Boris Berezovsky 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Russian authorities have opened a criminal case against dissident exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky on charges of plotting a coup in response to his calls for the ouster of President Vladimir Putin's government.
Comments Berezovsky first gave in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian "contained an open call to overthrow the constitutional order of Russia," the prosecutor-general's office said Friday in announcing the criminal investigation.
It also said it would lodge an appeal Monday with British authorities to consider stripping Berezovsky of his asylum and to extradite him to Russia.
London police have opened an investigation into whether Berezovsky's comments to The Guardian violated British law.
Berezovsky's remarks appeared aimed at rattling the Kremlin and fomenting political unrest ahead of crucial elections. The exiled billionaire said that the Russian leadership could only be replaced by force and that he was in contact with Kremlin insiders who supported his vision for change.
"Putin has created an authoritarian regime against the Russian constitution," Berezovsky told The Associated Press by telephone from Britain. He added: "I don't know how it will happen, but authoritarian regimes only collapse by force."
In the interview with The Guardian, which posted audio on its Web site, Berezovsky said: "We need to use force to change this regime. ... It means that I call to use force to recreate (a) constitutional regime again."
Russian officials responded swiftly, saying that Berezovsky was abusing his asylum status and stressing that Britain must now reconsider its previous refusal to hand him over for prosecution.
"There is a long-standing request to terminate the situation in which Boris Berezovsky takes advantage of his refugee status, grossly abusing this status, committing actions that, under British legislation, require his extradition," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
"I think London has lots of good lawyers who know perfectly well that calls for the forceful overthrow of the constitutional regime in a foreign country are enough grounds for proper legal measures," Lavrov told journalists.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said that Berezovsky's remarks were out of bounds and that calls for violent disorder are not protected by European human rights conventions, the Interfax news agency reported.
When Berezovsky was pressed about what he meant by "force," he said he wanted to institute change by using "force like in Ukraine or Georgia." In those two former Soviet republics, opposition leaders won power after nonviolent street demonstrations.
Berezovsky told the AP he was in contact with close associates of Putin, and had offered funding and technical support to achieve change.
But he would not reveal precise details of his activities, saying "it would destroy what I'm doing."
Neither would Berezovsky reveal the identities of his associates in Russia because, he said, "they will be killed like Alexander Litvinenko." Litvinenko, a former KGB officer and friend of Berezovsky, died in a London hospital in November after being poisoned by radioactive polonium-210.
The tycoon described his supporters in the government as "very close to Putin," but critical of his policies. "They say they agree that Putin's Russia is corrupt and destroying Russia."
In the past, Berezovsky has talked about providing money to opposition forces rather than government insiders.