"The battle for Russia continues, the victory will be ours," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cried out to tens thousands of supporters at a rally in Moscow on Thursday, quoting also from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov about the crucial Russian battle against Napoleon in 1812.
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During the rally, Putin spoke out against the corruption, the inequality and the Russian clerks ill manners – that have characterized the ruling mechanism he has been heading for the past 12 years.
“Thank you for every vote,” he said, ignoring the irony of the statement, made amid widespread claims of election fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections.
Some Russian opposition members chose to tweet about the rally from a safe distance, while others held counter-demonstrations. But one of the motley opposition figures that brought together in struggle against Putin's rule unlikely partners, was following the developments from very far away, as he has been for the last12 years since he left Moscow to England.
When I met Boris Berezovsky for the first time, back in the summer of 2000 in Moscow, he wasn’t yet in exile, but had already crossed Putin. At that time, Putin had already risen to power as a successor to Boris Yeltsin after he orchestrated his political ascent together with a group oligarchs, relatives and high-ranking officials called at the time “the Family."
But in 2000, even after he had already criticized the measures Putin had taken to strengthen his hold on power, Berezovsky wasn’t yet ashamed of the part he played in the appointment of Putin as prime minister, which ultimately resulted in his election as Russia’s president.
"I haven’t a doubt,” he said at the time, "that his ultimate goal is the building of a democratic country. But the way he chose to accomplish this end is very wrong."
Today, Berezovsky prefers not to speak about his part in Putin’s political career. “I do not spare myself from criticism, because I took part in it,” he grants, but immediately adds a caveat. “Actually, it was Yeltsin who made the decision himself, as he always did in critical junctures."
Throughout the years, Berezovsky has done what he could to undermine Putin’s government from his residence in London. He helped the opposition and held press conferences in which he laid out his criticism of the corruption and wrongdoing in the hands of Putin and his men.
“I focused my efforts on helping the West to get an answer to the question "Who is Mister Putin". In 2,000, when I gave my first lectures in London, public opinion at the auditorium was uniform: ‘You are a thief, an oligarch. Putin is a wonderful democrat ridding the country of corrupt persons like you," he said.
His interview with Haaretz has no lack of contradictions: on the one hand, he claims “no one would go to a rally in support of Putin of his own accord,” predicting the regime’s imminent demise. On the other hand, he subsequently bitterly criticized the Russian voter’s lack of criticism. “The great Russian people fell in love with Putin and propped him in power again in 2004 with enthusiasm. So it could be said that the Russian people have the government they deserve."
The twist in the plot came, according to Berezovsky, after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, who spoke out against Putin and was subsequently poisoned in London in 2006 with a radioactive substance. After that incident, public opinion in the West started to change.
Are you afraid of Putin?
“I am worried because Litvinenko's death is real, and three attempts have been made on my life in London. If I were afraid, I obviously wouldn’t give this interview," he said.
A few years ago, Berezovsky was a lone voice calling for another Russian revolution. Today, he finds encouragement from mass opposition protests and from other voices that have joined the call for change.
“This is not the first autocratic regime in the history of mankind, and dictators have always met their end in the same way,” he predicted. “Either they end up like Augusto Pinochet, or they are hanged. I am certain that this will happen in the case of Putin’s regime, because it is already clear that he has chosen to violently hold on to power. He had raped the people by ignoring the constitution, and thus the people have the right to respond violently."
Berezovsky doesn’t have many kind words to say about the other Russian presidential hopefuls, or about the Russian opposition in general for that matter. The billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who has been accusing two other of his opponents - Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the communist Gennady Zyuganov - of being on the Kremlin's payroll, himself is termed by many from the opposition as the “Kremlin’s project."
“I know him,” said Berezovsky of Prokhorov. “I always thought good things about him. He was always a reasonable and fair. I don’t know why he needs to take part in this. I also don’t know that he is doing it of his own free will. People are blackmailed. He had more reasons than others to be an independent, so I don’t understand why he got into it, why he is ruining himself."
