The Travails of Gangster Capitalism: The Passing of Boris Berezovsky

Everything about the labyrinthine world of oligarchs tends to happen in “unexplained” circumstances.

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A teenager carries a sign reading “Berezovsky, we are with you!” during a police attack on a 2007 Dissenters March in Saint Petersburg. Credit: Fontanka.ru

Their lives and their existence have mirrored a type of Byzantine court, where favors and punishments are bestowed depending on loyalties.

The death of the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovksy reeks of something more than it might be. Can a death in such a case ever just be that, an outcome of depression, a combination of guilt, the conscience that catches up with you, the broken souls that knock at the door?

The 67-year-old’s death in the town of Ascot, near London, might make the tear ducts well up for a few, but the reality is that, for all his gestures at feigned martyrdom, he was very much part of the system he ultimately condemned. A gangster capitalist should only be entitled to criticize gangster capitalism to a certain degree. Past a certain point, it becomes lamentably farcical.

As with other colleagues in a similar boat, Berezovsky had a different identity before Russia’s economy went into free fall in the early 1990s. He had been a research scientist. But then came the ownership of auto manufacturing, TV networks, oil companies and airlines. He had the ear of a somewhat unreliable President Boris Yelstin, to whom he gave counsel, much of it self-interested. Once in the charismatic orbit of Berezovsky, it proved hard to break free.

Russia’s ruination was his gain. Berezovsky, as Paul Klebnikov describes in Godfather of the Kremlin (2001) was a key figure during the violent gang wars of 1993-4. Even as Russia’s economy was being cannibalized, money was being made and people murdered. He always perished because of it, losing his driver and receiving burns in a car bomb. But it was only until the arrival of Vladimir Putin that the tide changed against Berezovsky.

Something was afoot in the wind, and it proved cankerous for those oligarchs who misread the signals. Anti-Putin figures were arrested and their assets redistributed to friends and allies. In 2003, the determined and noisy oligarch was granted political asylum in the UK.

Berezovsky became a lynchpin in the anti-Putting grouping in London

Things got very nasty with the death of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who became a victim of an assassination courtesy of administered radioactive polonium-210 in November 2006. Suggestions of conspiracy winding their way into the heart of the Kremlin, manned by the dark eminence of Andrei Lugovoi, were rife.

But another charge was that Berezovsky had had a hand in it, something he denied with legal success, winning a libel suit in 2010. “Fundamentally, we [Litvinenko and I] shared the same enemy” (Macleans, Mar 29, 2010).

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Then there were the personal battles with fellow oligarchs. In England’s High Court of Justice, Berezovsky did battle with Roman Abramovich over $5.8 billion in what was the largest private lawsuit in the world. The proceedings were pure theater, with Berezovsky serving Abramovich in a London Hermès boutique with the words, “I have a present for you.”

A few commentators speculated that a different legal strategy was at play here, featuring “a political matter rather than a commercial one, in which the supposed strong-arm tactics of Mr Putin were the real matters on trial” (The Economist, Aug 31, 2012.)

Both men had met in the Caribbean during a cruise, and both engaged in a scheme that saw the privatization of two Siberian oil holdings and the divvying up of the proceeds – a share of the new concern, Sibneft, between Berezovsky, Abramovich and the Georgian Arkady “Bardi” Patarkatsishvili.

This arrangement had political weight, allowing Berezovsky to raise capital to back his media company ORT which would in turn bolster Yeltsin’s tottering position. But things soured with the turn of political fortunes. Abramovich sensed the change; Berezovsky did not. The latter accused his one-time-partner of blackmailing him into selling his stake in Sibneft at an undervalued price.

The New York Times (Nov 10, 2011) gave a colorful account of the proceedings. “In their testimony, and in hundreds of pages of court papers, the two men are exposing the secrets of that time – the sub rosa meetings, the millions of dollars thrown around like petty change, the extortion, the bribery, the sweetheart deals with corrupt governments.”

Abramovich’s account turned the tables on Berezovsky, revealing gangster ethics at work. The deals made with the dissident oligarch were premised on the notion of “krysha” – the “roof” of protection that constituted the “necessary” political clout. At that time, Berezovsky was the man to go to, the necessary contact, the pimp of the establishment if you wanted a slice of the booty.

The trial did much to expose the DNA of the oligarch set. “The underside of the modern history of Russia is being brought to life,” wrote Vera Chelishcheza in Novaya Gazeta. “Only here, at this mad trial in a foreign court, have I got answers.”  Whatever the answers are in terms of Berezovsky’s passing, it will be hard to mourn him without mourning the country he did so much to rent and plunder.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.