Boris Berezovsky: An unwanted ‘wanted man’
By Sean L Hanley, on 25 March 2013
Alena Ledeneva looks back on the career of the controversial Russian oligarch.
Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born on 23 January 1946 and died on 23 March 2013. Although hated by many Russians, Berezovsky was also one of the most politically important, exposed and most widely written about figures in Russia of the 1990s. For many he was a symbol of that era.
Berezovsky’s rise to become one of Russia’s richest men has been chronicled in both journalistic and fictionalised accounts. Godfather of the Kremlin by Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist murdered in Moscow in 2004, Bol’shaya paika (‘The Big Slice’) a novel by Yuli Dubov, Berezovsky’s business partner and friend – who like him received political asylum in the United Kingdom – are among the most interesting. The film Oligarkh (Tycoon) also features a main character very like Berezovsky.
After graduating in 1968, Berezovsky worked at various research institutes to become a senior fellow and a head of department at the Institute of Management of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His energy, creative spirit and talent for working through the Soviet system served him well and helped shape his success in the post-communist era.
In 1989, Berezovsky and Samat Zhaboev organized a joint stock company LogoVaz, which specialised in selling and servicing cars. In four years Logovaz became one of the leading Russian private businesses with a turnover of US$250 million in 1993. Berezovsky became the chairman of the LogoVaz Board in 1994.
Despite the dangers of Russia’s post-communist business environment – he survived an assassination attempt in June 1994 in which his driver died – Berezovsky moved on to acquire media and oil interests. In January 1995 he participated in setting up the ORT television channel joining its board of directors and in September 1996 he was elected to board of the Siberian oil company Sibneft. Berezovsky’s financial schemes – of the kind I examine in more detail in How Russia Really Works – were also the inspiration for a post-communist genre of literature often known as ‘economic thrillers’.
Berezovsky also gained a political role. In October 1996, President Yeltsin appointed him deputy to the Secretary of the Security Council Ivan Rybkin, a move many experts linked with intrigues by Anatoly Chubais, the then head of the Kremlin administration. As a consequence of this appointment, Berezovsky resigned his business posts. In February-March 1997 Berezovsky sat on the committee on the treaty between Russian Federation and Chechnya, also becoming a member of the Federal Committee on Chechnya. However, in November 1997 President Yeltsin dismissed Berezovsky with Chubais reportedly linked to his departure.
Berezovsky’s role in politics was controversial. In October 1996, for example, the then Secretary of the Security Council, Alexander Lebed’ accused Berezovsky of creating lists of people to be ‘taken out.’ Further allegations came from the head of the presidential security service, Alexander Korzhakov, who claimed that Berezovsky had tried to persuade him to kill media magnate Vladimir Gussinsky, mayor of Moscow Yurii Luzhkov and other prominant figures.
However, Berezovsky featured in so much scandal, rumour and gossip that one wonders if all of it could, even partly be true. Part of it was the product of the era of the ‘pre-paid journalism’ during the 1990s when almost anything could be published. and a great deal of mutual resentment was generated between oligarchs during the so-called ’kompromat wars’ which raged both in Russia and abroad. Berezovsky’s fall out with George Soros over the privatization of the Russian company Sviaz’invest – and Soros’s letter to the Financial Times – is an example.
Berezovsky was described as a member of Yeltsin’s inner circle – ‘The Family’. In a filmed interview for a documentary about the rise of Vladimir Putin and the ‘Mabetex affair’, he recalled acting on behalf of the Family by persuading Vladimir Putin to become president. In 1999, Berezovsky funded the creation of the Unity party, supported by and supporting the Putin as presidential candidate , but he seemed disappointed with the outcome when Putin was elected. July 2000, he resigned from the State Duma to which he had been elected the previous year for the Karachaevo-Cherkessia district.
From this time Berezovsky lived in the UK, but the accusations around him persisted. In March 2003 Berezovsky won an appeal to the British Court against Forbes magazine which associated him with the Russian mafia, the Bank of New York scandal, and a number of murders in the 1990s. At the same time, however, he never contested the contents of Paul Klebnikov’s book.
Opposition to Putin
Berezovsky was granted political asylum on the basis of the judge’s belief that he has a justified fear of prosecution in his home country. In exile, he became one of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics. His open letter of protest against Putin published in Nezavisimaia Gazeta in Russia and his critique of the Putin’s reforms in The Economist were just a tip of the iceberg of discontent Berezovsky felt about the changes in Russia under Putin.
Berezovsky supported many organizations working in defence of human rights and democratic freedoms such as the Sakharov Foundation. At the same time his understanding of democracy was somewhat self-centred: in Russian politics, he believed when he had funded political parties during the 1990s, this was democracy, but when that other people were doing it, it was not democracy any more.
In ‘political exile’, Berezovsky devoted much energy to fighting legal battles, culminating in the one of the largest ever private legal disputes, the Berezovsky vs. Abramovich case in London’s Commercial Courts which he lost. The case in which Berezovsky claimed an estimated £4.5 billion damages, became famous for its £150 million legal costs; its revelations about Kremlin politics and shady business deals in the 1990s; and Berezovsky’s sharp comment on the ruling that Mrs Justice Gloster had taken responsibility for re-writing Russian history.
More can be read on the case in Can Russia Modernise?, where I argue that Russia under Putin is governed through sistema, an elusive system of informal power and instruments of informal governance.
In hindsight, Berezovsky was a non-sistema man in the non-sistema era during the 1990s, but he could not fit it in Putin’s Russia, or into the UK. Shortly before his death he is said to have sought forgiveness from Putin and permission to go back to Russia, but he was an unwanted ‘wanted man’.
Alena Ledeneva is Professor of Politics and Society at UCL-SSEES. Her research interests include corruption; the informal economy, economic crime and the role of networks and patron-client relationships in Russia and other postcommunist societies.
She is the author of How Russia: Really Works: The Informal Practices That Shaped Post-Soviet Politics and Business (Cornell University Press, 2006) and, most recently, Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance (Cambridge University Press 2013).
Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.