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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Berezovsky's Letter Dominates News




Moscow political circles were abuzz Wednesday over an open letter by controversial tycoon Boris Berezovsky criticizing President Vladimir Putin's plan to rein in regional governors.


Local media and analysts said the letter could signal the beginning of a new formation of political opposition to the president on the part of regional leaders and the country's financial and industrial "oligarchs."


In the letter, released Tuesday, Berezovsky, a State Duma deputy, said he would be obliged to vote against the president's legislative project, which was "directed toward changing the state's structure" and represented a "threat to Russia's territorial integrity and democracy."


The bill, overwhelmingly approved by the Duma 319 votes to 39 in a first reading Wednesday, calls for the most fundamental changes yet to the country's 1993 Constitution through the strengthening of central power, a cornerstone of Putin's policies. It proposes creating seven administrative districts to be supervised by presidential appointees, removing governors from the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and making it possible for the president to sack governors.


Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said Berezovsky's letter constitutes a threat to Putin, the very man whom many say Berezovsky in large part helped bring to power.


"The letter is a pretext to form a new opposition of regional leaders and oligarchs," Ryabov said.


Berezovsky defended his move in a telephone interview Wednesday.


"I knew from the start that my appeal to the president would be used by all kinds of opponents in bad faith," he said. "The only thing governing me when I decided to write the letter was the desire for Russia to continue developing along a democratic path.


"But the main goal is to maintain what we have achieved in the last 10 years - sometimes with great difficulties - which is a truly democratic state," he added.


Izvestia on Wednesday played on a phrase in Berezovsky's letter - "one cannot change the rules of the game after it has started" - saying that Berezovsky, who considers himself to be Putin's political "father," was trying to put the brakes on the president, who had made his first move independently of "the family," a powerful group of insiders including Berezovsky and said to control the Kremlin decision-making process.


Often seen as a paper that follows the family-approved line, Izvestia added that the businessman's public move came after a failed attempt to influence the president in a private meeting last week. Berezovsky denied that he met the president last week.


The tycoon and his letter made the front page of almost of all the capital's major newspapers.


Vremya Novostei commented on Tuesday night's news coverage on ORT television, which featured an item about Berezovsky's letter as its top story. The state-owned channel - the country's most-watched - is also widely seen to be controlled by Berezovsky. "It's an interesting episode of using a de facto state channel to counteract the state's own policies," the paper wrote.


Kommersant - also controlled by Berezovsky - opined that passage of the president's bill in its first reading would signify little, since most corrections come afterward. The Duma is set to examine the legislation in a second reading on June 30.


The Carnegie Center's Ryabov said Berezovsky had several motives for issuing his letter.


"The first is that he was acting in the interests of 'the family,'" he said. "They are not interested in a strong president, and want to maintain a fragmented political stage."


Another motive involves Berezovsky's personal ambitions and is tied to the Kremlin administration's moves to push Berezovsky away from its decision-making process, Ryabov said. "While there are no problems posed for Berezovsky's businesses, the letter shows he wants to remain an important political player."


Another chief motive involves the desire on the part of the country's oligarchs and regional leaders to maintain the profitability of business interests they control with a large degree of independence from the center.


"The president's legislative project taken together with proposed tax reforms would most likely end the oligarchs' economic privileges," Ryabov said, citing as an example the oil industry, in which Berezovsky is included through Sibneft, an oil holding he partly controls.


Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation said while Berezovsky in fact remains influential - as shown by recent Cabinet appointments of men said to be close to him, including Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov and Kremlin Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin - he is nonetheless interested in protecting the powers of regional leaders.


"Berezovsky has invested a lot in these people, who include a number of governors," Volk said.


However, Volk said Berezovsky's letter would not constitute significant influence on the Kremlin. "It's a warning to Putin that his proposed changes might see some opposition in the future."


Although all of the president's proposals passed in their first reading Wednesday, Berezovsky said he was completely satisfied with the discussion in parliament, and that he had achieved his goal of generating a "public discussion" of the issues.


"I think that - not without my participation - it was possible to subject the questions to a most serious discussion and analysis already today," he said.


"Those who voted for [passing the legislation] did not vote for the law, as they said, but for the fact that the topic is absolutely important and must be discussed."


In a written statement, Berezovsky put forward his own proposals in eight points to "strengthen the federation and power," including doing away with the proposed seven districts, instituting direct elections to the Federation Council and boosting regional independence within a uniform federal code. (See box.)


Berezovsky said he ultimately wants these issues put to the population in a referendum.


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8 SUGGESTIONS FOR STRENGTHENING THE FEDERATION


1. Ask the president to cancel his decree establishing seven federal districts.


2. Form the Federation Council via direct popular elections.


3. Pass legislation guaranteeing that the dismissal of elected regional and local leaders can be effected only by the will of the voters.


4. Delineate and unify the respective rights and obligations of the federal center and the regions in a single, standardized federative agreement.


5. Retain the existing way of forming organs of local self-government, while legislatively reinforcing their independence from regional leaders and their accountability to voters.


6. Create special local prosecutor's offices, directly accountable to the Prosecutor General's Office, to oversee adherence to the Constitution.


7. Introduce a legislative norm establishing criminal liability of regional executive officials for specific violations of federal law.


8. Cancel the law stipulating that the dismissal or appointment of heads of regional offices of federal agencies must be agreed upon by regional leaders.