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Mikhail Saakashvili

Mikhail SaakashviliSaakashvili

POLITICS
2013-03-29
Russia´s godfather
 

Boris Berezovsky has long been one of the most powerful men in Russia. He controlled much of the country’s economy and politics. The 1990s were his most influential period, but his decision to make Putin the successor of President Boris Yeltsin was his downfall. On March 23, 2013 Berezovsky died in his exile near London. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt

In the last decade, Berezovsky has proven himself as a critic of the Kremlin and as one of Putin's fiercest opponents. The oligarch's political asylum in Great Britain caused a political ice age between Moscow and London. The multi-billionaire was not an upright democrat or a liberal, as he himself as well as some media have portrayed him. Berezovsky was an oligarch, who exploited both the Russian people and the Russian state for profit like no other. Corruption, greed and intrigues will be his legacy.

Oligarch of the oligarchs

Like many, Berezovsky used the turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union to his own advantage and built a large business empire in the 1990s. It included large corporations such as Russia's largest automaker AvtoVAZ with the Lada brand, the airline Aeroflot, or the television station ORT, but also the oil company Sibneft.

As the murdered US-journalist Paul Klebnikov shows in his book The Godfather of the Kremlin - Boris Berezovsky and the power of the oligarchs things were often done illegally, as was the case with the other oligarchs. Looking back at the 90s now, the extent of the damage Berezovsky had done to the Russian population in order to enrich himself becomes apparent. Wages were paid only infrequently, the company was exploited rather than it was invested in it, the people became bitterly impoverished, while a select few exploited them to enrich themselves and left them in part barely enough to live. Berezovsky was playing on the front line. However, all of this was not enough. He began to use his economic power politically to enrich himself further.

Engagement in politics

Politically, Berezovsky belonged to the Yeltsin clan. In the Kremlin he appeared as a "grey eminence" and had no major political offices, but belonged to the inner circle and pulled the strings in the background. He supported Yeltsin, though rather for selfish purposes. For the Yeltsin clan, however, he was the most important ally. Not only because of his economic power, but because of his media companies.

This became apparent in 1996 during the re-election of Yeltsin. Before the presidential election, Yeltsin's ratings were at only four percent. Berezovsky and other entrepreneurs got together to prevent the imminent defeat of Yeltsin, who kept their assets safe due to maintaining the status quo at the time. With a massive media campaign of a few months, they managed to bring Yeltsin from four percent into the second round and ultimately to victory over Alexander Lebed. In 1999, he used his media power again. During the elections to the State Duma his massive media campaign led to the victory of the election bloc Fatherland, which was led by the Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, being prevented.

Only one mistake

Berezovsky's position was ideal. He was able to expand its business activities and was politically too influential to be displaced. Still, he had to face the reality. Yeltsin was an alcoholic and in precarious health condition. Furthermore, he could not be re-elected immediately according to the Constitution. If Berezovsky wanted to keep his position, he had to find a successor who he was able to influence as well as Yeltsin, and who would protect the Yeltsin clan as well. All should carry on as before.

He chose the then relatively new head of the Russian Federal Security Service FSB. One who could follow commands, apparently did not have ambitions for power of his own, was not involved in any intrigues and power games, was loyal and only went about his work. The perfect candidate, who also – in contrast to Yeltsin – looked young, healthy, strong and disciplined on the outside. It was Vladimir Putin. Putin became FSB director only in 1998. In 1999 he was already launched as head of government to replace Yeltsin, which happened in the same year. In 2000, he was finally elected as President – with the support of Berezovsky and the Yeltsin clan. As it turned out, Putin was not loyal to the Yeltsin clan. In addition, he was no more a simple order taker. He used his presidency to oust the old elites like Berezovsky. Not only internally there was a revolution in the Kremlin, but the oligarchs like Berezovsky also lost many of their businesses to the state.

At the end?

Berezovsky fled to London in 2000 and asked for political asylum, which was granted in 2003. But he did not give up. Over the years, he tried, despite his past, to stage himself as a Democrat, where he distinguished himself as a fierce opponent of Putin. His shares went mostly to the state, as in the example of his media companies and Aeroflot. From his exile, he tried until his death to regain influence with his wealth, as by acquiring new TV channels in Russia. Putin's coup against the Yeltsin clan was so effective over a short period of time that Berezovsky had no chance to change that.

He was also pursued by the Russian justice system for embezzling funds at AvtoVAZ. However, there were additional investigations in Switzerland as well as in Brazil against Berezovsky for money laundering. The most heavily weighed suspicion was that he had been involved in the 2004 murder of U.S. journalist Klebnikov, who published the book The Godfather of the Kremlin - Boris Berezovsky and the power of the oligarchs in 2001 and showed, as mentioned above, Berezovsky's corrupt and criminal structures. After his deep fall through Putin's coming to power, he, according to the British police, finally hanged himself in his bathroom on March 23, 2013 – without external influence from another person. The reasons allegedly were depression, money problems and the separation from his wife.