Why Putin's Pet Oligarch Is Stirring the Pot

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What's inside the Putin doll? Russian craftsmen have long since satirized their politicians by painting their likeness onto traditional hollow "matryoshka" dolls, each of which houses a smaller doll in descending sequence. And where cynics might have expected to find the likeness of arch-oligarch Boris Berezovsky inside a doll representing the president he helped bring to power, Putin may instead contain figures unpalatable to the media tycoon. Indeed, the new president's campaign against some of the other oligarchs — politically powerful billionaires who, like Berezovsky, accumulated their fortunes by questionable means in the Wild West early years of Russian capitalism — and his efforts to centralize power in the Kremlin have gotten Berezovsky so worried that he's announced his intention to quit parliament and launch a rival political party.

In an exclusive interview with TIME this week, Berezovsky set out the aims of what he insists will be a loyal opposition. It's not that he wants to bring Russia's current order crashing down, it's more that he fears that Putin has chosen a self-destructive path that will bury all of Russia — and therefore the interests of the oligarchs, too — in the debris. Three aspects of Putin's policies concern Berezovsky:

  • He believes the Chechen war is a quagmire. Berezovsky may have backed Putin to the hilt in using his media outlets to spin the war as a vote-winner for candidate Putin, but he now believes Putin is pursuing a disastrous course by seeking to impose Moscow's rule on the Chechens. The tycoon now insists negotiation is the only solution, and that it's pointless to have Moscow talking to its own handpicked Chenchen puppets — negotiations have to be with those who are fighting on.

  • Berezovsky is also concerned with protecting the rights of parliament and other elected bodies from Putin's attempt to centralize power. He concedes that Russia's democracy right now is deeply flawed, but insists that a flawed democracy is better than a dictatorship.

  • The tycoon's third concern, hardly surprising, is Putin's attack on the oligarchs and the businesses they control. Fortunes may have been made in Russia in the early years by less than ethical means at a time when the legislative framework was weak, but attempting to redistribute property now by executive order, he says, would simply result in further abuses. He wants these issues settled exclusively by the courts, rather than by the Kremlin or the public prosecutor.
  • Despite his move into opposition, though, Berezovsky is unlikely to find himself in a showdown with the president, to whom he still expresses loyalty. Party politics means comparatively little in Moscow's corridors of power, where the deals that count are often struck far away from the public eye. Hence the dolls within dolls.