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Kremlin Oligarch Foe Denies Funding ‘Demonic’ Pussy Riot

© RIA Novosti . Ilya Pitalev / Go to the mediabankBoris Berezovsky
Boris Berezovsky  - Sputnik International
Self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky denied on Wednesday allegations voiced on a Kremlin-run television channel that he had financed anti-Putin punks Pussy Riot.

Self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky denied on Wednesday allegations voiced on a Kremlin-run television channel that he had financed anti-Putin punks Pussy Riot.

“I don’t have anything to do with Pussy Riot and I didn’t discuss any project with them,” Berezovsky told the Moscow-based Ekho Moskvy radio station. “But if I had thought up such a project, I would have been very proud.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, were jailed for two years each last month over a February 21 protest against Orthodox Church support for Vladimir Putin ahead of the March 4 presidential polls. A number of international celebrities, including U.S. pop diva Madonna and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, had spoken out in support of the group during the controversial trial and the verdict drew sharp international criticism.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday that Pussy Riot should not have been jailed and that a “suspended sentence” would have sufficed. Putin had said he hoped the court would not punish the group “too severely.”

Berezovsky, 66, is a former Kremlin insider who made his fortune during the rule of President Boris Yeltsin. But he fled Russia shortly after Putin came to power and has been living in London for over a decade. He is wanted on a number of criminal charges in Russia, including murder and large-scale fraud.

There was no mention of his alleged involvement with the group during last month's trial.

The almost 90-minute “Provocateurs” program, hosted by veteran TV journalist Arkady Mamontov, was aired late on Tuesday evening on the state-run Rossiya 1 central TV channel and sought to portray the actions of the group and their supporters as a “demonic,” foreign-backed plot aimed at inciting revolution in Russia.

An investigator involved in the case, Artyom Ranchekov, called the group “revolutionaries and demons” during the program, which was Mamontov’s second investigation into the group in recent months. Ranchekov was removed from the probe into the group's actions before the case went to trial.

The program attracted a storm of criticism from opposition figures, who said the program was an attempt to discredit the group ahead of their October 1 appeal.

“Berezovsky is like Satan to these people, to Putin,” Pussy Riot’s de facto spokesperson, Pyotr Verzilov, told RIA Novosti. “For them, he’s the worst thing that can be named.”

A lawyer for the group, Mark Feigin, told RIA that the program was a “lie from start to finish” and “pure Kremlin propaganda.”

“There was not a single word said in their defense,” he added. "Why was no mention made of Berezovsky at the trial?"

An influential church deacon also slammed the program.

“I support neither the Pussies, nor Berezovsky,” said Archdeacon Andrei Kuraev on his Live Journal account. “But why lie?”

Mamontov wrote on his Facebook page ahead of the program that the show would be “a blow for liberal fascists.”

The Rossiya 1 TV channel refused to comment on the program when contacted by RIA.

‘Colossal Mistake’

The program featured an interview with Alexei Veshnyak, who was presented as an aide to Berezovsky from 1999-2004. Veshnyak alleged that Berezovsky had revealed to him plans to use the controversial art group Voina, or “War,” to attack Russia’s major Christian faith. Tolokonnikova and her husband, Verzilov, are members of the guerilla art group.

“It was a colossal mistake to attack the Russian Orthodox Church,” Veshnyak said. “I tried to convince him not to do it.”

Berezovsky admitted that he had known Veshnyak for “many years,” but also said that he was closely connected to the head of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

Veshnyak also appeared to compare Berezovsky and the Pussy Riot group to Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg, who he said had urged the wartime destruction of the Russian Orthodox Church as a necessary step toward conquering the Soviet Union.

The studio audience also heard the audio testimony of an anonymous woman who alleged that she had been approached by musicians connected to Russian pop group T.A.T.U. to take part in an anti-religion project “against Putin that would shatter Russia’s moral values and “make zombies of the youth.”

The program, she said, was to be funded by “some Americans willing to pay a great deal of money.” She did not specify when this project was proposed and her identity was not revealed over “fears for her safety.”

And U.S. political analyst William Dunkerly suggested in a video link-up from the United States that the London-based public relations company Bell Pottinger had been offering “up to 100,000 euros” to Western rock stars for statements of support for Pussy Riot. He admitted, however, that these were just rumors and he had “no concrete proof.”

Bell Pottinger's spokesperson told RIA that the company had "no connection" to any alleged offers of payment to international celebrities. The spokesperson also said that while Berezovsky was a former client, the company had no contractual agreement with him at present.

‘Holy War’

The aftermath of the Pussy Riot verdict saw four wooden crosses chopped down in Russia’s regions last month by a shadowy group who said it was “revenge” for the ruling. A senior Moscow priest, Dmitry Smirnov, said the act amounted to a “declaration of war” against the Church.

The Pussy Riot row has also sparked a rise in Orthodox militancy, with fringe groups announcing plans to patrol near churches to protect them from “desecration.” In high-profile incidents in Moscow last month, Orthodox activists in Moscow tore a Pussy Riot T-shirt off a member of the public and harassed staff at a downtown museum of erotica. In a further indication of religious strife, a suspected drug user was found murdered with an Orthodox religious icon placed on his face in St. Petersburg, investigators said.

The rising tensions have seen a sharp division of battle lines.

Influential United Russia lawmaker Vitaly Milonov told RIA last month that “today’s liberals are exactly the same as the Bolsheviks were a century ago. They are extremely aggressive toward those who don’t agree with them. They are ready to hang us all.”

In a letter published in Russia’s opposition-minded newspaper Novaya Gazeta last week, jailed Pussy Riot members insisted they were not enemies of religion and urged their supporters to restrict themselves to “peaceful” acts of protest.

Some 70 percent of Russians regularly identify themselves as Orthodox Christians in opinion polls. But a survey conducted in August by the independent Levada Center pollster found that 30 percent of Orthodox Christians in Russia did not believe in God. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

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