Russian Billionaire's Bitter Feud With Putin A Plot Line in Poisoning

By Mary Jordan and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 9, 2006

LONDON, Dec. 8 -- No ordinary billionaire, Boris Berezovsky is a onetime mathematician who travels around London with a posse of bodyguards. He openly taunts Russian President Vladimir Putin and once wore a rubber cartoonish mask of his face. Accustomed to drama, he is now a central figure in the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the most sensational case of international intrigue since the Cold War.

Police found traces of the poison, radioactive polonium-210, in Berezovsky's office in elegant Mayfair in central London. He said Litvinenko came there Nov. 1, the day he began feeling ill.

Berezovsky, 60, had credited Litvinenko with saving him from assassination in the 1990s, and the billionaire helped Litvinenko financially after he fled Russia in 2000 and settled in London. Berezovsky visited the sickened man at the hospital shortly before he died last month and attended his burial Thursday.

As detectives pursue the murder case in Moscow and London, Berezovsky is saying he believes Putin is behind it, while Kremlin supporters see dark emigre conspiracies to smear Russia's reputation by engineering a spectacular murder.

On Friday, Russian news media reported that a third person in the case was suffering radiation illness -- Andrei Lugovoy, a Russian businessman who had met Litvinenko at a London hotel Nov. 1. Like many people in the investigation, Lugovoy had a connection to Berezovsky; he was formerly chief of security at a television network once controlled by the billionaire.

As the investigation widens, the feud between the president and the billionaire remains a prominent story line in the mystery.

"They know each other personally. That adds to the animosity," said Alex Goldfarb, who runs the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, a New York-based organization funded by Berezovsky.

Goldfarb said Berezovsky helped Putin into office "on the assumption that he would continue the democratic reforms" of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. But Berezovsky has been horrified that "since Mr. Putin has come to power, there has been a systematic dismantling of democratic institutions," Goldfarb said. "His conflict with Putin has grown to Shakespearean proportions. . . . Mr. Putin hates him."

The stated aim of the civil liberties foundation is to fund democracy-building and civil rights causes in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Berezovsky's detractors say that even if it funds some worthy causes, it is a tool for a scheming Berezovsky with visions of ousting Putin and returning to Russia as a kingmaker.

Berezovsky, trained as a mathematician, became rich during the chaotic birth pangs of Russian capitalism following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, the state began selling off assets in often dubious privatization deals that left a few people with gigantic piles of cash.

Berezovsky got, among other things, major stakes in the oil company Sibneft, the TV station ORT and Aeroflot. He and other so-called oligarchs wielded enormous political power behind the scenes, and Berezovsky threw his support behind Putin's bid to become president in 2000.

But according to Putin's supporters, Berezovsky unhappily discovered that the new president would not be his puppet.

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