Berezovsky: a tale of betrayal by pal Putin

Yeltsin's crony oligarch overplayed his hand before the British bench

by Luke Harding

The Observer

Boris Berezovsky had always believed in British justice. It was, after all, a British judge who had granted him asylum, after Berezovsky fell out with his one-time protege, Vladimir Putin, and fled in 2000 to London.

The move infuriated the Kremlin. Since then, the oligarch has notched up several other high court victories — libel actions against Forbes magazine and Russian TV, a couple of successful civil suits.

And so when Berezovsky decided to sue Roman Abramovich for $5 billion — in what was the biggest private litigation battle ever — he assumed he would win. Berezovsky believed the high court would accept his insider’s account of Russia’s colorful postcommunist history: that he and Abramovich had gone into business together in the Boris Yeltsin-driven 1990s. And that the Chelsea FC owner had later shafted him over Sibneft, the oil firm they cofounded.

Last August, however, Justice Elizabeth Gloster, who presided over their high court battle, came to a different conclusion. Her verdict was devastating for Berezovsky. In withering terms, she dismissed his case. She described him as “dishonest” and “deluded.” “On my analysis of the entirety of the evidence,” she said, “I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purposes.”

For observers, who had watched this riveting case unfold, with the whiff of billions enveloping London’s Rolls building like a tantalizing perfume, it was perhaps not that surprising. Under cross-examination from Abramovich’s barrister, Jonathan Sumption, Berezovsky had imploded. His decision to give evidence in idiosyncratic English was a mistake. (Abramovich spoke in Russian.)

Minutes later, Berezovsky staggered outside, where he announced that he was “absolutely amazed.” Smiling wanly, he noted that Putin, the man he blamed for poisoning his friend, Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006 in a Cold War-style radioactive plot, might have written the judgment.

In the following months, according to friends, Berezovsky fell into a deep depression. Once a man of relentless energy, he rarely saw his circle of anti-Kremlin activists and fellow Russian exiles. The few who met him described him as vacant, often confused, and uncharacteristically regretful of past errors. Some claimed he had gone to Israel; others said he was lying low at his luxury home in Wentworth, Surrey.

“We will learn later what exactly happened. But in recent months Boris was depressed. There was no secret about that. One day he was cheerful, the next down,” said Alex Goldfarb, Berezovsky’s close friend. “The court case was a massive blow to him personally, politically and financially. He was depressed. We were concerned about him.”

Whatever the truth of Berezovsky’s mental state, there is no doubt the high court case ruined him financially. Defeat left him with costs estimated at £100 million ($152 million). Berezovsky — a one-time professor of mathematics, who applied his intellect to business and became very rich indeed — was practically bankrupt. He was forced to sell his Surrey home. So broke was Berezovsky that he could no longer afford to pay for lawyers acting for Litvinenko’s widow, Marina. The inquest into Litvinenko’s murder — carried out, according to Berezovsky, by two former KGB agents sent by Putin — will take place this October.

The Kremlin has watched Berezovsky’s dramatic fall with unconcealed glee. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman, claimed that Berezovsky had written to Russia’s president two months ago, begging to come back to the motherland and apologizing for “previous mistakes.”

But investigators in Russia had opened dozens of criminal cases against Berezovsky. Any return to Russia would have meant a prison cell in Siberia.

For his part, Putin was furious when Britain granted Berezovsky political asylum in 2003, turning down his request for extradition. Putin interpreted the U.K. court ruling as a personal snub from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair — apparently incapable of understanding that British politicians, unlike their Russian counterparts, couldn’t simply hand down verdicts to tame judges. The government’s failure to accommodate Moscow’s strident extradition requests caused the much-publicized chill in U.K.-Russian relations, well before Litvinenko was murdered.

Having failed to winkle Berezovsky out of London, the Kremlin pursued his money — going after his assets in Brazil, France (a seaside villa in Cap D’Antibes), and other jurisdictions.

“Putin will personally rejoice at the news (of Berezovsky’s death),” Goldfarb said. “He’s a vindictive little man. Politically, they (Russia’s ruling elite) will have to find someone else to be the bogeyman, and to play the role of Trotsky.”

Goldfarb said the obvious candidate — the oligarch Mikhail Khodorskovsky — wasn’t suitable since he has been in prison since challenging Putin a decade ago. Berezovsky has left a vacancy.

Berezovsky’s fatal flaw was simple: he misread Putin. Born in 1946 in Moscow to a Jewish civil engineer father, Berezovsky showed an early talent for mathematics. He received a doctorate in applied mathematics, worked as an engineer and rose in the Soviet Union’s Academy of Sciences. He was quick to grasp the opportunities to make money offered by perestroika, rapidly followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the new world of capitalism.

Together with his commercial partner, Badri Patarkatsishvili, Berezovsky went into the car business in 1989, selling Soviet-made models. By 1994, he had grown sufficiently rich that someone tried to murder him — planting a bomb under his car. It killed his driver.

But Berezovsky’s ambitions were also political. In 1994, he acquired the television channel ORT, then used it as a potent weapon to secure Boris Yeltsin’s election in 1996 against the communists. Berezovsky’s courting of Yeltsin has become the stuff of legend. He published the president’s memoirs, befriended Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatayana, and helped to bankroll his re-election campaign. By the mid-1990s, Berezovsky was a figure of huge influence in the Yeltsin court — a fact many resented. He played a key role in ending the first 1994-1996 Chechen war and took on a public role as chair of Russia’s security council. “Berezovsky was one of the most influential people in the transition of Russia from what it was under communism to what it is now, in every respect, both good and bad,” Goldfarb said. “He helped Yeltsin win re-election over the communists. And he helped to stop the Chechen war, which was a major accomplishment. But he then made the major mistake in his life: he brought in Putin.”

Berezovsky first met Putin in the early 1990s, when the KGB spy was working for St. Petersburg’s mayor. The two socialized and even skied together in Switzerland. By the late 1990s, Putin had become head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency. Yeltsin’s entourage was seeking a successor to the ailing president. They dispatched Berezovsky to offer the job to Putin — who became prime minister in summer 1999, succeeding Yeltsin as acting president six months later.

Berezovsky had reckoned that his friend would be a pliable successor — and that he, the ultimate Kremlin insider, would continue to pull the strings. Quickly, however, it became apparent that Putin had his own vision of Russia: a less democratic place, in which the country’s spy agencies would play a vanguard role, and with Putin in charge. The two clashed; Putin seized Berezovky’s ORT TV station; and Berezovsky decamped to London. Their feud was nasty and would lead ultimately to Berezovsky’s death at the age of 67 in exile.

And what will posterity say?

“Berezovsky was on the right side of history. He was quick to recognize his mistake and start criticizing Putin. He was most consistent in his opposition to Putin’s regime,” Goldfarb suggested. “When this aberration that is plaguing Russia is finally over, Berezovsky will be vindicated.”