19/07/07 - World news section
No wonder Boris Berezovsky has so many enemies
By EDWARD LUCAS
Plenty of people have wanted to kill Boris Berezovsky. Personally, I wanted to strangle him. In the chaotic Russia of the 1990s, he was the epitome of the 'oligarchs': the profiteers from a no-holds-barred capitalism that had created a handful of billionaires while leaving millions of Russians destitute.
But even by Russia's demanding standards of unpunctuality and indiscipline, he was chaotic.
His office habitually denied all knowledge of his whereabouts. His mobile phone numbers - he had several - changed constantly. With luck, you would reach a bodyguard, who would take a note with your name into the tycoon's presence.
Berezovsky would either shake his head wordlessly, or - if you were very lucky - take the phone, offering anything between a minute and an hour; or the promise of a meeting; sometimes it would even happen.
His favourite meeting place was what he called his "club" (though it seemed to have only one member). This was a lavishly-restored and closely-guarded Tsarist-era mansion where he liked to show off the exquisite materials and workmanship.
The sources of Mr Berezovsky's money have never been entirely clear. Which explains, at least in part, why he is no longer a man of huge economic and political influence in his native land, but is living in exile in England, in permanent and justifiable fear of his life, travelling everywhere in one of his two armoured Maybach limousines (£400,000 each) and watched over by his protection team of former French Foreign Legionnaires.
Berezovsky likes to parade himself as a political dissident whose outspoken criticisms of President Putin's regime make him a true friend of democracy. That is not quite the full picture.
To understand the man and his motivations we need to travel back into his past, to a time when millions of Russians were trying their luck at business in the collapsing years of the Soviet Union.
Mr Berezovsky - a gifted mathematician - started as a dealer in cars, buying Ladas straight off the production line "for export" at a very favourable price and then selling them (without any export having taken place) at a profit.
How he managed to persuade the management of that run-down wreck of a factory to part with valuable stock at such a bargain price remains a mystery.
That business financed other ventures. Next came a scheme selling bargain-priced shares in a planned car factory. It was never built; nobody got a car and the scheme collapsed, wiping out participants' savings. Mr Berezovsky insists that the scheme was honestly run, and its collapse was not his fault.
He next moved into the media business, taking effective control of the main television channel, ORT, and purchasing a clutch of heavyweight newspapers. He also gained control of an oil company and became an influential force in the Russian national airline, Aeroflot, setting up a Swiss-based company to handle - and critics say to siphon off - its foreign-currency revenues.
As his business empire expanded, so his political influence soared. His office in the "White House", the seat of Russian government, adjoined that of the then prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.
He was supremely well-connected in the Kremlin too, where an increasingly drunken and frail President Boris Yeltsin had given free rein to his daughter, Tatyana, and her husband.
As the Yeltsin family cast around for a successor who would keep them out of jail, it was Mr Berezovsky who pushed the case of a quiet, ex-KGB-man-turned bureaucrat, called Vladimir Putin.
He was unashamed about his abilities to turn power into wealth and vice versa. Although he insisted that he wanted Russia to become a modern democracy, it was hard to see his practical contribution-to this and outsiders who did business-with him were less impressed.
In 1999, at Moscow's leading investment conference, I watched Mr Berezovsky facing unaccustomed scrutiny from a western fund manager.
"Can you name any company you have been involved with where the cash flow has not been siphoned off and the other investors defrauded?" asked the irate banker. "Come on, sir, just name one."
Such fury had long been shared by the vast majority of Russians. In their eyes, Berezovsky symbolised the looting and influence-peddling that had so marred the Yeltsin era.
As such, he had many enemies. A car bomb in 1994 nearly killed him. And when Mr Putin began bringing a semblance of order to Russian politics after becoming president in 2000, Mr Berezovsky was an obvious target.
Berezovsky had made the fatal mistake of assuming that Mr Putin would be a weak president, who would not dare challenge the business empire of a fromer poitical ally.
He was wrong. In the summer of 2000, when Mr Putin first unleashed the prosecutor's office on him, Mr Berezovsky responded toughly, claiming that dictatorship was looming. Few sympathised with him.
In a few months, he had lost his most important assets. His television channel, ORT, was back in government control. Prosecutors and accountants were poring over the books at Aeroflot.
So Mr Berezovsky moved to London - taking up a promise made by the British government in 1998 when he brokered the release of two British hostages in Chechnya.
For all the luxury of his Mayfair offices and Surrey mansion, it is unlikely that Mr Berezovsky planned a long stay.
But like many Russian emigres in past centuries who kept suitcase packed for their imminent return home, it has been much postponed.
Mr Berezovsky's frequent entreaties against the Kremlin have come to nothing. Opposition parties shun his advances. His associates were mostly fringe figures such as Alexander Litvinenko, a renegade officer of the Russian security service, whose escape from Russia was facilitated by Mr Berezovsky.
As the world now knows, Mr Litvinenko was subsequently murdered after his cup of tea was poisoned with radioactive polonium in a London hotel, triggering the current diplomatic stand-off between Britain and Russia.
If, as some suspect, this assassination was meant to send a warning signal to Mr Berezovsky to halt his political rabble-rousing against the Kremlin, then it has had precisely the opposite effect. His pronouncements have become increasingly shrill.
He told a British newspaper that he wanted to remove Russia's rulers "by force" - infuriating the British government. At a recent debate at London's Frontline club, Mr Berezovsky kept Russia-watchers, journalists, spooks and fellow-emigres transfixed with his demolition of his native country's lethal fusion of business and political power, enforced by secret police tactics.
But a sardonic intervention from the audience left him - for once - speechless. "You have well described the monster that runs Russia. But it is one that you yourself created."
Mr Berezovsky's analysis may indeed be hypocritical, but it is still largely correct. And while he may be a difficult man to admire, if the Russian authorities have indeed tried to kill him, there could be little more convincing proof of the terrifying contempt in which the Kremlin holds our way of life.
Edward Lucas is author of a forthcoming book The New Cold War And How To Win It.