LONDON — British authorities bowed to Kremlin requests to begin extradition hearings against Boris Berezovsky, a Russian Jewish tycoon and former politician who has been in self-imposed exile in London for more than three years.
Berezovsky, along with a former business colleague, Yulii Dubov, was arrested and promptly released March 24, in an arrangement between police and his lawyer. He will face a preliminary extradition hearing April 2. He disputes the charges of fraud, claiming the extradition request is politically motivated.
“This has nothing to do with crime and everything to do with my political opposition to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin,” Berezovsky said in a statement issued by his lawyer, Andrew Stephenson. “There is no valid reason for my extradition.”
Russian prosecutors allege Berezovsky and Dubov committed fraud worth some $2 billion during their tenure as executives of Logovaz, a Russian automobile distribution company, in 1994 and 1995. At other times, however, Berezovsky has been wanted in connection with suspected fraud at the airline Aeroflot and possible dealings with Chechen terrorists.
Indeed, Russian press reports after the arrest seemed confused about exactly which charges Berezovsky would face if he is returned home. For example, SMI.ru, an Internet news site with links to the Kremlin administration, reported that the extradition hearings would focus on machinations at Aeroflot.
Few Russian media reports dispute that Berezovsky committed a string of crimes during his rise to prominence in the early 1990s, when he amassed holdings ranging from Logovaz and Aeroflot to oil giant Sibneft and national television network ORT, plus newspapers, banks and countless other enterprises held together by a shadowy network of cross-shareholdings. Berezovsky himself has said publicly that no one could get rich in Russia honestly.
But neither do most doubt that Moscow’s motives in going after Berezovsky are political. The man who came to epitomize Russia’s clique of “oligarchs” — super-wealthy entrepreneurs with interests in both business and politics — was seen as the central figure in “the family” of influential figures surrounding ex-president Boris Yeltsin. Putin rose to power in part on pledges to throw the money-men from the Kremlin, and it was inevitable that his prosecutors would eventually set their sights on Berezovsky.
Initially, however, the Kremlin targeted another Russian-Jewish oligarch, press mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, arresting him briefly before chasing him into exile in Spain and confiscating his Russian holdings. While unsuccessful extradition hearings against Gusinsky were underway in Spain in the fall of 2000, prosecutors in Moscow reopened an old investigation into fraud at Aeroflot. By the winter, Berezovsky had resigned his seat in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, and announced his permanent residency in London.
“I have to say, I like it here,” Berezovsky said in a public speech in London late last year. “If I were to take a vacation somewhere, I don’t really think I would go to Moscow. I would probably prefer Paris.”
But unlike Gusinsky, who has quietly focused on his businesses in the United States and Israel, Berezovsky has done his best to continue annoying Putin. After founding an opposition political party — Liberal Russia — he funded a documentary film purporting to prove that Putin was covering up government responsibility for deadly apartment bombings in Moscow in September 1999 that provided the impetus for renewed war in Chechnya.
More recently, Berezovsky has paid the legal costs of Chechen rebel leader Akhmed Zakayev, who is also facing extradition hearings in London, and has sought a political alliance with the Russian Communist Party, the one parliamentary bloc still in open opposition to Putin.
Prosecutors have not, meanwhile, pursued charges against other oligarchs, most of whom have tactily agreed not to engage in politics.
Britain ignored a formal Russian request last November to begin extradition procedures against Berezovsky. This time around, however, officials seem to have moved quickly. According to a British Home Office spokesman, Berezovsky was arrested “within a number of days” after another formal request came from Moscow. In the interim, the spokesman said, the Home Office determined that the charges against Berezovsky were not politically motivated and seemed serious enough to warrant extradition. It will now be up to the British courts to decide whether to grant Russia’s request in full.
Some say the Russians do not actually want Berezovsky extradited. “The proof is that Russia sent charges on Logovaz, which is a weak case, instead of on Aeroflot or connections with Chechen terrorists, which are much stronger cases and much more serious charges,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Stretegic Research in Moscow.
Piontkovsky said the reason Russia might not want Berezovsky extradited is that he “knows too much” about Putin and the inner workings of the government. He noted, “It would be too embarassing to go through a legal battle with him in Russia.”
Officials at the Russian embassy in London declined to comment.
The speed of the process so far — in contrast both to Berezovsky’s earlier treatment here and to the decision to delay hearings on Zakayev’s fate until the war in Iraq is over — has prompted speculation both in Britain and Russia that the move was meant to appease a Kremlin deeply dissatisfied with the British and American decision to go to war.
“The Russians have been pressing very hard, and in the wake of the Security Council negotiations on Iraq, a lot of effort is being put into mending relations [between Britain and Russia],” said Margot Light, a professor at the London School of Economics. “Whatever Mr. Berezovsky may or may not be in relation to being a crook, I think there is very little doubt that the hunt for him is politically motivated.”