Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire bureaucrat whom Boris Yeltsin just fired, until this month occupied a spacious office in the old Communist Party Central Committee headquarters on Moscow's Old Square. There, in the classic Soviet way, he was the proud possessor of nine telephones -- not nine telephone lines, but nine clunky beige telephones, some with dials, some without.
These seemed to baffle Berezovsky almost as much as they would any modern Western businessman, I noticed on a visit to his office a few weeks ago. When a phone -- some phone -- began ringing, Berezovsky surveyed the array of machines on his otherwise orderly desk with something bordering on panic. Only after reaching into his natty suit and palming a sleek black cellular did Berezovsky seem comfortable again.
As Yeltsin's deputy national security adviser, in other words, Berezovsky never seemed entirely at home, and he certainly can repair to far more luxurious offices now that Yeltsin has booted him out of government. Yet Berezovsky, 51, reacted with fury to his firing, lashing out at his nemesis in government as a "Bolshevik." Nothing but "personal ambition," he had told me, could explain the plot against him.
Certainly, there's ambition to spare in all the key players of this extraordinary drama -- in Berezovsky, who has survived car bombs and calumny in his rapid rise to riches, and in the two young reformers who engineered his dumping and are now ascendant in Yeltsin's team.
But Berezovsky's firing is about more than personal ambition. It's about what kind of country Russia will become. And in that context, his ouster can only be considered good news.
To understand why, you have to understand that the battle in Russia is no longer between reformers and Communists, but rather between types of capitalism. Will Russia develop a closed, corrupt oligarchy, in which power and wealth are mingled and different rules apply for different people, or an open, liberal economy in which everyone has an equal chance to compete? The outcome matters to Americans, not least because corrupt oligarchies are for more likely to rely on chauvinism and hostility to the outside world to maintain popular support at home.
Leading the fight for openness are Yeltsin's two deputy prime ministers, Anatoly Chubais (Berezovsky's "Bolshevik") and Boris Nemtsov. What they are fighting over these days is hardly sexy: tax laws, government procurement, regulations on government bank accounts. But today's central issues have in common an effort to apply clear, impartial rules to matters -- such as how much tax each person must pay -- which are now the subject of negotiation, intimidation and bribe.
Opposing the two reformers are politicians, regional officials and businessmen who profit from the murky intersection of government and commerce. Berezovsky is among the wealthiest of the new capitalists who took advantage as the Russian government shed its state-owned enterprises and who believes that it is still "very dangerous," as he said, "to cut the connection between power and capital."
It's not that one side represents good and the other evil. Chubais himself joined with Berezovsky and his fellow tycoons in a scheme to get Yeltsin reelected. The tycoons provided campaign funds; Chubais assured them cut-rate access to privatizing companies and top jobs -- the finance ministry for one, the security council for Berezovsky. In the days when almost everyone else assumed Yeltsin would lose and the Communists would return to power, it was a reasonable deal -- and there was an urgency to get as many government assets into private hands as possible, while it was possible.
Now the tycoons feel Chubais has betrayed them, and they're bitter. They scoff at the notion that the red-haired reformer -- their reformer -- has suddenly seen the light on the beauty of the rule of law.
Has he? It almost doesn't matter. What matters is that the logic of his position has changed. The Russian state is in virtual Chapter 11, unable to raise taxes or pay for the most basic functions such as provisioning an army, guarding borders and paying pensions.
Chubais and Nemtsov need working laws, they need respect overseas and they need money -- and open, honest auctions for state-owned oil companies raise far more money than insider deals. The day before he sacked Berezovsky, Yeltsin signed a decree that may have even greater significance for Russia's future -- removing restrictions on foreign ownership of Russian oil firms. Chubais and Nemtsov championed the decree; Berezovsky opposed it.
In the long run, a similar logic is pushing Russia's tycoons toward legitimacy too. They need laws to protect what they have amassed, and at least some of them want to attract Western allies and investors. In the short run, though, the Russian state still has huge assets to divvy up. The proponents of insider dealing remain savvy and close to power; the constituency for a law-based state is diffuse, especially given the weakness of political parties and the inexperience of the small, emerging middle class. That's why personalities -- and especially Yeltsin, the ultimate arbiter -- still matter so much. Maybe because this whole story began so dramatically -- with the dismantling of a Wall, the raising of new flags, the toppling of statues -- Americans expect an equally definitive conclusion, a moment when we can pronounce Russia democracy or dictatorship, totally honest or totally corrupt.
But -- if we're lucky -- there won't be such a moment. The champions of openness won a few this week; next week, or the week after, they will lose some. What matters -- and it matters a lot -- is that they continue to win more than they lose in the coming months and years. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.