The 'Rasputin' of Yeltsin's court Berezovsky: Although recently dismissed from Russia's National Security Council at the urging of a rival, Boris Berezovsky has already had his revenge on that man -- and demonstrated that he still wields enormous power.

Sun Journal

November 28, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Boris A. Berezovsky's emergence as one of the power brokers of the new Russia was confirmed spectacularly in 1994. Splashy assassinations were just coming into vogue as the favored way to settle business disputes. Someone attached a bomb to Berezovsky's car and blew it up on a busy Moscow street. His driver was killed, but Berezovsky was unharmed.

He was caught up in another explosion last week. This one was political. His hand reportedly lighted the fuse on the bombshell that blasted Anatoly B. Chubais' reputation to smithereens. Reported casualties included Russia's privatization program -- run by Chubais -- and the Russian economy itself, now said to be without prospects. Chubais was reported to be politically dead -- accused of taking a $90,000 bribe in the form of a book advance. Berezovsky was unharmed.

Berezovsky, 51, is the embodiment of the part of Russia that has embarked on a wild ride toward capitalism.

In Soviet days he earned a doctorate and labored as a mathematician, devoting himself to decision-making theory. He

was poor, but he had connections, and when it became possible to use them, he did. In 1989, working with friends at the state-owned AvtoVaz automaker, he opened the first private car dealership and called it LogoVaz.

According to numerous accounts, he was able to buy cars at an attractive price and resell them for much more. In the West, that would sound like great business. But his accusers say the plan had a wrinkle. The car company got very little of the purchase price, which instead was distributed at the top, among its executives and Berezovsky.

He established a monopoly on car sales at a time when sales boomed. Within a few years, Berezovsky was well on his way to fabulous wealth. Through his LogoVaz Industrial-Financial Group and other companies, he has a large stake in Aeroflot and Transaero Airlines. His consortium has a bank. He owns oil. He controls Russia's public television channel ORT; he owns 37 percent of a Moscow television station; he has stakes in an entertainment magazine and a newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, along with the weekly magazine Ogonyok.

In November 1996, President Boris N. Yeltsin appointed Berezovsky deputy secretary of the National Security Council. Some newspaper commentators wrote that the appointment was in exchange for Berezovsky's help in getting Yeltsin re-elected four months earlier. Berezovsky gave Yeltsin's election campaign healthy injections of money, and his media holdings reported on Yeltsin favorably.

In Moscow, Berezovsky is the object of endless gossip and scandalous stories. He is twice-divorced and the father of six children, and the maliciously inclined enjoy speculating about how many mistresses he may have.

When Yeltsin appointed him to the Security Council, it was reported that Berezovsky, who is Jewish, had obtained Israeli citizenship after the car bombing. He relinquished it before taking the job.

Last year, Alexander Korzhakov, the longtime Yeltsin crony and bodyguard who eventually fell out of favor and was tossed out of the Kremlin in disgrace, accused him of plotting assassinations.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a sober commentator on political affairs and head of the Center for Strategic Studies, calls him a modern Rasputin.

"Berezovsky's role at the Yeltsin court bore a striking similarity to that of Grigory Rasputin, the notorious 'holy man' at the court of the last Russian czar," Piontkovsky says, adding that Berezovsky holds much the same mysterious sway over Yeltsin and his family that Rasputin did over the czar and his family.

Yulia Latynina, a writer for the Izvestia newspaper, invokes Renaissance terms. "He will try to follow in the footsteps of Cosimo de Medici, the 16th century duke who became Florence's second-most-important banker and its first dictator," she predicts.

They haven't gotten to Machiavelli yet, but there is the godfather image.

A year ago, Forbes magazine published an article calling Berezovsky "the godfather of Russia's godfathers" and accusing him of starting his car dealership with the help of criminal gangs. The magazine also said that the head of ORT, Vladislav Listyev, was murdered in March 1995, after getting caught in a dispute between Berezovsky and another ORT board member. Berezovsky sued Forbes for libel in Britain, but courts there have ruled that they have no jurisdiction.

Berezovsky describes his success simply. "I work like a horse," he says. He also likes to boast that he is among the half-dozen tycoons who control nearly half of Russia's industrial assets -- an assertion that is widely believed here although it is difficult to verify in a country where few records are publicly available.

In July, Berezovsky was among the officeholders who filed income declarations -- the first such disclosures here. Many Russians were highly amused when he listed his 1996 assets as $38,521. (Fortune has estimated his holdings at $3 billion.)

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