berezovsky's old business partner Roman Abramovich escaped a similar fate only by coming to London when he realised which way the wind was blowing back in Moscow. He stays on tolerable terms with Putin by investing lots of money in the far-away chunk of Siberia of which he's the governor, although he's now totally sold up his share of his almost-as-big-as-Yukos oil firm Sibneft for an enormous amount of cash. Berezovsky made his lesser fortune by selling his share of Sibneft to Abramovich a few years back.

Like Abramovich, Berezovsky is safe (ish) in London, so he can at least be confident he's not going to end up doing time in a Siberian prison like Khodorkovsky. Which is probably why he feels emboldened to threaten Putin in this way. Although the Russian constitution says Putin can't run for a third term in office next year, Berezovsky's fear is that he'll simply alter it and cruise to another electoral victory. Frankly, it wouldn't be a surprise if Putin did just that.

Berezovsky's a man who clearly wants to replace Putin as President if he can, although installing someone more to his taste is a much more likely possibility. The thought of Putin staying on and continuing to freeze him and his business friends out of how Russia is run is not something he wants to accept (they'd rather go back to the Yeltisin era, when they could more or less do as they pleased). His chances of successfully toppling Putin in a coup, as he is threatening to do, seem remote at best. But if, as he claims, he really does have the support of some senior figures within the Kremlin, we might wake up one day to find out it's actually happened.

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