Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky Still Smiling

Two New York Times columnists acted as moderators at a session of Russian and Western investors in Davos a couple of years ago. When Tom Friedman asked George Soros what was holding up investment in Russia, the billionaire trader pointed to Boris Berezovsky across the table and said: "Him. He's a crook."

Amid the gasps, I stuck a microphone in front of the accused Russian oligarch, long whispered to be the money man behind Boris Yeltsin's corrupt "family," and asked, "Are you going to let him get away with that?"

Impervious to criticism, Berezovsky shrugged and smiled. He was not about to rise to the bait.

After last week's parliamentary elections, the little man with the darting eyes is smiling still. Thanks to the use of a bloody war as a political campaign device, Berezovsky and his amalgam of KGB apparatchiks, Yeltsin mafiosi and phony reformers have emerged on top.

The best thing about the Russian election was that it was held at all. The next best thing was that the Primakov-Luzhkov marriage of cunning no-goodniks, highly favored to take over the country only a few months ago, was stymied.

The worst thing about the Duma election was that it showed how easily the Russian electorate can be manipulated. Nobody will investigate the suspicion that the bombing of apartment houses was the work of the KGB taking a leaf from the Gestapo's Reichstag fire. But however caused, those terror attacks and ill-timed Chechen troublemaking ignited Russian fear and fury at the dark-skinned, independence-minded Muslims. It gave vengeful Russian generals and the Yeltsin "family" a new lease on political life.

Almost all politicians jumped on the kill-the-Chechens bandwagon. Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin's favorite "reformer" - the man who delivered the Soviet Union's wealth into the hands of a few favored oligarchs - led the charge to whip up hatred.

As a result of the war fever, and of the suppression of media reports of the first Russian casualties, the Kremlin party won a fourth of the seats; the Communists were held to another fourth, while phony reformers plus Vladimir Zhirinovsky's lunatic fringe have about 15 percent, as does the staggered Primakov-Luzhkov crowd.

The only party to call for negotiation with the Chechen leaders, rather than obliterating the women and children in Grozny, was Yabloko. The lonely democratic reformers, Grigory Yavlinsky and Sergei Stepashin, paid the price for resisting the bloodlust; their Duma strength dropped from 8 percent to 6 percent.

Now we will see the second phase of the Putin-Berezovsky-Chubais election strategy. Russian troops, accompanied by Chechen quislings sprung from Moscow jails, will win nominal control of Grozny, now pulverized by bombs and shells. Western reporters threatened with criminal prosecution will be kept from seeing the killing of civilians and the loss of Russian soldiers and tanks. The generals will then declare the war over.

By day, Russians will pose for pictures patrolling the key town squares. The negotiations scorned by politicians during the election campaign will be offered to Chechen leaders left standing. 'Twill be a famous victory.

By night in Grozny, however, and in the southern mountains, unconquered Chechen guerrillas supplied by terror networks may continue to harass and bleed the Russian occupiers. They outlasted Stalin; they could outlast Putin. If the grim Russia-haters act true to past form, the fickle Russian public may find the Chechen war not so popular by the time presidential elections roll around next fall.

Meanwhile, the family and its supporting crooks will lean on American politicians. Last week, under Republican pressure to react to the Chechen massacre, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had to use a national security law to stop the too-eager James Harmon, president of our taxpayer-supported Export-Import Bank, from guaranteeing a loan to Tyumen Oil, a sleazy Russian operation.

Mr. Harmon was the Wall Street banker who provided a $1 million-a-year haven for Tony Coelho after that pol left Washington under a cloud. Harmon also donated $115,000 in soft money to the Democratic National Committee in its gilt-edged 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. That bought him the Ex-Im bank job with Al Gore himself swearing him in. Coelho, now Gore's campaign chairman, is likely to be White House chief of staff if Gore wins.

Do you wonder why well-connected Boris Berezovsky is smiling as Chechens die at holiday time? Much business remains to be done.

William Safire is regular columnist for The New York Times, to which he contributed this article.