Declassified US government documents finally bury myth of Berezovsky hand-picking Putin and show Putin was always his own man
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
A recent article by Masha Gessen for the New York Times has revived the story of Putin having been hand-picked for the Russian Presidency by the former oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
In this article Gessen quotes Berezovsky telling her in 2008 that he proposed to Putin a fake two-party system to control Russia (see also Boris Berezovsky's Evil Plan to Mimic the U.S. Political System, Russia Insider, 12th June 2015).
Gessen, who is a staunch opponent of Putin’s, implies that this is the political system Putin has created in Russia, presumably under the influence of his former mentor, Berezovsky.
It needs to be said clearly and unambiguously that the story of Putin being hand-picked by Berezovsky is untrue and is a fantasy invented by Berezovsky himself. In the light of new evidence that has recently come to light it is incredible that it is still being peddled.
Before discussing how Putin actually came to power and what role (if any) Berezovsky had in it, it is necessary to say something about Berezovsky himself.
This is what a British High Court Judge said about Berezovsky in a court case that was decided in London in 2012:
"I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes. At times the evidence which he gave was deliberately dishonest; sometimes he was clearly making his evidence up as he went along in response to the perceived difficulty in answering the questions in a manner consistent with his case; at other times, I gained the impression that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events. On occasions he tried to avoid answering questions by making long and irrelevant speeches, or by professing to have forgotten facts which he had been happy to record in his pleadings or witness statements. He embroidered or supplemented statements in his witness statements, or directly contradicted them. He departed from his own previous oral evidence, sometimes within minutes of having given it. When the evidence presented problems, Mr. Berezovsky simply changed his case so as to distance himself from statements and in witness statements which he had signed or approved, blaming the 'interpretation' of his lawyers, as if this somehow diminished his pleadings and witness statements. His 'I blame my lawyers' excuse was not convincing."
Given how comprehensively the Judge trashed Berezovsky’s reputation, it is incredible that his numerous fantasies about Putin and Russia continue to have such currency. The almost certainly invented story of his conversation with Putin about setting up a fake two-party system is a case in point.
In an article I wrote shortly after the court case was decided I pointed out that almost nothing Berezovsky said about anything could be assumed to be true, and that many of the things he said were demonstrably his own inventions.
I particularly took issue with the claim that Berezovsky hand-picked Putin for the Presidency. I pointed out that not only is there no evidence for that beyond Berezovsky’s own uncorroborated word --- which the Judge said was worthless --- but that it made no sense since at the very time Berezovsky was supposedly lobbying for Putin to be made President he was simultaneously accusing the FSB --- headed by Putin --- of trying to kill him. The idea that Berezovsky would want the man who headed the organization he said was trying to kill him to become President of Russia is just too bizarre, even for the convoluted world of Kremlin politics in the late Yeltsin era.
Since the Judge said those words and since I wrote that article the whole question of Berezovsky’s role in Putin’s rise to power has been finally and conclusively settled by the publication of recently declassified U.S. government documents from the Clinton era. They show conclusively that Putin was not Berezovsky's man and that Berezovsky did not hand-pick him for the Presidency.
The contents of these documents have been brilliantly summarised by Graham Stack for Business New Europe in an article that has failed to attract the attention it deserves.
The documents show that Berezovsky’s choice to lead Russia was not Putin, whom he hardly knew, but the then foreign minister Igor Ivanov (whom Graham Stack mistakenly calls “Ivan Ivanov”).
The connection between Igor Ivanov and Berezovsky was previously unknown. It probably explains Igor Ivanov’s subsequent --- and previously explained --- disappearance from Russian political life following his dismissal from the post of foreign minister in March 2004 -- shortly after the power of the oligarchs was finally broken with Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003 and Kasyanov's dismissal in February 2004.
As to Putin’s relations with Berezovsky and the other oligarchs in 1999 when he rose to power, these are the key paragraphs that describe them in Graham Stack’s article:
"Contrary to reports that Berezovsky had selected Putin as presidential candidate, Putin and Berezovsky seem to have had little contact with each other before Putin became president, which may have been another reason for Berezovsky’s misjudging him. Berezovsky himself told U.S. diplomats that he backed new foreign minister Ivan Ivanov to succeed Primakov as prime minister in 1999, although Putin eventually got the nod, after an interlude of six weeks.
"Oligarch banker Pyotr Aven confirmed to U.S. diplomats that there was no special tie between Putin and Berezovsky, even 'noting that he himself had introduced the two', U.S. diplomats wrote. 'Putin knows no-one,' Aven told the diplomats, while at the same time acknowledging that the oligarchs have 'no instrument of influence over him'."
In other words so far from being Berezovsky’s protege Putin was his own man and he and Berezovsky had previously had “little contact with each other”. According to the oligarch banker Pyotr Aven (still a prominent if much diminished figure in Russian life) “Putin knows no-one” and the oligarchs had “no instrument of influence over him”.
Graham Stack’s article is worth reading in its entirety because of the astonishing picture it gives of politics in Russia in the 1990s, with a group of seven oligarchs including Berezovsky having effectively usurped power while assuring the U.S. of their intention to subordinate Russia to U.S. interests -- to the point of even welcoming the eastward expansion of NATO.
So far from Putin being a creature of Berezovsky and the oligarchs, it was almost certainly because he was known to be his own man and someone the oligarchs “had no instrument of influence over” that Putin was selected for the Presidency, almost certainly at the insistence of the more patriotically minded members of the political and security establishment, who were outraged at the oligarchs’ betrayal of Russia at a time when Yugoslavia was being bombed.
Graham Stack’s article, unlike the overwhelming majority of articles written about Putin and how he came to power, is not based on surmise and speculation --- mostly ill-informed --- but on actual documents of the time setting out information that was being provided to the U.S. government by the U.S. embassy, which was in turn being kept well-informed of events by the oligarchs. Graham Stack's article is therefore an authoritative and definitive account of these events in a way that the vast majority of books and articles written on the subject are not.
There is therefore no longer any excuse for perpetuating Berezovsky’s self-serving fantasy that he was responsible for Putin’s rise to power.
Nor is there any excuse for saying Putin is a creature of the oligarchs and that he governs Russia on their behalf.
Anyone now who persists in peddling these myths is either ill-informed or is being deliberately misleading about them.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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