Berezovsky Fires a Broadside
On Friday, we reported that exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky had told the British newspaper The Guardian that he felt the only way the rise of a neo-Soviet state could be halted in Russia was through the use of force — and he declared he was prepared to support that effort (giving no specifics).
Some Russia watchers found this disturbing, since (a) Berezovsky is undoubtedly involved with organized crime and (b) the term “force” could be equated with the use of violence. We are less concerned and think that, on balance, Berezovsky’s declaration was, if not a good thing, at least a necessary one. Here’s why.
To be sure, nothing good can come of armed insurrection against a Kremlin that has monpolized military force. We don’t support it. It wouldn’t work any more than it would have worked in Gandhi’s India or Martin Luther King’s America. But who seriously thinks Berezovsky is capable of prompting that? In fact, it seems even Berezovsky agrees: he immediately clarified his remarks, stating that the “force” he was referring to was a “bloodless” variety of change. To be sure, it would be far better for Russia if someone less tainted by criminal enterprise would step forward to challenge the Kremlin. But careful readers will notice that Berezovsky’s critics almost never name such people, and even more rarely do they make public shows of support for them. Mention the name Garry Kasparov, for instance, and many will simply scoff. We greatly admire Garry, but even we have recently found much to criticize about his record. So far, he’s established no significant traction in Russia (or even outside it).
Someone has to publicly get in the Kremlin’s face on the international stage. Someone has to show a total lack of fear and respect for the Kremlin’s retaliatory capacity and its alleged legitimacy, which is an illusion. Someone has to demonstrate that the Kremlin isn’t almighty or invulnerable, but rather just a bunch of cheap thugs in bad suits who can be brought to heel by a determined popular front. Who among Berezovsky’s critics can say that Putin, a proud KGB spy, is any better in moral terms than Berezovsky? Nobody even knows Putin’s past well enough to make that judgment.
Fear of authority is basically a national psychosis in Russia, and dramatic action is needed to shake it off. What else but such primitive, blind fear could explain Russians voting for Boris Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor when they expressed such seething contempt for his judgment? For centuries, the Kremlin has exploited Russian fear of authority to subjugate the population, so it’s not surprising to see it happening again.
No one can deny that Berezovsky has taken very considerable risks by making his statement. He’s invited the Kremlin to use it as a basis to renew its plea that Britain extradite him (it’s already begun doing so), and he’s added to the long list of serious offenses it can charge him with if extradicted. Moreover, he’s exposed himself to the risk of an assassination attempt; so many Russian dissidents have fallen that it would hardly be surprising to see him struck down as well.
In speaking, Berezovsky has reminded the Kremlin (and the world) that it has alienated and infuriated the British government with its outrageous conduct in connection with the Litvinenko affair, which at best amounted to the stonewalling of the British investigation and at worst saw the Kremlin spreading highly dangerous radioactive toxins all over London. He’s implied that Britain is so angry at Russia that it won’t extradite him no matter what he says — and he could be right. The British know perfectly well about Berezovsky’s dark side, so what kind of conduct on the Kremlin’s part would generate that kind of attitude?
In short, we are very disappointed with those who are so quick to attack Berezovsky without being equally quick to openly and strongly support “better” candidates for the role of opposition leader. We are equally disappointed to see many ignore the basic facts of life in Russia, where in terms of opposition leaders beggars can rarely be choosers. Was Lenin on that much of a higher moral plane than the Tsar when he took power? Boris Yeltsin threw down the Iron Curtain, and no sooner had he done so than he faced single-digit public approval ratings and impeachment proceedings after illegally disbanding parliament and then shelling its building. Then he made Putin, a proud KGB spy, president. Vladimir Putin’s regime is controlled by a dangerous clan of career spies who have shown no reluctance to horrific violence, and who have been roundly condemned by human rights groups across the globe for doing so.
Who is a better candidate to face down Putin than Berezovsky? Grigory Yavlinsky, whose party Yabloko has summarily imploded and who is as quiet as a mouse, refusing even to take part in the Other Russia protest actions? Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose tiny party has been summarily outlawed and who, in response, has vanished from sight? Mikhail Kasyanov, who is not even on the radar screen of most Russian voters and who is hardly a fountain of memorable rhetoric? Anna Politkovskaya’s successor? And who, pray tell, would that be?
If the choice in Russia is to have Putin’s rule, which threatens to destroy Russia in a cold war with the United States just as the USSR was destroyed, challenged by mafioso Berezovsky or nobody, that choice is a no-brainer. It’s a sad commentary on the depths to which modern Russia has sunk, but if Berezovsky is the best they can produce then he must be the one to speak.
If somebody else has a better message and messenger in mind, now’s the time to tell the world about it. Time is running out for Russia and, say what you like about Berezovsky, he seems to be one of the few people who know it.