- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a threat to Russian political liberties and press freedoms, powerful Moscow businessman Boris Berezovsky warned yesterday.

Mr. Berezovsky, perhaps the best known of Russia's small group of superwealthy "oligarchs," was in Washington yesterday to tout his new "unified opposition" movement after publicly breaking with Mr. Putin last month over the new president's bid to centralize power in the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin "wants to combine all political power executive, legislative, judicial in his own hands," Mr. Berezovsky said yesterday. "There is no real opposition in Russia today whatsoever."

Mr. Berezovsky, who last month resigned his seat in the State Duma, the more powerful of Russia's two legislative chambers, charged that moves by Mr. Putin's government to control the country's three dominant television networks posed a direct threat to freedom of the press in Russia.

"Forget the words, watch the actions," said Mr. Berezovsky, who said he was divesting his own holdings in one of the three networks.

"Their moves mean a final end to freedom of expression in Russia," he said.

As Mr. Berezovsky was speaking, in Moscow media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, whose NTV media empire has been the most critical of the government, told reporters he had been forced to relinquish control of his Media-MOST press empire under heavy pressure from the government.

Mr. Gusinsky, who was briefly jailed this spring on vague charges of fraud, said he was backing out on an agreement to sell his media companies to Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom, saying he only agreed to the $773 million deal under pressure from Russian state prosecutors.

"I was set free like a hostage," Mr. Gusinsky charged yesterday, saying he agreed to the sale in June "at gunpoint." Gazprom has denied the charges and said the sale was negotiated in part to settle a $473 million debt Mr. Gusinsky's company owed to the gas company.

Mr. Berezovsky emerged as one of the most controversial of the oligarchs in the 1990s, with heavy political clout to match his vast holdings in mineral rights and other assets of the old Soviet Union. His money and influence are credited with helping Boris Yeltsin squeak past Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election, and he was initially seen as a close adviser to Mr. Putin as well.

But Mr. Berezovsky has become one of Mr. Putin's fiercest domestic critics in the wake of a Kremlin-backed plan to strip Russia's powerful regional governors of much of their power and enhance the powers of the central government.

Unwinding his business affairs from his political ambitions is still proving difficult for Mr. Berezovsky. Several questions at yesterday's press briefing focused on a complicated proposal by Mr. Berezovsky to divest his 49 percent share in ORT, Russia's top-rated television station.

Despite the grinding war in Chechnya and the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster, Mr. Putin remains easily the most popular politician in Russia, with the economy picking up and the Kremlin enjoying firm support in the Duma.

But Mr. Berezovsky maintained yesterday that the president had alienated the country's "business and political elites" with its government overhaul program, and that his high ratings in the polls could prove only temporary.

"When you look at the speed at which his popularity went up, I think it could go down just as fast," the Russian magnate said, accusing Mr. Putin of trying to establish a "quasi-Chilean" model for Russia combining economic liberalism with political authoritarianism.

But Mr. Berezovsky was vague about the mechanics of his proposed opposition movement, indicating it would not be like a traditional political party and that he would not be a candidate to challenge Mr. Putin in the future.

He said a key base of support will be Russians living abroad, including the large Russian emigre communities in Israel and the United States. In addition to talking to reporters and meeting privately with U.S. government and business leaders here, Mr. Berezovsky said he planned to travel to Brooklyn to meet with the large Russian-American community there.

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