Russia's first billionaire and political maverick still has it in for Vladimir Putin
As politicians and dignitaries descended upon Moscow to attend the funeral of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Boris Berezovsky could only pay tribute to his friend from London. "I have lost my mentor and Russia has lost the greatest reformer in all its history," he said. The businessman knew that any attempt to return to his homeland would result in his arrest-something Russian authorities have long awaited.
A regular on the annual Forbes and Sunday Times rich lists, Berezovsky, who changed his name to Piaton Elenin in 2004, has been a wanted man in Russia since he first fled to London to seek refuge from his many enemies. But controversy follows him wherever he goes. Berezovsky was one of the last people to speak to former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko as his body succumbed painfully to the effects of radiation poisoning. Recently, he told Britain's Guardian newspaper that he was plotting to remove Russian president Vladimir Putin by force. He later retracted his comments, but the damage had already been done. British authorities reacted by launching an investigation into his remarks. His political asylum status - that he has held since 2003-could now be in jeopardy.
This is hardly surprising to those who have followed Berezovsky's spectacular rise and fall. To his enemies and to ordinary Russians, overturning his asylum status would come as a bittersweet finale for a man who played a large part in looting a newly independent Russia. He is one of Russia's oligarchs - a small group of entrepreneurs with little business acumen who acquired their fortunes during the hasty privatization of state-owned companies in the early 1990s. For disproportionately low prices, this elite group took control of major industries such as banking, oil, and telecommunications, dominating these sectors and contributing to the disparity in wealth amongst ordinary Russians. Berezovsky was the most powerful oligarch of them all, with access to the Kremlin and a role as a backroom dealer. At the height of his influence, his holdings were spread throughout media, oil, aluminium, and transportation, to name a few, although he has never explicitly acknowledged the degree of his involvement in some companies. Nor can anyone count the number of Berezovsky's holdings, since many of his business interests are registered overseas through shell companies. His assets are estimated to be approximately $1.1 billion, yet the precise nature of these assets and the method by which they came into his hands remains somewhat of a mystery. Berezovsky claims he has sold all of his business interests, but the details are far from clear. What is apparent, though, is that he embodies the chaos and recklessness of the Yeltsin era.
Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born in 1946 to a Jewish family in Moscow. Little is known about his childhood, except that he came from a family of blue-collar intellectuals. The quota on Jewish students in particular university programs prevented him from pursuing his preferred field of astronautics, so he studied at the Moscow Forestry Technical Institute and Moscow State University, earning a doctorate in applied mathematics. He worked as a researcher at the prestigious USSR Academy of Sciences before reaching the upper echelons of the academy as a corresponding member. Still, as a systems analyst he lived frugally, earning a monthly income of 500 roubles and sharing a car with a friend. As the Soviet Union teetered toward collapse, Berezovsky took advantage of the impulsive move toward western-style capitalism. His first taste of private enterprise came from the auto industry. Though Berezovsky was far from business savvy, he made a profit by selling used Mercedes purchased in East Germany for triple their original price, and later established a chain of dealerships in the Soviet Union. In 1989, in the Volga River town of Togliatti, he started LogoVAZ, a joint venture with Russia's largest automaker AvtoVAZ, the maker of Lada cars. …