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Tycoon Picked to Boost Ex-Republics’ Fortunes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boris A. Berezovsky, one of Russia’s richest and most influential men, returned to the corridors of power Wednesday as secretary of the lackluster Commonwealth of Independent States--the Soviet Union’s successor body.

The energetic if controversial Berezovsky, who made his first millions from car sales and whose empire now stretches from oil to media, was fired last fall after a year in the Russian official hierarchy as deputy chief of President Boris N. Yeltsin’s powerful National Security Council.

His surprise election to the CIS job followed months of anxiety over the future of an organization so feeble its existence has come into question. But the billionaire tycoon’s first words in his new post indicated that he intended to change all that.

“The time has come for decisive steps to build a real CIS,” Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as saying. “Time will show what form it takes.”

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As a Security Council official, Berezovsky helped secure peace in Chechnya after its two years of war with Russia and assisted in restoring the flow of oil through the strongly nationalist territory, from Azerbaijan to Russia and the West. By doing so, he won the respect not only of Russian and Western entrepreneurs but also of the Chechens.

This factor probably played a part in his election by new nations that are almost equally sensitive about being pushed around by Russia, a former ruler that many still feel is too assertive; many of the former Soviet republics are looking for gentler treatment from Moscow.

Choosing Berezovsky was the only significant action taken by 11 out of 12 heads of the states constituting the CIS. In typical fashion, they otherwise failed to agree on a statement of how to achieve their stated goal--closer economic integration among the former Soviet republics.

Meantime, there was much media comment as to why a big financier like Berezovsky would want to bury himself running an organization that had looked dusty almost since it was set up in 1991 in the run-down Belarussian capital, Minsk, and, in recent months, appeared doomed.

Russian analysts suggested the moneymaking opportunities from jump-starting the CIS states’ failing economies--and stimulating privatization along the lines of Russia’s lucrative transition to capitalism--might be what persuaded the wheeler-dealer.

The national evening paper Izvestia commented: “There are plenty of Russian business interests in Ukraine. There’s been no big privatization there yet; it’s all still ahead. Boris Berezovsky clearly understands these interests beautifully. There are other spheres of interest in Belarus--bank business, transit business, the media--and these are not alien ideas either to the new head trader of the CIS. Then there’s Azerbaijan and Georgia, where there’s no ambiguity at all--they have Caspian Sea oil.”

News of Berezovsky’s latest job came one day after Yeltsin appointed a new Cabinet. Yeltsin had fired his old aides and former prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, in March, and replaced Chernomyrdin--Berezovsky’s political ally--with a new premier whom Berezovsky opposed, Sergei V. Kiriyenko.

Already seething over Kiriyenko, the Communists were predictably annoyed by the Berezovsky news, which they saw as another slap in the face. “Mr. Yeltsin, the main destroyer of the Soviet Union, has gone so far in his rage and scorn for the Russian people that he has decided to congratulate the workers on the coming May Day holiday by installing Berezovsky as the CIS secretary,” fumed Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov. “There’s no point in commenting. Everything is so sad and boring, and the decay continues.”

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Yeltsin, apparently taking mischievous pleasure in the controversy to come, said of the Berezovsky appointment: “I think many will explode tomorrow. But you will have to swallow it. This is for the sake of business.”

Berezovsky and Yeltsin are close. According to one embittered former aide to the president, Berezovsky is a substantial source of funding to the Yeltsin family. But the two men’s relationship soured over the firing of the prime minister, and newspapers had started speculating that Berezovsky’s days as Kremlin kingmaker and courtier were done.

However, on Wednesday, the erratic Yeltsin blithely changed direction and supported the nomination of Berezovsky--prompting further suggestions that the new job was a presidential peace offering to compensate the financier for the loss of Chernomyrdin, until recently his most powerful ally in government.

“I gave my consent,” Tass quoted Yeltsin as saying after the CIS summit ended.

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