Boris Berezovsky, (Ph.D)
Engineer and Billionaire
By PAUL QUINN-JUDGE/MOSCOW
"I am not saying Putin ordered the attacks. I am saing that he knew such things were taking place" - Boris Berezovsky
Engaging in breathtaking displays of selective memory, Boris Berezovsky and the Putin administration he helped bring to power spent much of last week exchanging allegations of horrible crimes. Berezovsky, the exiled billionaire who was one of the most influential figures in Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin, accused Vladimir Putin of complicity in devastating bombings of Russian apartment blocks in 1999 that killed over 200 people in Moscow and the small southern town of Volgodonsk. The Russian government refused to respond to the allegations, but announced that Berezovsky was being investigated for links to Chechen guerrillas.
Berezovsky unveiled research and a documentary film that, he said, convinced him Putin was aware that the state security service, or FSB, was behind the bomb attacks. "I am not saying Putin ordered the attacks," he told journalists at a London press conference. "I am saying that he knew such things were taking place." The aim had been to trigger a wave of outrage and allow Putin, who had been Prime Minister for less than a month, to show himself a man of action. Immediately after the blasts, the government announced that they were the work of Chechen terrorists. Days later Russia launched military operations against the lawless, breakaway republic of Chechnya. Within months Putin was President.
Berezovsky's accusations centered on an incident that took place soon after the worst bombings. Local residents in the city of Ryazan, south of Moscow, reported suspicious behavior to the police, who discovered a large quantity of an unknown powder. The FSB later claimed that they had been conducting an exercise, and that the powder was sugar, yet an explosives specialist from the city was quoted as saying that it was in fact hexogen, the substance that had wrought such horrible damage in Moscow and Volgodonsk. If the bombing was done by the FSB, Berezovsky said, Putin must have known. Until March of that year, he had been chairman of the FSB, and then combined this with a position in the Security Council, which oversees security and defense.
The strange incident in Ryazan has never been fully explained. But Berezovsky's interest in the subject is as belated as it is unconvincing. He did not explain why it took him so long to conclude that Putin was aware of the bombings. As a prime mover in the inner circle around Yeltsin, Berezovsky prided himself on knowing exactly who was doing what in the highest reaches of power. He, like other businessmen-powerbrokers, collected information on rivals, friends and the Kremlin. He also had access to information provided by a security organization that was described in press accounts at the time as being the equal of the FSB in terms of equipment and expertise, if not in size. The security organization, Atoll, worked for corporations owned by Berezovsky, though he denied that Atoll itself belonged to him.
At the time of the bombings Berezovsky voiced no suspicions about FSB involvement. He was, in fact using all the levers at his disposal to ensure the advancement of Putin's career. The stakes for Berezovsky were very high: the main alternative to Putin, former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, had sworn to put Berezovsky behind bars or into exile. Government claims that Berezovsky had nefarious links to Chechen guerrillas are also late in coming. Berezovsky often had dealings with Chechens, and had a hand in hostage releases, a very murky aspect of Yeltsin's Russia, where top police officials were often rumored to be getting a cut of the ransom money. Berezovsky's dealings with the Chechens were well known, yet the FSB, headed for part of the time by Putin, expressed no concern.
In modern Russia, allegations like those exchanged last week are intended as warnings. Each side is signaling a willingness to use the compromising material at its disposal. Why Berezovsky has chosen this particular moment to launch his attack is still a mystery: he may have felt the need to remind Moscow of his presence, or he may be responding to some perceived but as yet unpublished threat from the Putin administration. In any case, his message is clear to those in the know: Keep up the pressure, and my memory will become less selective.