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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Paris Is Beyond the Long Arm of Law




When prosecutors came for Kremlin-connected tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Berezovsky was in Paris. When they came for his banking colleague Alexander Smolensky, Smolensky was in Vienna. When they opened a criminal case against Siberian metals mogul Anatoly Bykov, Bykov was reportedly in Acapulco, Mexico.


And that was just this week's installment of elite hide-and-seek.


In President Boris Yeltsin's Russia, when the law closes in on the powerful, the powerful always - always - seem to wriggle free. Prosecutors and police put up a half-hearted show of struggle, but somehow it all ends with the Berezovskys and Bykovs relaxing abroad, pleading their innocence, crying political persecution and promising to return to clear their name.


Berezovsky in particular must have felt safe Friday after Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, the nation's top police officer, announced he "did not intend to arrest Berezovsky" - even though the prosecutor general had issued a warrant for such an arrest.


"Berezovsky will arrive in Russia [on his own], present his explanations and this, I hope, will be the end of the matter," Stepashin was quoted as saying by news agencies.


Strange words from a national law enforcement officer? Not here. When it comes to charges against the Russian political elite, just about everyone seems to hope that a few "explanations" will quickly "be the end of the matter."


This, after all, is the nation where former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi in 1993 tried to call for aviation strikes against the Kremlin itself - yet ended up amnestied in a matter of days, and governor of the Kursk region a few years later. Rutskoi once famously spoke of having about a dozen suitcases filled with evidence of Kremlin corruption; that was more than five years ago, yet those suitcases remain closed.


Some politics watchers see a gentlemen's agreement among the elite, one that allows the "loser" in a political battle to keep his wealth and his freedom - in return for his silence, and for similar consideration, should the tables ever turn.


"No one in our establishment wants to see Berezovsky or Smolensky here," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of the Panorama think tank. "If Berezovsky were to be put behind iron bars, he could say enough so that the inner presidential circle, especially [Yeltsin's politically powerful] daughter, would hear more then enough."


But the desires of the establishment are not always in sync with those of the public. Sergei Don, a member of the Yabloko Party, spoke for many exasperated voters this week when he grilled the prosecutor general on the floor of the State Duma.


"Why is it that the criminal cases into the affairs of these people [Smolensky and Berezovsky] were opened precisely at the time when they were abroad, when it is clearly impossible to arrest and investigate them?" Don asked Yury Skuratov on Wednesday.


"Simply we have intensified our work lately," Skuratov replied, somewhat lamely. "We have produced some quality material, and started realizing [cases], one by one."


That hardly explains the elite's small but growing exile community - always flying business class to points West, just one step ahead of the law.


"[Elites like Berezovsky and Smolensky] have great intuition," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies." Besides, over the years of influence they have managed to place so many of their people in position of power, they get warned far ahead."


That was the case with, for example, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.


These days, Sobchak - who has been charged with corruption involving his City Hall's handling of real estate - lives a comfortable life in Paris, giving interviews to Interfax news agency about the state of Russian democracy and teaching at the Sorbonne. He also talks occasionally on the telephone with another fallen "democrat," former Deputy Moscow Mayor Sergei Stankevich, who stands charged with accepting a $10,000 bribe and lives today in Warsaw.


In October 1997, a full month before prosecutors came for him, Sobchak held a press conference in St. Petersburg to announce that his political opponents were using the prosecutors against him. After prosecutors did pick him up for questioning, Sobchak pleaded chest pain.


Days later - on Nov. 7, the same day Provisional Government chief Alexander Kerensky slipped out of the Winter Palace a step ahead of the Bolsheviks - Sobchak skipped town. Although he faced charges of corruption, he was allowed to rise from his hospital bed, catch a car to the airport and a chartered plane to Paris unobstructed.


In separate telephone interviews Friday, both Sobchak and Stankevich said they had been helped out of the country by friends in the know. Sobchak added that he was staying out of the country on the advice of those same concerned friends.Stankevich, who now runs a consulting business in Poland, said he was also tipped off thanks to leaks to the press, and so in 1995 he left for "safer shores."


"I am not an oligarch, I don't have their millions, and it's tough to compare us," Stankevich added. "There is only one thing we all have in common: The legal system of Russia is more and more serving political interests. ... There is no hope of getting justice in cases where the powers that be have vested interests."


Stankevich sometimes chats on the telephone with Sobchak about the situation in Russia - the two spoke again Friday - and Stankevich says he has come to look upon the "spiders' fight" that is Russian politics "with the growing interest of an entomologist."


At the time of Sobchak's departure, he and his wife, Duma Deputy Lyudmila Narusova, offered widely different accounts of the exact nature of treatment he was seeking in Paris - from open heart surgery to mere rest. Others who find themselves a step ahead of the law offer similar accounts of health problems in need of Western care.


Smolensky, for example, a founder of the now-foundering SBS-Agro Bank, has been in Vienna for well over a month due to health problems. And Bykov - an aluminum industry mogul who rivals Governor Alexander Lebed as the most powerful player in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region - was only present in the form of a press release this week when federal investigators announced money-laundering charges against him.


"I am undergoing medical treatment, but not in the U.S.A.," Bykov wrote. The financial newspaper Kommersant reported Friday that he was in Acapulco, but Bykov did not elaborate in his statement, saying only, "Let [the police] not worry and not waste taxpayer money looking for me. I will return of my own free will."