MOSCOW – Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon who has emerged as one of the Kremlin’s most vocal opponents, called Friday for the use of force to oust President Vladimir Putin and claimed he has support from some in the country’s political elite.
In response, Russia’s chief prosecutor opened a criminal case against Berezovsky on charges of plotting a coup, saying in a statement that the remarks “contained an open call to overthrow the constitutional order of Russia.” It also said it would ask British authorities to strip Berezovsky of asylum and to extradite him to Russia.
London’s Metropolitan Police began an investigation Friday into whether Berezovsky’s comments, first published in Friday’s Guardian newspaper, violated any British laws.
Berezovsky said 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 in Britain, echoing earlier comments to the Guardian. He added, “I don’t know how it will happen, but authoritarian regimes only collapse by force.”
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was monitoring Berezovsky’s comments.
“We deplore any calls for violent overthrow of any sovereign state. We expect everyone living, working or visiting the U.K. whatever their status to obey our laws,” said a Foreign Office spokeswoman, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.
Berezovsky later issued a statement to “clarify” his words, saying he did not “advocate or support violence.” He did, however, say that under Putin’s government “elections are not a viable means of ensuring democratic change in Russia.”
Russian officials responded that that Berezovsky was abusing his asylum status and stressing that Britain must now reconsider its previous refusal to hand him over for prosecution.
“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,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
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.
Police on Friday promised a harsh response to plans by anti-government protesters to march through Moscow’s center today – the first of two weekend demonstrations in Russia’s largest cities.
Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion who is another vociferous Kremlin critic, said march organizers had rejected a proposal by city authorities to gather in a single location for a meeting, rather than marching down one of Moscow’s main avenues.