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Cherkessk Elders Threaten Berezovsky

The troubled republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is preparing to lock horns with Russia's most powerful oligarch
By Alexander Voronin

Boris Berezovsky could lose his Duma seat in Karachaevo-Cherkessia following complaints from local elders that the billionaire tycoon has neglected his duties and broken his election promises.


The republic's Council of Elders is threatening to lodge a formal appeal for Berezovsky's dismissal with the State Duma - Russia's lower house of parliament.


If such demands were to be upheld, Berezovsky would lose his immunity from prosecution at a time when his involvement in the so-called "Aeroflot Scandal" is under close investigation.


In an open letter published in regional newspapers last week, the council stated that Berezovsky viewed his constituency as little more than a "pawn in his political intrigues" and had consistently ignored the needs of the electorate.


The Moscow businessman had reneged on two election promises, said the elders. He had failed to set up two charities aimed at alleviating poverty and had refused a request by the council to underwrite loans of between 3 and 5 million roubles needed to buy American agricultural equipment.


The council also said Berezovsky had not arranged a single meeting with his voters and had failed to make a progress report detailing the achievements of his first 100 days in office.


The council's attack on the Duma deputy clearly enjoys the blessing of the republic's president, Vladimir Semenov, who has recently been on the receiving end of Berezovsky's "political intrigues".


Last year, the billionaire businessman attempted to oust Semenov from his post and replace him with Stanislav Derev, the mayor of Cherkessk. General Semenov, who was sacked as commander-in-chief of the Russian ground forces in 1998 on charges of embezzlement, scored a resounding victory over Derev in last September's presidential elections.


The president has also fallen out with Berezovsky over moves to resolve the Chechen conflict. Semenov opposes any attempts to bargain with Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, while Berezovsky has offered his services as an intermediary in any future peace talks.


But, meanwhile, Semenov has problems of his own to contend with. Conflict has been brewing in the republic between three ethnic clans -- the Karachais, the Abazins and the Cherkess.


Boris Akbashev, a leader of the Cherkess minority, has accused the president, a Karachai, of failing to form a government which fairly represents the interests of each ethnic group. Semenov's refusal to appoint his rival, Derev, as premier has also been a bone of contention.


Hundreds of Cherkessians staged street protests last autumn, claiming that the existing regime was discriminating against them. Both Berezovsky and Acting President Vladimir Putin made successive attempts to resolve the dispute.


When unrest flared again in March, Berezovsky flew from London to Cherkessk to hold meetings with the aggrieved parties. On this occasion, Semenov flatly refused to see the deputy.


General Semenov enjoys enormous authority in the republic, where he is seen as a victim of behind-the-scenes intrigues in Moscow. His inauguration ceremony was held in Ust-Djeguti, the republic's second largest town, and was boycotted by both Derev and Valentin Vlasov, Moscow's appointee as temporary head of the republic.


Although Semenov has generally called for harmony and tolerance between ethnic groups since his appointment, the Cherkess minority is eager to secede from the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic which it was forced to join in the 1920s as part of Stalin's drive to divide and conquer small ethnic groups.


Boris Berezovsky - widely recognized as being the most influential oligarch in post-Soviet Russia - won his Duma seat last December amid widespread speculation that the business tycoon was more interested in securing parliamentary immunity than in serving the needs of his constituents.


A mathematician turned car dealer, Berezovsky has amassed a personal fortune estimated at more than $3 billion in just 10 years. However, last April, a warrant was issued for his arrest after Moscow prosecutors claimed he had used a Swiss company to illegally transfer $250 million in hard currency earnings from the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Berezovsky denies the charges, which he says are politically motivated.


Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets