Financial Times (UK)
20 October 2001
PERSPECTIVES: Gold-plated exile of the oligarch:
FLIGHT WITH THE FT: Private jet, Dollars 30m luxury home in France . . . Boris Berezovsky seems to have it all since fleeing Russia, says Andrew Jack. Except perhaps a ticket home
By BORIS BEREZOVSKY and ANDREW JACK
It was one of those typical Russian arrangements, a curious taste of Moscow in the south of France. You try to make plans, but everything gets postponed, tentatively agreed, and then changed again at the last minute.
I had all but given up hope of meeting one of Russia's richest and - at least until recently - most powerful men, and was snacking on pasta and roast veal at my host's house near Avignon when my mobile phone rang. "This is Boris Berezovsky," said a faint but familiar voice. "Could you be here in an hour?"
"Here" was his luxurious home on the Cap d'Antibes, reportedly bought for more than Dollars 30m, where Berezovsky - variously businessman, politician and lobbyist - hobnobbed with Russia's elite. He now spends much of his time there, co-ordinating his business and political interests since fleeing the country nearly a year ago, fearing persecution.
Berezovsky was dubbed the "Grey Cardinal" of the Kremlin, the co-ordinator of "the family" of close advisers to the former president, Boris Yeltsin. He built up substantial wealth during Russia's savage proto-capitalist phase in the 1990s in ways that triggered much controversy, and he was widely believed to wield huge influence on policy decisions.
He also claimed to be a kingmaker to President Vladimir Putin, as the brains behind the pro-Putin Unity party, created in 1999, and architect of the devastating media attacks on potential rival candidates. But Berezovsky and Putin fell out in 2000, forcing the fast-speaking oligarch to vent his increasingly tough criticism of the Kremlin from abroad.
It took me more than two hours to get to his estate in searing Provencal heat before eventually reaching the final mile of gravel track beyond a well-guarded gate-tower.
Three sizeable villas - two for guests and one for Berezovsky and his family - sat in spacious and well-tended gardens, commanding an impressive view of coastline and sea from the tip of the promontory. But I had only a few moments to admire the setting before Berezovsky arrived at speed with an unexpected question of his own.
"Do you have your passport with you?" he asked. He had decided to fly to Tokyo for the weekend at the invitation of a long-standing South Korean business partner based there. The commercial flight would leave Paris in three hours. I was the only hindrance - and I only had a UK driving licence on me.
But never mind. We slid into his chauffeur-driven Mercedes and sped to Nice airport, where we were whisked to the deep leather armchairs of Berezovsky's Challenger jet, cooled by gold-plated air vents.
On the flight to Paris we would have 90 minutes of uninterrupted conversation. And the most tempting question, given our sur roundings, was to ask how much he was now worth.
"It is difficult to evaluate, because what is worth Dollars 7bn in Russia would be worth Dollars 40bn in the US," he said. He nodded when I suggested the actual sum was likely to be several billion dollars.
That includes stakes in Sibneft, the Russian oil producer, Russian Aluminium, the recently created metals group, and Logovaz, his original car business, as well as newspapers, radio, television and internet companies. He also cited a new investment fund, created with support from unspecified foreign backers, that he has set up in London.
Such resources helped him generate an income last year that he puts at Dollars 1.2m, with far more triggered by asset sales this year. It is money on which he says he pays Russian taxes; he maintains his citizenship - even though his fear of ending up in prison has kept him from setting foot in his country for many months.
His critics point to aggressive takeover practices, manipulated privatisations and alleged siphoning of funds from companies he owned. Berezovsky, who once survived a car bomb that killed his driver, argues that he has done nothing illegal - or at least outside normal Russian practice and the contradictory or non-existent laws of the time.
He sees himself as a victim of political persecution, triggered by outspoken criticism of many aspects of Putin's presidency. He praises Russia's economic reforms in recent months. But he attacks the bloody military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and its "divide and rule" tactics; the drive for centralisation that has emasculated the country's upper parliamentary chamber; the crushing of freedom of the press; and the rising influence of the security services from which Putin himself came.
"You can't have centralised power and liberal reforms," he says. "We are maximalists in Russia; either Russia becomes one of the most liberal countries in the world, or it will be totalitarian." He prefers the former, calling for a confederation with much greater delegated power to the former Soviet republics and Russia's own regions, including Chechnya.
The appeal of Berezovsky is that his analysis is stimulating and often rings true. The frustration is that his views are tinged with hypocrisy, and his influence - if half as great as he and others argue - helped shape the way things are in Russia.
He has made great play, for example, of recent donations to organisations set up to promote civil society and free speech. Yet, until the beginning of this year, he controlled ORT, the TV network, and used it shamelessly for his own aims - free of the state, perhaps, but certainly not objective. "I always looked on the mass media as a form of political leverage," he admits.
It was through ORT, for example, and notably the highly subjective programmes of the aggressive television presenter Sergei Dorenko, that Berezovsky helped destroy the reputation of former prime minister Yevgenny Primakov and the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, the leading political rivals to Putin through their Fatherland-All Russia movement.
The station - and Berezovsky's other media outlets - subsequently became less enthusiastic towards those in power as his influence waned and his disillusion with the new administration increased. He argues, though, that he "still believes Putin was better than Primakov would have been".
There are strong parallels between Berezovsky and his sometime enemy and fellow oligarch-in-exile, Vladimir Gusinsky, founder of a media empire crowned by the rival NTV network, who also fell out of favour with the Putin administration.
Yet Gusinsky suffered far more: three nights in jail in Moscow last summer before being able to flee Russia, and several months under house arrest in Spain following an extradition request. He was eventually freed, but his business empire inside the country has since been crushed.
Nibbling on a dried apricot from the tray next to my seat, I asked Berezovsky to explain the difference in treatment. "Putin remembers the time when we were in the same boat," he replies after long reflection. "I never discussed my personal interests with him. And I was in business a long time ago, so they don't have real arguments against me. Not that they need them. If Putin had been successful with Gusinsky, he would have continued with me," he says - by "successful" he means if international criticism had been more muted than it turned out to be.
One other difference, of course, is that Berezovsky agreed to sell his principal weapon - his ORT stake - at the beginning of this year, while Gusinsky did everything he could to hold on to NTV.
Berezovsky says he was tricked into the sale after a promise that, in exchange, the state would release his friend, Nikolai Glushkov, the former manager he appointed to run Aeroflot, the state airline, on his behalf, who has been held in custody for many months on corruption charges.
Berezovsky has had his differences with Gusinsky over the years, but spent last new year with him in Spain to offer "moral support". This spring he even offered a safe haven on his secondary television station TV6 to NTV's persecuted staff, many of whom decided to quit when the new state-backed owner took over.
"I think it's very important to provoke," says Berezovsky, arguing that TV6 - itself now coming under fresh pressure that he says is clearly political - could be the new vanguard of a challenge to Putin. He adds that he still believes the president will be ousted by the end of this year.
It took a few minutes to persuade the bemused police at the international transit terminal at Roissy airport why I was travelling from Nice on a UK driving licence, and then immediately flying back.
But at least when reunited with my passport and visa, I knew that I could return to Moscow a few days later. Berezovsky may have to wait rather longer.