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Yesterday evening was an interesting exercise in "compare and contrast". It started with drinks with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, at the American ambassador’s residence in London. And then it was onto a dinner with Boris Berezovsky, former oligarch and arch enemy of Vladimir Putin.
It is striking how national loyalties kick in and override partisan disputes, once senior Americans are overseas. Mrs P is over in Europe primarily to discuss climate change. But when I suggested to her that a Democratic Party president might be a little more willing to reach an international agreement than the present incumbent of the White House, she was clearly reluctant to put the boot into George W. Bush. Yes, she agreed the Democrats are in general a bit more fired up about climate change than the Republicans. But the important thing is to identify "things we can all agree on" – Democrats and Republicans, Europeans and Americans. Unfortunately, the area of agreement she identified didn’t seem to go much beyond – "climate change is happening, it’s a big problem and something needs to be done about it."
I asked her if it was a problem that the Europeans still seem wedded to the Kyoto approach, since Kyoto is such a dirty word in Congress. She took a pragmatic approach. If you want to bring something like Kyoto back, "you would have to call it something else."
After a while the ambassador arrived to usher the speaker away for photos. We shook hands. Or rather, we didn’t.
Mrs P – a rather dimunitive 67-year-old woman – eschews the iron-gripped handshake favoured by most American politicians. Instead she took my hand and stroked it. It was an odd sensation – but not entirely unpleasant.
Thinking about this and other matters, I gulped down a few quails eggs. Then I jumped into a taxi to the Berezovsky event, which was being held at "Miller’s Academy" in Notting Hill Gate – just a few hundred yards from my family’s ancestral home.
The event kicked off with a structured interview with Boris B, conducted by Ed Stourton of the BBC. Berezovsky re-iterated his call for a revolution in Russia and was unashamed about his previous calls for "force" in over-throwing the Putin government, which he regards as a dictatorship.But he also added that force does not mean bloodshed. The models that he has in mind are the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. He also thinks that there is no way that Vladimir Putin will step down voluntarily as president next year. And he reckons that western public opinion is moving his way – "When I came here in 2001 if you said that Putin is dangerous, nobody agreed. Now 99% agree."
After the interview, I had a chance to chat to Berezovsky – while a vast bodyguard hovered behind him. How did he strike me? Well, the first thing I would say is that he is not obviously insane. I do not mean this entirely flippantly. If you are a billionaire, an exile and under huge pressure (and almost certainly in physical danger) that is usually a good recipe for lunacy. But BB is lively, speaks well, listens to what is said to him – and seems well informed about the world. He also has a rather unexpected reverence for Scotland Yard. He spoke at some length about the brilliance of their investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.
Berezovsky can also cope with an awkward question. I said to him that, while he is right that most people in the west now regard Putin as dangerous, they also have very little sympathy with the oligarchs he has fallen out with – "What you hear", I said, "is that all the oligarchs made their money in a dirty way, and that they have all been involved in violence at some point." Berezovsky did not blink or bridle. He replied rather calmly that – Yes, this was indeed the general impression. But he insisted that his own career had been examined repeatedly in British courts and he had always been vindicated. Unfortunately, there were oligarchs who had been involved in violence – but he was not one of them.
After about half an hour of chat with me and some other journalists, Berezovsky bade us all farewell and slipped away. He did not stroke my hand.