Boris Berezovsky: The robber baron who tried to fix Russia his way
After centuries of oppression by a string of autocrats of varying cruelty, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave Russia an unprecedented chance to follow a different path. Unfortunately, that path was charted by Boris Berezovsky.
Some would argue that the power vacuum, political immaturity and a divided society in the wake of the USSR’s implosion made it almost inevitable that a “genius schemer” (as Berezovsky described himself) with no respect for legal formalities would find himself in a position of unregulated power.
But that would be to take responsibility from Berezovsky himself, and to overlook just how profound and damaging the effect of his very specific brand of meddling was on new Russia’s incipient institutions.
Between Berezovsky first entering the Kremlin’s most hallowed
offices in 1993 and his precautionary flight from the country seven
years later, there were few areas of public life that he did not
try to bend to his will. At the height of his influence, Boris
Berezovsky was buying oil companies on the cheap, nominating senior
officials, sponsoring literary awards ceremonies, and
single-handedly conducting diplomatic missions in an armed conflict
on behalf of the entire country. All through this time he never
avoided the cameras, brandishing his wiliness with the glee of a
And for any short-term gains he achieved for himself and those he supported (his allegiances switched often), the long-term losses for Russia can still be felt.
Freed from the shackles of a control economy, Russia was supposed to deliver the consumer goods Soviet planners failed to. But Boris Berezovsky’s business dealings brought the country no perceptible economic benefit. He made his fortune buying Ladas at below-cost prices from the state-owned factory, before selling them at market rates – defrauding taxpayers who had to foot the bill for the money-leaking carmaker. He later repeated the trick at national air carrier Aeroflot, but also made that corporation take loans it did not need at unfavorable rates from his own financial services company. He purchased Sibneft, an oil company worth billions of dollars at fraction of the price in a series of insider auctions, his position secured by close links with President Boris Yeltsin.
In the minds of Russians, he solidified the image of “businessmen” (of whom Berezovsky was the unquestionable primus inter pares) as merely asset-grabbers with the right connections. Berezovsky was not the only fraudster, nor did he pump the most money out of the country to spend on foreign chateaus, but the country’s financial losses numbered in the billions, and the damage to Russia’s development as a functioning market economy was greater still.
Journalists in a state with no history of press freedom were ill-prepared to walk the fine line between maintaining editorial independence, answering to owners and reporting responsibly even before Berezovsky. But when the tycoon was allowed to take control of Channel One, Russia’s national broadcaster in 1995, he made it a propaganda weapon that would change editorial policies at his personal behest. Political and business rivals would be submerged under character assassinations and smear campaigns, with news broadcasts, documentaries and analytical programs all tailored on demand to fit the message. A typical report ahead of the 1999 parliamentary elections took a tour of the chic Swiss clinic where anti-Kremlin party leader Evgeniy Primakov was receiving hip surgery, as a voiceover insinuated that he was both decrepit and paid for the procedure with dirty money. The right to speak freely – one indisputable gain of the end of totalitarianism – became in the minds of many, the right of a rich oligarch to sling mud as he pleased. As independent journalism was squeezed in subsequent years, few bothered to defend it, and most did not believe such a thing ever existed.
Throughout the 1990s, Russia’s future as a democracy hung in the balance, as revanchist Communists dominated the parliament. When Berezovsky and six other tycoons banded together and used all their dubiously-acquired financial and media power to help the re-election of ailing Boris Yeltsin against the Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov in 1996, they disregarded the sanctity of democratic choice. At the time, for many it seemed like there was no other option, but in going all out to manipulate the political process the so-called Seven Bankers (and the incumbent’s administrative machine, ordered to stop Zyuganov at all cost) mortgaged the future of Russian democracy. Inevitably, in the next political cycle, Berezovsky’s tampering became only more brazen. By multiple accounts, the previously low-profile security chief Vladimir Putin, who had never run in any previous election or engaged in overtly political activity, was handpicked personally by Berezovsky, who persuaded Boris Yeltsin to endorse him as a successor, and financed a party that would support his views, even as it had no ideology and barely had time to meet the candidate (the party Unity, later went on to become United Russia, which still holds the majority vote in the Russian Duma to this day).
