Russia puzzles over Boris Berezovsky′s death | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.03.2013
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Russia puzzles over Boris Berezovsky's death

The sudden death of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was living in exile in Britain, is making waves in Russia and beyond. Berezovsky is said to have helped put Putin in power, but later turned critical of the Kremlin.

In reading reactions from Russia to the sudden death of business man and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, one finds the image of a repentant oligarch with financial troubles.

"I wish nothing more than to come back to Russia. I have changed many of my views," Berezovsky reportedly told a correspondent for the Russian edition of business magazine "Forbes." Their conversation allegedly took place a few hours before Berezovsky's death and was not intended for publication.

Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said in a number of interviews with Russian media that Berezovsky asked the Russian president for forgiveness and sought a return to his home country. Peskov further reports that a handwritten letter from the exiled businessman arrived in January 2013, addressed to Putin - without commenting on the Russian leader's reaction.

Mysterious death in London

The once-powerful Russian oligarch died Saturday (23.03.2013) at age 67. A bodyguard found Berezovsky's body in the bathroom of his home near London. The cause of death remains unknown.

Vladimir Putin speaks with his hand on the Constitution (c) AP Photo/RIA Novosti Kremlin, Vladimir Rodionov, Presidential Press Service

Berezovsky is credited by some with aiding Putin's rise

Police said on Sunday that initial signs did not indicate Berezovsky was a victim of foul play, and they said there were no signs of suspicious chemical or radioactive substances in the house. But the British authorities have noted that information from an autopsy is necessary before drawing further conclusions.

The search for chemical weapons was ordered as a result of the case of Alexander Litvinenko. The former officer in the Russian secret service, the FSB, was a Berezovsky confidant and a critic of the Russian government. Litvinenko was found dead in 2006 in London, having been poisoned with radioactive polonium.

Some have speculated whether Berezovsky committed suicide or died due to health problems. Russian opposition activist Sergey Parkhomenko wrote in his blog, "I cannot imagine that it was suicide."

From Yeltsin-era lobbyist to oligarch

In the 1990s, Berezovsky played an important role in Russian politics. Trained as a mathematician, he rose after the fall of the Soviet Union to become an oligarch, a powerful businessman with ties to high-ranking politicians. Berezovsky earned his millions by selling cars, namely Russian Lada cars and Mercedes limousines from Germany. He went on to control a handful of banks, oil companies, the airline company Aeroflot and various media outlets, including the most-watched TV broadcaster ORT.

Insiders report that Berezovsky had enormous influence on then-President Boris Yeltsin. And Russian journalists have said that Berezovsky was the one who proposed Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's successor in 1999 as the latter grew ill. But after Putin's victory in 2000, he parted ways with Berezovsky. The oligarch would go on to receive asylum in Great Britain, becoming one of the Russian regime's most outspoken critics.

In Russia, Berezovsky was sentenced to 13 years of prison in absentia, and other charges against him remain open.

The former billionaire's bank account reportedly shrank in recent years. Russian "Forbes" estimated Berezovsky's 2011 net worth as $700 million (539 million euros) - half of what it was in 2008.

Roman Abramovich (c) dpa - Bildfunk

A London court ruled in favor of Abramovich in 2012

In fall 2012, Berezovsky suffered a bitter defeat in his legal dispute with Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. A London court found in favor of Abramovich in the case in which Berezovsky accused him of blackmail and breach of contract. In turn, the losing tycoon had to pay court costs of $53.3 million.

National scapegoat

News of Berezovsky's death made waves through Russia. Many consider him something of an evil genius.

"What an unexpected finale. I am shocked," journalist Ksenia Larina of radio broadcaster Ekho Moskvi wrote in her blog. She said she did not know the oligarch personally but sensed his strong charisma during a telephone interview.

Peskov said Berezovsky had no influence on recent Russian politics - a view shared by opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The regime critic Berezovsky never gave financial support to the opposition, Nemtsov said in an interview with DW. While some media have reported Berezovsky aided the opposition, there is as yet no concrete evidence of his support.

"Berezovsky had been shut out of Russian politics for ten years," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and former member of Russia's Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. Oreshkin added that the exiled oligarch was portrayed in Russia as being at the helm of wicked plots. Some rumors suggested he was behind the controversial band Pussy Riot, which the oligarch himself denied.

As recently as December 2012, state-owned television broadcaster Rossiya 1 claimed that Berezovsky had commissioned several murders, including those of a television moderator and a member of parliament. Investigations into those deaths are continuing at present.

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