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#17 - JRL 7066
New York Times
February 18, 2003
Exiled Russian Oligarch Plots His Comeback

LONDON, Feb. 17 Russia has a long and honored tradition of exile: Lenin, for instance, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Now, in the latest and perhaps least likely addition, there is Boris A. Berezovsky, the Soviet-era mathematician and oligarch of robber-baron capitalism, onetime Kremlin kingmaker and now plain old self-exiled billionaire.

Mr. Berezovsky, an intense, balding 57-year-old in svelte pinstripe, whose desk ornaments include photographs of Boris N. Yeltsin and Rupert Murdoch, lives these days just south of London in a walled seven-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion, commuting with his two private bodyguards to an office just off Park Lane.

The genteel axis between Surrey and Mayfair seems somewhat remote from the roller-coaster Moscow days when Mr. Berezovsky accumulated fortunes through a car dealership, a media empire, the Aeroflot airline and vast holdings in oil and aluminum.

That was just for starters. Along the way, flattery and persistence brought him into the inner circle of Mr. Yeltsin, then Russia's president, where he played a central part in the successful bid by Russian oligarchs to forestall a resurgence of Communist power.

But that was before Mr. Berezovsky fled his country in late 2000.

The Russian authorities have asked for his extradition to face an array of fraud charges. Mr. Berezovzky is at daggers drawn with President Vladimir V. Putin, whom he once helped hoist to power. He is unable to travel outside Britain for fear of being denied readmission.

"I chose freedom of the mind, not freedom of the body," he said during a 90-minute interview in an office decorated in muted beige and entered only through a security system based on thumbprint recognition.

Never one to shy away from a grand task, Mr. Berezovsky said his aim these days was nothing less than to sponsor political opposition to Mr. Putin, defeat him in parliamentary and presidential elections and thereby return to Russia. His party is called Liberal Russia and seeks support from left and right.

"I'm not a dissident," he said in accented English when asked if his political ambitions had any chance of being realized. "I'm not a human rights fighter. Everything I'm doing is rational from my point of view. I try to create real political opposition in Russia, and I'm sure that it's absolutely realistic. Several times in my life I had situations where no one believed it would happen."

His track record suggests that from the Logovaz car dealership to the Sibneft oil company, it usually did happen. In 1997, Forbes magazine ranked him the ninth most influential entrepreneur in the world.

Even now he claims a fortune of $3 billion in Russian and overseas investments. He has always been secretive about his interests. "The state doesn't know what property I have, and I do not try to inform the state," he said.

The Russian government is seeking Mr. Berezovsky's extradition on charges that he and two others embezzled $13 million in 1994 from Logovaz. He has also been accused in Moscow of defrauding Russia's largest automobile company, Avtovaz, embezzling money from Aeroflot and financing guerrillas in Chechnya. But Mr. Berezovsky denies wrongdoing.

In a study of the oligarchs published in 2000, "Sale of the Century," a Canadian-born journalist, Chrystia Freeland, spoke of Mr. Berezovsky's "genius for getting close to the right people at the right time and using them to the maximum."

Of his election to Russia's Parliament in 1999, Mr. Berezovsky said: "I was an oligarch, rich, Jewish and not very sympathetic. But I was elected in a region which was 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Russian Kazakh, who are traditionally anti-Semitic and almost 60 percent supporting the Communists. The population is very poor."

The reason was simply that people believed that he could help them.

Mr. Berezovsky converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity in 1994, he said, but denies that he did so out of political expediency. His career, as what Ms. Freeland called "a corporate nomad who danced from one venture to another, amassing money and influence along the way," was then well under way.

Mr. Berezovsky had penetrated the Yeltsin family circle, the key to acquiring control of businesses like ORT broadcasting and Aeroflot, the former Soviet state airline. He had made enemies along with friends: a bomb explosion in 1994 destroyed his Mercedes and killed his chauffeur.

It was in early 1996, though, that Mr. Berezovsky made his boldest play for political influence, marshaling support among Russian oligarchs at the meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos in the Swiss Alps for a plan to use money and mass media to support Mr. Yeltsin against a growing Communist challenge. But who were the oligarchs?

In Russia the small group centered on people like Vladimir Potanin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Mr. Berezovsky who, through a complicated mechanism that would have been labeled an outright scam in the West, gained control of vast slabs of the former Soviet state's minerals and oil through arranged auctions and loans worth only a fraction of the companies being acquired.

The so-called Davos Pact succeeded, and Mr. Berezovsky used much the same tactics to engineer Mr. Putin's rise in 2000, only to find that his protg turned against him.

Mr. Berezovsky insists that the fraud and other criminal charges against him which he denies are politically inspired. "Putin just wants to stop me from participating in political life in Russia," he said.

He has accused Mr. Putin of knowing that a series of bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow had been carried out not by Chechen separatists, as the Russian president alleges, but by the F.S.B. state security service to which Mr. Putin used to belong.

Like other oligarchs, reviled back home by some Russians for their opulent wealth, Mr. Berezovsky is trying to shed or at least remold his image as a charmingly ruthless buccaneer of mid-1990's capitalist excess.

Since fleeing Russia, he said, he has been able to spend more time with his six children from three marriages, even though he works an 18-hour day and sleeps only three or four hours a night.

After years as a "not very good father," he said: "For the first time in my life I visit their school. I know exactly what my 5-year-old boy and my 7-year-old girl are doing."

His politics have prompted him to bankroll the legal fees of Akhmed Kazayev, a Chechen leader held in Britain while Russia seeks his extradition. Mr. Berezovsky has created a human rights foundation in New York. Political activity is his passport home.

"For me I don't have any doubt that if we win the parliamentary elections, I'll be able to return to Russia," he said. "But the two targets coincide."

He acknowledged a keen self-interest even, as he put it, self-love.

"Anything we do in our lives we do for ourselves," he said. "It's absolutely hypocritical to say that I'm doing something for the other person. When I try to answer the question `What means love?' I answer: love is the highest level of" he struggled for the English term he wanted "egoism."

"God said love the other like yourself," Mr. Berezovsky said. "Without loving yourself you are not able to love anyone at all."

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