Oligarch fell out of favor with Russian president

U.K. probes sudden death of Putin critic

AFP-JIJI

Police sealed off the British home of exiled Russian oligarch and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky on Sunday and sent in hazardous material experts after he was found dead at his mansion.

The 67-year-old’s body was discovered at his home in the well-heeled commuter town of Ascot, near London, on Saturday afternoon.

His lawyer, Alexander Dobrovinsky, said his death may have been suicide brought on by depression over debt he had fallen into. But since the tycoon survived one assassination attempt in 1995 and remained fearful of other bids to kill him, his death is bound to provoke speculation.

Police shut down the streets surrounding the gated property overnight and sent in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) experts to investigate what they called an “unexplained” death.

Berezovsky’s friend and fellow Kremlin critic, Alexander Litvinenko, was killed by radioactive poisoning in London in 2006, in what his widow has said was an assassination by Russian agents.

“Specially trained officers are currently at the scene, including CBRN trained officers, who are conducting a number of searches as a precaution,” a statement from Thames Valley Police said.

Almost 10 hours after Berezovsky’s body was found, it had still not been removed from the scene, it added.

Berezovsky was one of handful of businessmen who became billionaires following the privatization of Russian state assets in the 1990s, but his fortunes had slumped in recent years. He was a confidante of former President Boris Yeltsin but fell out with his successor, Vladimir Putin, and fled Russia in 2000 just in time to escape arrest on fraud charges.

In London, Berezovsky became one of the Kremlin’s most outspoken critics, leading a circle of exiled Russian critics.

Paramedics were called to Berezovsky’s estate at 3:18 p.m. Saturday and he was pronounced dead at the scene. “His body was found by his bodyguard,” said a spokesman for Berezovsky, refusing to comment on media reports that he had been discovered in his bath.

In 1995, Berezovsky narrowly escaped an attempt on his life in which his driver was decapitated, and he remained fearful of other attacks. His lawyer, however, told Russian state television that he had been informed by contacts in London that Berezovsky had killed himself.

“Berezovsky has been in a terrible state as of late. He was in debt. He felt destroyed,” Dobrovinsky said. “He was forced to sell his paintings and other things.”

But Demyan Kudryavtsev, a friend of the oligarch, firmly denied this version of events. “There are no external signs of a suicide,” he was quoted as saying by the Prime news agency in Russia. “There are no signs that he injected himself or swallowed any pills. No one knows why his heart stopped.”

Last year, Berezovsky lost a bitter multimillion-dollar legal battle with fellow Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Berezovsky had sought more than £3 billion ($4.75 billion) in damages, accusing Abramovich of blackmail, breach of trust and breach of contract in an oil deal. When he lost, he agreed to pay Abramovich £35 million ($56 million) in legal costs, although there had been speculation that the full fees would far exceed that sum.

Berezovsky’s private life has also taken its toll. A 2011 divorce from his second wife, Galina Besharova, was dubbed the costliest ever in Britain, and there had been a more recent legal wrangle with his partner, Elena Gorbunova.

Born Jan. 23, 1946, in Moscow, Berezovsky worked as an academic for nearly two decades before taking advantage of the perestroika reforms to make his fortune. However, the fast-talking Muscovite with a taste for the high life fell foul of Putin’s crackdown on the oligarchs’ political independence. In 2003, Britain granted him political asylum.

After news of Berezovsky’s death, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the oligarch had written to Putin a couple of months ago saying he wanted to go home. “He asked Putin for forgiveness for his mistakes and asked him to (create) the opportunity to return,” Peskov told Russian state television.

Meanwhile, Forbes’ Russian-language website published an interview Berezovsky gave to journalist Ilya Zhegulev in which he said his “life no longer makes sense” and that there was nothing he wanted more than to return to Russia.