Boris Berezovsky: Businessman who profited from communism's fall but made an enemy of Putin


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The Independent Online

Boris Berezovsky was one of the original group of seven oligarchs, the powerful Russian businessmen who had built up considerable financial and political power in the period following the collapse of communism. But Berezovsky had gone from being a friend of President Vladimir Putin to his avowed foe within a few years. Fearing arrest, or worse, in his native country, he had spent the last decade in exile in the UK, from where he continued to criticise the regime.

Berezovsky was born in Moscow in 1946, the son of a civil engineer and a nurse. He read mathematics at Moscow University and gained his doctorate in 1983, with a thesis on the theory of optimising and decision-making. He went on to become a professor at the Research Institute of Control Sciences, where he headed the laboratory of software system design.

In 1989, following perestroika, he founded the company LogoVAZ. The company benefited from the new economic liberalisation by buying cars intended for export then reselling them within the country, making a significant profit in the process. Within a few years he had stakes in the television channel ORT, the newspaper Kommersant and the state airline Aeroflot.

He survived a first assassination attempt in 1994, apparently planned by the Russian mafia, in which his car was blown up as he left his office. His chauffeur was decapitated but Berezovsky escaped unscathed. A further attack was planned in 2007 but was thwarted by British security services.

His political masterstroke in the mid-1990s was to befriend the couple of Valentin Yumashev, Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff, and his wife Tatyana Dyachenko – Yeltsin's daughter – giving him access to core of the Kremlin's decision-making machine as an advisor. Berezovsky's already significant wealth allowed him to help fund Boris Yeltsin's election campaign in 1996 and three years later he became an MP in the Duma, representing the Karachayevo-Cherkesiya region.

Defending the political involvement of the oligarchs, he told the Washington Post in 2000 “ is acceptable – indeed, necessary – to interfere directly in the political process” – in order, he said, to “protect democracy”. Putin, whom Berezovsky had previously backed, disagreed and sought to rein in their burgeoning power. Sergei Markov, a supporter of Putin, described Berezovsky as “a modern-day Rasputin, secretively manipulating the president and his entourage.”

Following Putin's election as president, the situation became so difficult for Berezovsky that he took the decision to move abroad. In December 2001 he and his colleague Alexander Goldfarb established the International Foundation for Civil Liberties (IFCL) in New York. The organisation's stated aims are “to provide financial, legal, informational and logistical resources to secure human rights and civil liberties in Russia.”

In March 2003 he was arrested by British police on Russian charges which alleged that “between Jan. 1, 1994, and Dec. 31, 1995, they defrauded the administration of the Samara region of 60 billion rubles whilst being directors of LogoVAZ.” Berezovsky and his lawyer Andrew Stephenson fought off the extradition request, ensuring that he was able to remain in the UK, and in September he was granted political asylum. He was subsequently convicted by the Russian courts in absentia for alleged embezzlement of £4.3m from the airline Aeroflot. He said of the proceedings, “This was not a trial but pure farce.”

He and four other critics of the Kremlin took out full-page advertisements in British and US newspapers, sponsored by the IFCL. The adverts, entitled “Seven Questions to President George Bush about his friend President Vladimir Putin”, alleged that the Russian leader had committed war crimes and genocide in Chechnya, employed nepotism in his placement of former KGB allies within government and created an atmosphere of fear in the country.

During November 2006 Berezovsky's friend, Alexander Litvinenko, a journalist and former KGB agent, became ill and died three weeks later. The post-mortem and subsequent investigations showed that he had been poisoned with the radioactive element polonium-210, which had been put into his tea.

Last year Berezovsky took on the Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich in what became known as the “Battle of the Oligarchs”. Berezovsky claimed that Abramovich had “intimidated” him into selling shares in the oil company Sibneft for a fraction of their value and sued for £3 billion in damages.

He had been sure of winning, stating on the morning of the verdict last August: “I'm confident. I believe in the system”. However Mrs Justice Gloster completely rejected his suit, commenting in her summing up: “On my analysis of the entirety of the evidence, I found Mr Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes.”

Asked outside the courtroom for his reaction, he said “I'm absolutely amazed what happened today. I'm surprised completely ... Sometimes I had the impression Putin himself wrote this judgment.” Berezovsky was left with a bill for an estimated £35m in legal costs.

There was more bad news from British courts in December last year when he had £200 million of his assets frozen when his former partner Elena Gorbunova launched a legal action to reclaim millions of pounds she said she had been promised by Berezovsky. In 2011 he had already paid out several hundred million pounds to his ex-wife Galina Besharova.

There had been reports that Berezovsky had been seeking peace with Putin and wanted to return home. But Sasha Nerozina, a family friend, told The Independent “He did want to go back to Russia ... To me he was very much full of life.” Berezovsky's body was found by an ambulance crew at his home in Ascot. The circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Boris Berezovsky, businessman: born Moscow 23 January 1946; married 1970 Nina Korotkova (divorced 1991, two children), 1991 Galina Besharova (divorced 2010, two children); partner to Elena Gorbunova (two children); died Ascot 23 March 2013.