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Exiled media baron accuses Putin of fraud

MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- An exiled Russian media oligarch has accused the country's president, Vladimir Putin, of siphoning millions of dollars from the state airline to fund his election campaign.

Boris Berezovsky told CNN that Putin's campaign this year had been illegally funded by money redirected from Aeroflot. The accusations against Putin mirror the charges that Berezovsky faces.

The financier, who is the lead shareholder in the two main state television networks and also owns newspapers, has defied orders to appear before criminal courts to face fraud charges since fleeing the country. He spoke out from New York.

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Berezovsky is accused of fraud and siphoning large sums of money from Aeroflot.

He and another media mogul on separate fraud charges, Vladimir Gusinsky, have fled Russia and refuse to return to face trial.

"The major factor for my decision to stay abroad was the direct threat from the president, repeated twice," Berezovsky told CNN's Moscow bureau chief, Steve Harrigan.

"In New York, (Putin) was asked a question about me. The answer was, 'Berezovsky's case is simple -- he might be very easily transferred from the witness category to the category of criminal'," Berezovsky said.

"You can easily imagine how words like this, coming from the mouth of the president of the country, can get interpreted among the general population and local authorities. They work like a command for action on all levels of power immediately," he said.

There was no immediate response from the Kremlin.

Berezovsky and Gusinsky, who control the bulk of Russia's media outside the Kremlin's control, say the cases against them have been fabricated to stifle criticism of Putin and fear returning to Moscow.

Berezovsky, once the ultimate Kremlin insider under Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, was scheduled to appear before prosecutors on Wednesday but instead sent an open letter to newspapers in which he said he would ignore the summons and stay abroad.

"They force me to choose between becoming a political prisoner or political emigre," Berezovsky said.

Arrest warrants

He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing over allegations he channeled $970 million in sales from the country's national airline through two Swiss companies.

Earlier this week, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Gusinsky after he ignored a summons in a separate criminal case. His lawyer said he was "somewhere in Europe."

Gusinsky owns Russia's only independent nationwide television network, NTV, while Berezovsky controls 49 percent of one of the two main state networks, ORT.

Both also own newspapers and other media throughout Russia.

Gusinsky's company Media-Most is deep in debt to state-dominated natural gas monopoly Gazprom. He says the Kremlin wants to use the debt to take control of the media.

The media tycoons spend most of their time abroad, where they live luxuriously.

Berezovsky failed to return to Russia after prosecutors warned beforehand that he may be charged in the case.

Gusinsky was jailed for three days in June on embezzlement charges, but a month later the case was dropped and he too left the country.

Meanwhile, Putin has touted the reforms of his country's media to a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Brunei, saying they were part of broader moves towards liberalising Russia's economy.



RELATED STORIES:
Russian prosecutors pressure media magnates
All over for Russia's oligarchs?

RELATED SITES:
Media MOST (in Russian)
Public Russian Television, ORT (in Russian)
Political Resources on Net: Russia
Aeroflot

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