By 1999, Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky had everything a man could want. He had fancy cars, extravagant homes, the finest wines, and best of all, power. At this point in time, he was in control of Aeroflot, Russia’s airline; he had a 49 percent stake in ORT (the main state-owned television station); and he’d acquired Sibneft, Russia’s sixth largest oil company. Berezovsky was a billionaire.
Then on New Year’s Eve 1999, Berezovsky’s control began to slip. He had then President Boris Yeltsin in his grasp, controlling Yeltsin from inside the Kremlin walls. He wasn’t the only one. Other oligarchs also controlled the president, amassing their fortunes as laws were bent (or simply ignored) to suit their ambitions. However, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin passed on the presidential reign to a virtual nobody by the name of Vladimir Putin.
Dangerous Russian Politics in the Kremlin
The oligarchs assumed they would control Putin (as they did with Yeltsin), since they campaigned heavily for his election. Putin was a KGB man — an agent for the state for 16 years and then head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor. He was a formidable, unforgiving presence. And he didn’t like to be told what to do.
On July 28, 2000, an infamous meeting went down in the Kremlin. President Putin met with 21 oligarchs to warn them to stay out of politics or he would go after their means of wealth. The ultimatum was to side with Putin or go against him. Berezovsky chose the latter.
Putin also publicly denounced the oligarchs, to which the Russian public wholeheartedly agreed. They hated the oligarchs as well because they viewed these businessmen as thieves and liars. They hated Berezovsky the most since he lost thousands upon thousands of rubles for citizens who invested in his “people’s car.” The project was supposed to be backed by General Motors, but when GM backed out, investors lost all their money.
In 1999, the Kremlin built a criminal case against Berezovsky, claiming his Aeroflot earnings were in Swiss banks and by April 1999, a warrant was issued for his arrest. “It alleged that Berezovsky had siphoned off $250 million of Aeroflot money through Andava.” (Hollingsworth & Lansley, 71). The oligarch denied the allegations.
Berezovsky Takes Interest in Moscow Russia
Berezovsky sidestepped the charges for a while to take a seat in the Duma (Russian parliament), representing a small republic close to Chechnya. He and Putin disagreed on politics. Berezovsky believed in peace talks with Chechnya and a democratic approach to politics within Russia. Putin started the Chechen War and would finish it to the end, and Putin believed in his authoritarian approach, where all power originated from the president.
Berezovsky then made the mistake of publicly castigating Putin, saying that the President was “enslaving people” (Hollingsworth & Lansley, 74). The oligarch resigned his seat in the Duma. When the Kursk submarine sank, killing 118 sailors in August 2000, Berezovsky again publicly criticized Putin’s handling of this tragedy on ORT, the state television station. A furious Putin demanded Berezovsky sell back his ORT shares to the state, but Berezovsky refused to sell.
In October 2000, the state pressed harder, questioning Berezovsky on the Aeroflot allegations once again. In late October 2000, Berezovsky boarded his private jet to Nice, never to return to Russia again.
Berezovsky continues to live in exile in London. The Kremlin has unsuccessfully tried to extradite him. “Eventually, on 28 November 2007, a Russian court convicted and sentenced Berezovsky – in absentia – to six years in jail.” (Hollingsworth & Lansley, 72).
This article, Boris Berezovsky’s Rise to Power During the 1990s, discusses how he amassed his fortune with the alliance of Boris Yeltsin.
- Hollingsworth, Mark and Stewart Lansley. Londongrad: From Russia with Cash: The Inside Story of the Oligarchs. Fourth Estate: August 12, 2010.