"Russia moving backwards"
Berezovsky thinks all the candidates are “Kremlin projects.” According to him, “without them, these elections wouldn’t have taken place. Putin isn’t legitimate and doesn’t have the right to run for a third term. It is unconstitutional, and by taking part in this illegal election, they themselves are criminals."
He says he tried to help the opposition, but admits its situation is "very difficult, but not desperate".
"There are hundreds of thousands of people going out to protest, but the leading figures don’t have an ideology, giving the communist Zyuganov somewhat of an advantage in that respect. Zyuganov has an ideology, even if it’s one I utterly reject."
"Already, we can tell the government decided on the worst of the options – winning in the first round," he added. "After the polls close on March 4, it will be irreversible. The regime in Russia will only be brought down by violent means. A positive outcome for Russia is only possible in the case of regime change. If Russia continues on its current path, it will simply cease to exist as a unified country.
Berezovsky says he thinks Putin is "lost." "He has lost all contact with reality," he says. "Why is he supporting Assad’s regime in Syria, for example? It think that watching Gadhafi’s end on television scared him. I believe that it occupies his dreams."
If in 1999 Yeltsin and his henchmen had chosen someone else, what would Russia look like?
"Were it (Yevgeny) Primakov… things would have been even worst. Had Putin been real Yeltzin's heir, continuing democratic reforms but without Yeltzin's mistakes - without doubt, Russia would be today part of the civilized world. But in the 12 years of Putin’s reign, Russia moved backwards, affecting those living in Russia, those in Russian prisons, and those forced to leave."
Berezovsky is currently awaiting a court ruling in a London courthouse on a lawsuit he filed against his friend and former partner Roman Abramovich. This battle of titans has been receiving wide media coverage, but Berezovsky refuses to comment on it until the court gives its ruling in the spring or summer.
This does not stop him, however, from musing over the prospect of returning to Russia. “It can only happen if the Russian Attorney General stops summoning me,” he said. “The main condition is that the regime, which keeps Mikhail Khodorkovsky locked up, change. I admire Mikhail for his courage and the path he had taken, but I’m not sorry for choosing my own."
He thinks March 4th Presidential elections in Russia will set the people on an inevitable course of collision with Putin. The situation, he says, reminds him of the "Orange revolution" in Ukraine - another one he was involved in from the distance. I remind him that the Ukrainian scenario did not necessarily end well for the central figures. Former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, "Orange princess", is in jail. And Victor Yanukovych that represented more pro-Russian course, is the President.
"I absolutely disagree", Berezovsky says. "Yanukovych-2004 and the current one - these are two different politicians. Not because he has changed much - but because the people, the county has changed. Today's Ukraine is much more independent. It's a different country".
When I ask him about relations between Israel and Russia, that evolved to cancellation of the visa regime, despite Israeli objections to Moscow welcoming Hamas and Hizballah delegations, selling arms to Syria and objecting tightening sanctions against Iran. Berezovsky sounds slightly irritated.
“I don’t see any sign that relations warm; only cold calculated diplomacy. I am not in a position to give Israeli leaders dealing with the complicated issue of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons any advice. I understand that what is driving the Israeli leadership is Israeli national interests, and I have no right to provide an assessments of how Israel should steer its relations with Russia, even with the criminal regime that exists there today.”
After talking to Berezovsky, I called my grandmother, who still lives in Russia, far from the rattle in Moscow. Her whole life she had worked as an economist in a steel factory, and got used to walking the line. “Who are you going to vote for?” I asked.
“Good question,” she answered. “What alternatives are there? Zyuganov the communist? Zhirinovsky the blabbermouth? Prokhorov? I don’t even know him. Anyway, why do we need an oligarch in power? I don’t think Putin is such a bad person. He raises our pensions from time to time."