Thursday, July 19, 2007


19/07/07 - World news section

No wonder Boris Berezovsky has so many enemies

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.


So? said...

I cannot believe my eyes! It seems that you have been cowered by the response of your deluded detractors to your last (great, if I may say so) article, into writing this Kremlin apologetia. How could you sully the name of the father of the (sadly no more) Russian democracy, perhaps the greatest Russian alive, now that Litvinenko was pushed off the mortal coil by Putin's long cold hands? How could you, Edward? How could you?!

Veiko Spolitis said...

To Nothing is free:

I assume that you have superficially skimmed through Edward's article. Just look into the essence of this article:

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.

It is the VALUE SYSTEM at stake here! I presume that you would not like to replace the customary British way of life with the smug & whimsic rule of the post-Sovet technocratia:)

Berezovsky created his own Franken/Putinstein, and he made a wrong bet. In civilized world there is FIRST CRITICAL DISCUSSION and then action, whereas under the technocratic rule bureaucratic mashinery first acts and then covers trails with PR campaigns...

So? said...

Why would the Kremlin want to kill their best agent?

eatyourbeans said...

It is the VALUE SYSTEM at stake here! I presume that you would not like to replace the customary British way of life with the smug & whimsic rule of the post-Sovet technocratia:)

Maybe. On the other hand, they can't wait to replace it with the smug & whimsic rule of Brussels. [ : {
(like my little Stalin?)

rusak said...

"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."

What "way of life" is that? The United States and its Nato flunkies went to war in Afghanistan because, they said, the Taliban was harboring Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Britain is harboring criminals and enemies of Russia. The people who gave Litvinenko asylum and citizenship deserve to snack on a polonium sandwich even more than he did. Britain has no right to interfere with justice in Russia under any pretexts. They say that the court system in Russia is not independent, not fair, etc. So then, does that mean that all the criminals in Russia can just come to Britain -- or only those who claim to be "democrats" and "political dissidents"?

W. Shedd said...

-- or only those who claim to be "democrats" and "political dissidents"?

Only those who claim to be democrats, political dissidents, AND have that critical tall stack of cash.

Of course, this is little different in Russia, where money will buy you immunity from almost any crime, except crossing Putin's government.

Unknown said...

:) hmmm...
Even if I don't agree with your conclusions, Edward, I like that article.
It was interesting to read the short version of life story of Berezovski (Did you find information on russian web-sites? see, there is an advantage to know Russian language!).
I think you are the first who write about Berezovski in details in British newspapers!

Actually, Berezovski wanted to preserve his political influence that he had in Yeltsin time. But he couldn't.
Berezovski always was a part of "Yeltsin family" and he was sure that Putin is also part of that band and he thought that Putin was a pawn. Now we see he was wrong. even now, nobody can say definitely "who is mr.Putin".

Last time Berezovski acts like a "boogeyman". It is interesting to guess that now Berezovski works for MI-6 and FSB at the same time! I met articles about that and it doesn't seem so fantastic.
Some people who know Berezovski closely say that he likes to play on the verge of life and death, it is his obsession.

Are you planning to write something similar about Hodorkovski?

urr said...

isnt't it a bit cynical to describe an ordinary way of so-called businessmans becoming a millionaire? some of you, western people, are doing the same things all the time (not becoming millionaires just by starting as poor little angels who are selling the newspapers at the streets). but you are not so eager to strangle western tycoons - why?
my opinion is that you are trying to accuse the victim in vain. he might not be a nice person, but he is a human being and it is not acceptable that the members of such a criminal organization as FSB, KGB's follower, can hunt him everywhere in the free world as they are doing now. it seems to me that You are trying to please somebody with such an article - whom do You like to please? is it a wise thing to do?