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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tycoon Reinvents Himself as Duma Candidate




CHERKESSK, Southern Russia -- Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, who bought a house in New York to get set for a U.S. Senate race, Boris Berezovsky has also hadto go house hunting far from home.


Russia's most versatile tycoon needs a new political domicile for his latest act, a campaign for a seat in the State Duma, parliament's lower house.


With elections just a month away, he catapulted himself into Karachayevo-Cherkessia last week, to the puzzlement of the 300,000 people who make up the multiethnic electorate of this tiny, neglected region in the unruly North Caucasus.


Berezovsky has ridden out the tumultuous changes in Russia by continually reinventing and promoting himself - as an automobile dealer, a financier, a media magnate, a government trouble-shooter and, always, a political insider. His latest incarnation may prove to be his most difficult, as he runs as one of 12 candidates in a district that has previously voted for the Communists, his archrivals.


No sooner had Berezovsky started his first whirlwind tour of the republic last Tuesday than a powerful gale blew in off the plains, driving fresh snow toward the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. But the sudden bout of bad weather did little to deter the hyper-energetic businessman, who landed near here in a charter plane and sped about town in a rose-red Mercedes, accompanied by a small but busy entourage of consultants and bodyguards.


On his first day on the campaign trail, Berezovsky met with about 60 potential supporters, most of them employees of a company owned by Stanislav Derev, who is the mayor of Cherkessk and a leader of the local Circassian, or Cherkess, community. The Circassians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have been waging a vociferous campaign against their compatriots and rivals, the Karachai, a major ethnic group with 30 percent of the population, whom they accuse of usurping power.


Ethnic tensions have been running high here since the summer, giving rise to concerns that Karachayevo-Cherkessia was heading down the road to violent confrontation. With the Russian army now ravaging nearby Chechnya, another tinderbox in the Caucasus is the last thing the Kremlin needs.


As he fielded questions, Berezovsky, looking every inch the oligarch in a tailored blue suit, was in his element, offering himself up as an expert in crisis management. Speaking like the mathematician he was before he turned to business, he told the audience how he likes to try to solve difficult problems. "I do this because I like to do it," he said with a broad smile. "If I didn't like it, I wouldn't do it."


Some believe that General Vladimir Semyonov, the leader of this region, holds the key to a Berezovsky victory on Dec. 19. "Will he get political support here?" the general asked. "That is the big question. There is only one month left to promote a candidate who has a negative image."


Berezovsky is not the only Russian businessman who has decided to make a run for the Duma. Roman Abramovich, an oil company executive who, like Berezovsky, can boast of close ties to Tatyana Dyachenko, President Boris Yeltsin's daughter, has gone even further afield: to Chukchi on the Bering Strait, the impoverished home to one of Russia's Arctic peoples, running in a district that has 58,977 voters.


The newspaper Izvestia, in a recent article examining the sudden urge of politically connected businessmen to seek public office, took a skeptical view of their motives. The headline on the front-page article, "In Law," was a thinly disguised allusion to the term "thieves in law," used to refer to Russia's criminal godfathers.


Izvestia contended that the oligarchs had chosen "national territorial regions" - as Russia's ethnically based regions are called - for two reasons. First, their electorates tend to be small, and second, they tend not to share the "allergy" to Russia's new breed of businessmen that has infected most of Russia.


But taking a broader view, the paper concluded that men like Berezovsky and Abramovich, having made their wealth during Russia's insider-driven privatization, are now looking for ways to legitimize it, by influencing laws that will affect their business interests.


Berezovsky, in an interview in Moscow, put it another way. Having been pushed out of a series of government jobs over the last few years, he said, he now wants to hold an official position, independent of the Russian government, that will provide a platform for his main political goal: keeping Russia's liberal economic reforms on track.


"I decided to run because my unofficial status was preventing me from pursuing this task," he said. "I can do serious things for reform, but my opponents have been exploiting the fact that as of now, I have no official position."


Speaking with his usual rapid-fire delivery, Berezovsky - who has been the target of on-again, off-again criminal investigations - dismissed all talk that he might be seeking legal cover as one of the Duma's 450 deputies who, under Russia law, are immune from criminal prosecution.


"One of the first things I would do as deputy would be to propose a law lifting immunity for deputies," he said. "The original purpose of the law was to guarantee the deputies' independence. But that is no longer valid. We now know that the Duma can be bought; many deputies' votes are paid for. I doubt that anyone can buy me for money. In that sense, I can be independent."


For the voters in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Berezovsky's notoriety is less important than his wealth, which some here openly hope will filter their way as he vies for their votes. Derev, a local vodka and mineral water magnate who is helping the Moscow-born candidate find a house in Cherkessk, says he has told Berezovsky as much.


"I think he will bring investments to the region," said Derev, who is claiming neutrality in the parliamentary contest. "I look at it from a pragmatic view. My advice to him is to take a factory and get it working again. People here want to see actions, not words."


After his visit to the republic, Berezovsky flew to the United States where he hoped to enlist Western investment for Russia and particularly for Karachayevo-Cherkessia. In an interview Sunday, he said the republic's potential has not yet been tapped, Interfax reported.