Of course, little of this would have been possible if Boris Yeltsin hadn’t made Berezovsky his éminence grise. As the head of a weak, poor central authority flailing against the chaos and hostility of bureaucrats, rampant criminals and citizens who quickly lost appetite for reform, Yeltsin saw the tycoon as the only man who could help the government regain some control. But in blurring the lines between business, politics and media, and making them all slaves to his own masterplans, Berezovsky helped corrupt Russia's immature institutions and hampered the country's chances of becoming a law-based state. The concept of conflict of interest was barely understood even by the oligarchs themselves, and the means appeared to justify the ends. But Russia’s corruption (it is ranked 133rd in the world according to Transparency International) lack of independent media (ranked 148th by Reporters without Borders) and political freedom (it is classified as Not Free by Freedom House) would suggest otherwise. Berezovsky's self-mythologizing and the murkiness of Yeltsin's inner circle - known as the Family - make it hard to decipher the precise weight of the tycoon's input, and it is harder still to know what would have happened without him in such an unusual period in history. Yet, each of the negative phenomena above can be attributed at least partly either to Berezovsky himself, or those he helped push onto the national scene, and the exiled oligarch admitted as much in a mea culpa he published a year before his death.
The charm of a sociopath
Even those who disparage the historical role Berezovsky played,
often cannot bring themselves to dislike him whole-heartedly. Even
in his pomp he seemed more like a picaresque protagonist than a
criminal kingpin, an impression helped by his demeanor of a busy,
small-time schemer crossed with a university professor (which, of
course, he was). As he was left to observe Russian politics from
the exile of his Ascot mansion, his plotting grew more frantic and
ineffectual, his fortune shrank in a series of wrong-headed
business deals and a reckless lawsuit, and his search for attention
became more desperate, Berezovsky’s character acquired a newly
tragic hue. He became what he seemed to fear the most:
irrelevant. With his death, the fall appears complete. Once
Russia's kingmaker, Berezovsky died entirely alone, possibly
bankrupt, and thousands miles away from home (where he allegedly
begged to return). Thus, much of the media coverage and words from
those who knew him two decades ago have become tinged with a vague
nostalgia and unmistakable sympathy.
Yet, this soft focus sits uncomfortably next to some of the gristlier aspects of being an oligarch in early-90s Russia. During his car dealer years, the magnate sponsored an armed security service that had to fend off mafia attacks, with fatal losses on both sides. Berezovsky was linked with a string of contract killings, and during his stint as a peace negotiator in separatist Chechnya, opponents accused him of encouraging terrorists to kidnap Russian citizens, only for him to save the day with a timely ransom, sometimes paid out of his own pocket. He also illegally spied on dozens of business associates and even secretly taped conversations with Boris Yeltsin’s daughter. And while the nickname of the “Godfather of the Kremlin”, once given to him by Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov (who was later assassinated himself) is based on innuendo and criminal cases that will never be investigated, there is no doubt that the tycoon was happy to make a fortune off a factory where staff on average wages of $50 a week would often go without pay for months.
It has become fashionable for non-professionals to diagnose various ruthless and successful men – Lance Armstrong, Silvio Berlusconi – as sociopaths, but looking from the outside, perhaps this is a description that genuinely fit Berezovsky better than almost any public figure. Among the diagnostic criteria are superficial charm (that much is undeniable) a grandiose sense of self-worth (Berezovsky reportedly seriously considered that he might be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Chechnya) a flair for manipulation (the essence of his political career) and pathological lying (the judge in his court case against Roman Abramovich last year called him “an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes").
In view of this, to reduce Boris Berezovsky to an innocuous caricature would be a disservice to his personality, not to mention the impact he exerted on his homeland. In the aforementioned mea culpa Berezovsky apologizes for “greed that harmed Russian citizens”, “destroying democratic values” and “undermining freedom of speech”. That time Boris Berezovsky was telling the truth.
Igor Ogorodnev, RT
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.