A tale of intrigue in the Kremlin Oligarch: Most theories on Chernomyrdin's abrupt return to power center on a businessman who Russians say embodies the greed that has driven their country toward financial ruin.

Sun Journal

August 28, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Almost immediately, the tales of conspiracy and intrigue began to emerge: secret meetings on the French Riviera, clandestine midnight visits to the Russian White House, nervous encounters at country houses.

President Boris N. Yeltsin's abrupt dismissal of his prime minister, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, Sunday night was so shocking that many Russians could only imagine it was accomplished by the most elaborate of schemes.

Reporters and commentators have been presenting their theories with relish the past few days. Most of them center on a man who neither represents a political party nor has ever held elected office. This man stands for a far more powerful force: Russians say he embodies the greed that has driven their country toward financial ruin.

The man, Boris A. Berezovsky, 51, is one of the half-dozen financial oligarchs who have gradually gathered up oil, gas, timber and metals to enrich themselves, set up banks to take care of their fortunes, and bought newspapers, magazines and television stations to make sure their versions of events are well-circulated. Billionaires and multimillionaires, they always seem to want more.

Though all of them expect the government to respect their every wish, Berezovsky is the one who seems to enjoy the politicking and doesn't mind if the public catches him in the act. He let it be known that he wasn't pleased in March when Yeltsin fired his prime minister of five years, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, and replaced him with Kiriyenko, the 36-year-old fuel and energy minister.

Kiriyenko inherited a huge debt, which Chernomyrdin had watched accumulate as he bailed out businesses owned by the well-connected and looked the other way as they failed to pay taxes.

Still, the financial cataclysm bore down on them. As Russia fell deeper into financial trouble over the past few weeks, the most popular theory goes, the tycoons felt their empires trembling.

Kiriyenko was promising to stick to tough measures, and the oligarchs began to realize that he might not protect them in the style to which they were accustomed. Kiriyenko, who was not part of the ruling elite, was planning to let businesses fold and banks fail instead of propping them up with more infusions of government money.

Berezovsky, who had remained close to Chernomyrdin, reportedly decided that a change was required. Chernomyrdin, 60, was just as oligarchic as anyone: He had run the giant Gazprom natural gas monopoly and, as a result, is reputed to be a billionaire himself.

First, Berezovsky launched attacks on Kiriyenko through his newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Fellow tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky followed suit, with critical coverage of Kiriyenko on his popular television network, NTV.

Earlier this month, Berezovsky and Chernomyrdin worked out the details in a meeting on the French Riviera, one newspaper gleefully reported this week. By Friday, Nezavisimaya Gazeta was writing glowing tributes to Chernomyrdin's prowess -- and predicting his return to power.

According to a source, the newspaper wrote, there was an effort under way to bring Chernomyrdin back, and the effort was being stepped up. "At first, the premier Sergei Kiriyenko will have a chance to display his utter helplessness as head of government, and then Boris Yeltsin will be given an opportunity to see for himself the uselessness of the recipes of the [Anatoly] Chubais team" -- a reference to a leading reformer now serving as Yeltsin's envoy to the West.

Two days later, Kiriyenko was fired.

Obschaya Gazeta, whose editor deftly tries to remain independent by playing several big shareholders off each other, called Berezovsky "Richelieu," after the French cardinal who won favor with Louis XIII by charming his mother.

"Boris Abramovich's step is as light as a cat's, but he brings trouble to those who hear his steps approaching," the newspaper wrote yesterday. "The young technocrats in the government were mistaken when they believed that if they had been chosen by the president, they would be able to survive Berezovsky's disfavor. But it all came out the way Berezovsky planned. Kiriyenko has left and Chernomyrdin is back in office.

"While other people are looking for a way to save the ruble or to attract foreign investors, Berezovsky is busy with more fruitful work the future of the ruling elite."

Several politicians, preferring a Russian example, refer to Berezovsky as a modern Rasputin, after the manipulative self-styled monk who held the wife of the last czar in thrall. Berezovsky is said to have struck an alliance with Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, to influence the president through her.

Several newspapers have reported that Berezovsky convinced Dyachenko and Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin's chief of staff, of the wisdom of restoring Chernomyrdin. On Saturday night, they brought the papers to Yeltsin and persuaded him to sign, the story goes.

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