Conversing with Berezovsky

By July 31, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

MELBOURNE, Jul. 31 (UPI, The Washington Post) — Who really knows Boris Berezovsky?

Of all the articles written, books published, of all the portraits on television, of the all the commentaries and op-eds — do folks really know Berezovsky? Most do not. And that is why the news reports give a distorted view of this complicated man.

Do I know Berezovsky? Not as well as I would like to.

I have had intense discussions with him. First, in South Africa two years ago at Nobel laureate F.W. de Klerk’s 70th birthday gala — we chatted numerous times during smokers’ breaks. We have dined privately at lunches in London, and at events I have hosted there as well. In 2006 he presented me with a signed copy of his three-volume biography, “Boris Berezovsky: the Art of the Impossible.”

My last meeting with Berezovsky took place in the first quarter of 2007. We met for lunch at an undisclosed location, and over pasta, we had a long talk about world affairs. We talked of his passion for business, of his concern for Islamism and the war in Iraq. We spoke of the breakdown of Russia. We spoke of young people, and of his family. Given that he was on a hit list, he showed me great trust.

We had talked on the phone a month ago, but an intended meeting failed to materialize when Scotland Yard recommended he “disappear for a while” while a Russian assassin was marginalized. Tracked by the MI5, the would-be hit man was arrested and deported to Russia. This was confirmed by British security officials.

Berezovsky is an intricate man — above all self-made. He is smart, an entrepreneur — an enfant terrible, a tycoon. Some consider him dangerous.

Berezovsky does not pretend to be a saint. He has strong views on world affairs and economics — many of which I agree with. He is stubborn, and absolutely forthright. Some do not like this. I do.

“I am a fighter for democratic causes. I support Israel. I support press freedoms,” says Berezovsky. He is most what his detractors claim he is not — a supporter of open society, of limited government, of free markets.

In the early days of Boris Yeltsin, Berezovsky was a leading advocate of political and economic change. He invested in the media and financed reform-minded candidates. He then sought office himself. He was executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the successor to the Soviet Union; deputy director of the National Security Council under Yeltsin and then a member of the Duma.

Berezovsky was born to a modest Jewish family in Moscow. Like most Jewish Russians in Soviet times, he was an outsider. He wanted to study aerospace engineering but was prevented from doing so by quotas limiting access by Jewish students. Finally, in 1983 he obtained a doctorate in computer science. He was 37.

The political landscape had begun to transform. In 1989 he sensed the enormous changes to come. Berezovsky parlayed the confusion of the period — and his willingness to take enormous risks — into a vast fortune. Some would say it was illegal. He would say there were no rules governing the time.

Berezovsky’s influence reached its zenith in 1996.

Yeltsin’s popularity stood at 30 percent. His chief rivals were the right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, both serious threats to Yeltsin’s bid for re-election. The Clinton administration was concerned Yeltsin would lose. It was six months to the next Russian presidential elections.

With knowledge and support of the Clinton administration, Berezovsky organized a group of oligarchs to use their money and influence to underwrite Yeltsin’s campaign. Berezovsky’s media empire swung into full gear. Yeltsin won a comfortable re-election.

By 1998 Berezovsky’s influence at the Kremlin was fading. Vladimir Putin’s was on the rise. Initially Berezovsky backed Putin. But within the year, Berezovsky’s fortune was changing and he left Yeltsin’s inner circle — his role having been dramatically cut. Again, he sensed the winds of change.

In 2000 Berezovsky left for exile in London.

He has become a massive critic of the Putin regime. He accuses the Russian Federal Police, the renamed KGB, Putin’s old comrades, under orders from Putin, of trying to assassinate him. Russian law enforcement accuses Berezovsky of embezzlement, of financing Chechen terrorists, of hijacking and disappearances.

British intelligence agrees with Berezovsky; they warned him to lie low.

Berezovsky sensed opportunity when rules did not exist. He amassed a fortune from investing in raw materials and property. He realized the power of the press — of newspapers and television. He was one of Russia’s first media barons. He has been called Russia’s first oligarch.

I respect Berezovsky’s tenacity and sense of purpose. I expect to be criticized for this.

Berezovsky is the object of extreme jealousy. He has powerful enemies. He has survived repeated assassination attempts — June was not the first time he has been a target.

And he knows it will also not be the last.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, Czech Republic, he sits on the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party.)