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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 07:58 GMT
'No regrets' for tarnished tycoon

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

If we had had not just 10 oligarchs, but more like 1,000, all of Russia's problems would be solved
Boris Berezovsky
For Russian billionaires, being arrested is as much part of the job as the bullet-proof limousine or the Versace-clad moll.

But Boris Berezovsky, the country's most notorious tycoon, has so far managed to avoid a spell behind bars.

Until now, that is: this week, Mr Berezovsky, an exile in London since 2000, was nabbed by the Metropolitan Police in response to a Russian complaint about alleged fraud in the mid-1990s.

BBC News Online obtained the last interview with Mr Berezovsky before his arrest, and found the billionaire bullish about his prospects - and even plotting his political comeback.

Laid-back in London...

For a man with a price on his head, Mr Berezovsky was surprisingly relaxed when BBC News Online met him in his Mayfair office.

Not that his exile has been an entirely comfortable one.

Moscow traffic
Russia's thirst for cars earned Mr Berezovsky's first fortune
Mr Berezovsky continues to manage what he says is a multi-billion-dollar portfolio of assets, including Russian aluminium and oil, newspapers and television stations, and property all over the world.

He has been engaged in a series of running battles with the Kremlin, having fallen out with the Russian Government since the election of President Vladimir Putin three years ago.

He is trying to build a new Russian political party, which he says will unite the country's notoriously quarrelsome liberals under an electable banner.

Oh, and he has just completed one of the longest libel battles in British legal history, forcing Forbes magazine to back down - but not apologise or pay damages - over a 1996 article portraying him as the "Godfather of the Kremlin".

"I like it here in London well enough," Mr Berezovsky said. "But compared with Russia, it's often very boring."

... manic in Moscow

Indeed.

Mr Berezovsky is used to a very different pace of life.

For anyone involved in Russian business or politics during the 1990s, the name of Berezovsky carries almost mythical associations.

Boris Yeltsin
Mr Berezovsky thrived in the Yeltsin era
Having made his money through LogoVaz, a company that first sold software to, and then bought cars from, Lada-building leviathan AvtoVaz, the former mathematician leveraged wealth into influence by building Russia's biggest media empire.

He still owns three newspapers and a television station, but his real clout in the 1990s came from his control of ORT, the theoretically state-owned main TV broadcaster.

This brought him into close contact with the government, and Mr Berezovsky was a key member of the cabal that effectively bought Boris Yeltsin re-election in the closely-contested 1996 presidential poll.

After 1996, Mr Berezovsky was almost alarmingly close to Mr Yeltsin, a position that earned him political office and extensive - but often vaguely-defined - involvement with some of the country's biggest companies.

Enemy of the people

It also earned him notoriety - his life was even used as the loose basis for a hit movie, "Oligarkh" - and an unparalleled reputation for dodgy dealing.

'Oligarkh' poster
The celluloid version
After the early triumphs, Mr Yeltsin's second term was a dispiriting descent into corruption and maladministration - for which Mr Berezovsky's influence was often blamed.

"If it's raining in Russia, that's because Berezovsky's watering his garden," a prominent Russian politician told this correspondent in 1997.

For his part, Mr Berezovsky said he was the victim of anti-semitism - born a Jew, he converted to Orthodox Christianity in the mid-1990s - and of a persistent smear campaign by the KGB and its successor espionage agencies.

Since Mr Putin, a former KGB chief, came to power, those smears have apparently become intolerable.

The article in Forbes magazine, which linked Mr Berezovsky with a number of business-related murders, sprang from the same tainted source, Mr Berezovsky said.

Oligarchs wanted

Mr Berezovsky remains not only unabashed by his critics, but insists that he and his fellow billionaires - known by Russia-watchers as the oligarchs - actually helped the country's economy after the collapse of communism.

By aggressively privatising chunks of the Russian economy, and buying state assets for a song, oligarchs helped reform take the sort of initial leap that the wider market was too cautious to finance, he argues.

"We created a market in Russia," he told BBC News Online.

"Under communism, cars were not sold, they were distributed. We realised that the first wish people had was for a car, and we fulfilled that wish.

"If we had had not just 10 oligarchs, but more like 1,000, all of Russia's problems would be solved."

Pricking Putin

During his exile, Mr Berezovsky has honed this sort of apologia into a full-blown manifesto of liberalism - a concept that in Russian terms means free-market libertarianism, rather than soft-left social democracy.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin: 'Too much bombast, too little reform'
Mr Berezovsky has no time for the nationalist policies of Mr Putin, who he says has neglected economic reform in favour of bombastic nation-building.

"Of all the big pieces of economic reform that needed doing, Putin has done none."

The relative health of the Russian economy since Mr Putin's elections - a steady rouble, buoyant growth, moderating inflation - are solely the results of Yeltsin-era liberalisation, Mr Berezovsky argued.

"Putin has not created a stable economic situation," he said. "How you can say that Russia is stable when it has in effect a civil war going on in Chechnya?"

Another crash is around the corner, Mr Berezovsky thinks - and optimistic recent investors such as oil giant BP Amoco are taking an unnecessary gamble.

Money worries

Just how much of Mr Berezovsky's ill-feeling stems from his personal circumstances is open to question.

For the past five years, Mr Berezovsky has been under investigation for allegedly siphoning off billions of dollars from Aeroflot, the state airline which Mr Berezovsky seemed to control at one point.

Red Square
Someone here doesn't like Boris
Last November, Moscow asked for Mr Berezovsky's extradition over charges that LogoVaz bilked the Samara regional government out of 60bn roubles (1.2bn; $1.9bn).

Mr Berezovsky denied the allegations - "I am completely happy with the way I behaved during the 1990s" - and is spitting bullets about the way ceaseless corruption probes have dogged him.

"I'm not sitting here going crazy because I can't go back to Russia," he said.

"But what I don't like is that someone other than myself gets to decide whether I can return or not."

No regrets

Now, Mr Berezovsky may get his chance to return.

But a homecoming in handcuffs may shatter his plans to launch his Liberal Russia party as a serious enterprise this year.

After years of wrangling with his fellow liberals, Mr Berezovsky claimed to have ironed out ideological differences, and the bloc was aiming to field up to 250 candidates in December's parliamentary elections.

But Mr Berezovsky is not the type to waste time in regrets.

"Life in Russia is dangerous for every businessman, not just for billionaires," he said.

"But I made my choice: I could have sat in the quiet corner, and focused on my science, which I love - but that would never have suited me."




SEE ALSO:
Russian tycoon held in UK
25 Mar 03  |  Europe
Russian tycoon 'afraid to return home'
16 Nov 00  |  Media reports


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