Russia can beat Berezovsky with better PR

The latest spat between Britain and Russia is largely a newspaper creation. The refugee oligarch Boris Berezovsky told the Guardian (13 April) that ‘he is planning the violent overthrow of President Putin from his base in Britain’. The Russian government was predictably, and understandably, annoyed. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, said Russia would be calling (once more) for his extradition to face trial for criminal activities. Of course, nothing much will follow. It’s just another small nail in the coffin of Anglo-Russian relations.

Berezovsky fled from Russia at the end of 2000, and was granted political asylum in Britain in September 2003. The Russian Prosecutor’s office had requested Britain that he be returned to stand trial for financial crimes, but Berezovsky successfully argued that he would be assassinated if he returned home. The main evidence for this was the assertion, on Russian TV in 1998. by FSB (ex-KGB) officer Alexander Litvinenko that he had been ordered by his superiors to murder Berezovsky. In fact Litvinenko (also granted political asylum in Britain) was the one who was murdered. All this is deeply mysterious, but there must be a suspicion that Litvinenko was put up to the assassination story by Berezovsky, who was already planning his escape from Russia.

It is unlikely that a fresh Russian request for extradition –this time for political as well as financial crimes –will succeed, because a judge considering such a request would need to be sure that Berezovsky would face a reasonably fair trial, and, if found guilty, would receive a sentence proportionate to the offence. No British judge would send Berezovsky back to Russian justice. Berezovsky’s continuing freedom is the price the Russian government pays for the way it disposed of Khodorkovsky and Yukos.

Nevertheless, he is a continuing obstacle to Anglo-Russian understanding which is
important, not just for the two countries, but for international relations. Is there anything which can be done?

The British government could deport him, on the ground that his presence in Britain is against the public interest. There are plenty of other countries which would happily receive him and his money (now estimated at $1.5bn.). But this is unlikely to happen, since Britain would be seen as bowing to Russian pressure.

The British might prosecute him themselves under anti-terrorist legislation which makes it a crime to plot the violent overthrow of any government. But such a prosecution is unlikely to succeed –Berezovsky is a master at back pedalling and claiming he was misrepresented –so it is unlikely to be attempted.

The Russians would probably do best to ignore him. But it is difficult for them to do this, since he was once powerful and still has money and good connections. Also, governments doubtful of their own legitimacy always over-react –as the recent heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg show. So for the Kremlin he remains a force for mischief.

A partial solution would simply be to cut off the oxygen of publicity on which he thrives. He goes around peddling the story that he is about to topple Putin, that ‘Putin doesn’t have the chance to survive, even to the next election of 2008’. This shows he has lost touch with reality. Why should any newspaper give him a platform for his empty boasting? He is yesterday’s news, not tomorrow’s. The reason he can still place his stories is twofold. First, newspaper readers like conspiracy theories which mingle money, power, and murder. Secondly, the Kremlin is so secretive that people are prepared to believe almost anything to its discredit. Berezovsky will cease to be ‘copy’ as soon as Russia has a better story to tell, and masters the art of public relations.