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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The False Dissident

Russias chief crony capitalist, Boris Berezovsky, has refashioned himself as a Soviet-style dissident. In September he addressed the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York. President Vladimir Putin, the tycoon argued, was betraying the ideals of the Yeltsin era and returning Russia to its authoritarian past. Berezovsky declared himself to be Russias primary defender of democracy, free speech and the free market. This month he even donated $3 million to the cash-strapped Sakharov Museum in Moscow in an effort to wrap himself in the mantle of the great human rights activist. This week, he pledged $25 million to support the development of Russian civil society.

In recent months, the public argument between Putin and Berezovsky has grown increasingly menacing. Putin talks about using a "cudgel" against those who try to "blackmail" the state. Berezovsky declares that "if Putin continues his destructive policies, his regime will not last to the end of his first constitutional term."

This is a strange sort of feud. To a large extent Berezovsky made Putin, and several of his business partners and political allies still head up the Interior Ministry, the prosecutors office, the presidential administration and other key state institutions. With Putin in power, Berezovskys future seemed assured.

Yet, just two months after the election, the new president turned against his erstwhile patron. The source of the conflict lies in Berezovskys commercial interests. The tycoon argues that Putin should declare an amnesty on all crimes committed during the privatization of state-owned property during the Yeltsin era. But instead of reassuring Russias crony capitalists, Putin signaled that the rules of the game had changed.

In the summer, government officials talked of bringing charges against a number of big companies. Media-MOST, Norilsk Nickel, LUKoil, Sibneft, Gazprom all have felt pressure to clean up their act. Berezovskys turn came in August, when the government challenged his executive control of the 51 percent state-owned television network ORT.

But the administration seemed reluctant to challenge Berezovsky directly or to prosecute him. At the same time that it was reining in ORT, for instance, the government took steps to bury the long-running investigation into alleged embezzlement at Aeroflot. The prosecutor who had led the Aeroflot investigation, Nikolai Volkov, was fired, and his immediate supervisor resigned.

The administration seemed to be saying that Berezovsky could go free and could even keep a good part of his liquid wealth, but he had to stay low, avoid criticizing the government and not boast so much about his power. Berezovsky refused. His reaction was to go to the West and declaim loudly about Putins "authoritarianism." Within weeks, the Aeroflot case was revived.

Still the prosecutors have been easy on Berezovsky. When media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky failed to appear at the prosecutors office in Moscow to answer questions about alleged fraudulent dealings, the government promptly sent out an Interpol warrant. Gusinsky now sits in Madrid, awaiting a decision on extradition. Berezovsky also refused a summons from the prosecutor twice. The governments reaction? The proposed conversation is being rescheduled for a future time. ORT? Berezovsky still retains his 49 percent share. If the government really wanted him out of ORT, it could simply cut off its lavish subsidies and allow the company to go bankrupt.

Putins moves against Berezovsky have been largely symbolic. Berezovskys government dacha has been confiscated, his direct phone line to the Kremlin has been terminated and the government license plates on his automobiles revoked. Hiding in the West, Berezovsky declared: "Essentially I am being forced to choose between becoming a political prisoner or a political ?migr?."

Please! Berezovsky is regarded as the embodiment of the degeneration of post-communist Russia into a corrupt and gangster-infested wasteland. Until now, he has rarely, if ever, spoken of his support for democracy. On the other hand, he has often stated that the government should be at the service of Big Business. "It is my fundamental belief that, leaving aside the abstract conception of the interests of the people, government should represent the interests of business," he declared in one interview

Another "abstract conception" Berezovsky has repeatedly ignored is freedom of the press. In the 1996 campaign Berezovsky stood behind the near total monopolization of state and private media in support of Yeltsin. As Berezovsky noted at the time to one American journalist, he "didnt believe in freedom of the press the way idealists would like to imagine this notion."

If Russia is going to make a clean break with the corruption and criminality of the Yeltsin years, the government has to apply the "dictatorship of the law" to the most egregious offenders. Ironically, though, Berezovsky may be safe precisely because he is the most egregious offender. Putin may have concluded that a full-scale prosecution of Berezovsky may simply be too costly politically. Yes, the largely symbolic attacks on Berezovskys empire have had an impact, but the actual application of the law to the tycoon is a "cudgel" that Putin seems to be keeping only as a last resort.

For his part, Berezovsky is planning a comeback. Several times over the past decade, Berezovsky has been on the verge of either assassination by business rivals or arrest by the authorities, but every time he has managed to outmaneuver his opponents. No one should be counting him out this time.

Paul Klebnikov is a senior editor at Forbes and the author of "Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia," published by Harcourt. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.