The Commercial Court in London on Friday gave its verdict in a case brought by the fugitive Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky against the Russian billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich. The full Judgment has not yet been delivered. The Judge has however provided a summary of the Judgment:
I do not propose to discuss the case itself. The case was simple and the Judgment explains it. Berezovsky claimed Abramovich owned or acquired interests in various companies on trust for Berezovsky who was the true owner of these interests. No issues of law were involved. It was for Berezovsky to prove the truth of what he said. Berezovsky had no evidence but his uncorroborated word. The Judge did not believe him. The Judgment is based entirely on fact. An appeal is therefore hopeless.
Reports in Britain speak of the case providing an insight into Russia. The case does say a lot about Russia though mainly about the Russia of the 1990s. The case however says a lot more about Britain. It is that I want to discuss.
The Judge’s assessment of Berezovsky
The case was one for Berezovsky to prove. The Judge could have confined herself to saying that he had failed to prove it. The Judge went much further. I will set out what she said about Berezovsky in full:
“…..I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes. At times the evidence which he gave was deliberately dishonest; sometimes he was clearly making his evidence up as he went along in response to the perceived difficulty in answering the questions in a manner consistent with his case; at other times, I gained the impression that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events. On occasions he tried to avoid answering questions by making long and irrelevant speeches, or by professing to have forgotten facts which he had been happy to record in his pleadings or witness statements. He embroidered or supplemented statements in his witness statements, or directly contradicted them. He departed from his own previous oral evidence, sometimes within minutes of having given it. When the evidence presented problems, Mr. Berezovsky simply changed his case so as to distance himself from statements and in witness statements which he had signed or approved, blaming the “interpretation” of his lawyers, as if this somehow diminished his pleadings and witness statements. His “I blame my lawyers” excuse was not convincing.”
In a case Berezovsky brought in order to make himself and his associates lots of money the Judge says he went to Court and lied on oath. The Judge says he is “inherently unreliable”, regards truth “as a transitory, flexible concept, which (can) be moulded to suit his current purposes” and can delude himself “into believing his own version of events” even when this is obviously untrue. In effect the Judge says that nothing Berezovsky says whether inside or outside a Court room can be assumed to be true.
The only other time I have heard a British Judge speak about a party to a case in this way the Judge confiscated his papers and sent them to the Director of Public Prosecutions to assess whether criminal charges should be brought in view of the attempt to mislead the Court. That did not happen in that case and will not happen in this case. However it gives some idea of how severe the Judge’s comments about Berezovsky were.
The Judge’s comments will come as no surprise to anyone in Russia. Berezovsky’s reputation there is toxic and has been so for a long time. Even the most militant sections of the anti Putin opposition keep a wide distance from him. When a photograph appeared a few months ago in a provincial Russian newspaper purportedly showing Berezovsky in the company of Alexei Navalny the Russian opposition activist and blogger Navalny went to great lengths to expose the photograph as a fake.
In Britain it has been an entirely different matter. Here Berezovsky has had no shortage of believers. To an extent I think few people even in Russia realise it is Berezovsky and his publicity machine that is the source of many of the critical stories that appear in the British press about Russia and which have formed the British view of Russia. To understand the extent to which this is so a number of examples of such stories will suffice:
FSB Berezovsky “Murder Plot”
Berezovsky alleged in the autumn of 1998 that the FSB planned to kill him. He staged a press conference in Moscow in which several masked men appeared who he claimed were FSB agents opposed to the plot. The starring role in the press conference was played by Litvinenko who did not wear a mask and who was at this time an FSB agent but who had already been moonlighting for Berezovsky for some time and who subsequently became full time Berezovsky’s employee.
The British media has accepted the truth of this plot. The former BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith in a book he wrote about the Litvinenko affair actually claims to have deduced the identities of several of the masked FSB agents who attended the press conference. The plot is often cited in connection with the Moscow apartment bombings and the Litvinenko affair as evidence of the murderous character of the FSB.
A number of vague comments by certain former members of the FSB are sometimes cited as corroborating the existence of this plot though on examination they are pure hearsay and do no such thing. The evidence for the existence of the plot actually originates entirely with Berezovsky himself or with Litvinenko who already at this time appears to have been closely associated with Berezovsky and who subsequently became Berezovsky’s employee. The only evidence the masked men who attended the Moscow press conference were FSB agents is that Berezovsky and Litvinenko say they were. Since Berezovsky’s evidence is “inherently unreliable” and since for Berezovsky the truth “is a transitory, flexible, concept” which can be “moulded to suit his current purposes” there is no reason to accept his or Litvinenko’s word for it that there was a plot by the FSB to kill Berezovsky or to believe that the masked men who attended the Moscow press conference were FSB agents. It is just as likely they were actors put up to do it by Berezovsky himself.
Moscow apartment bombings
Over the course of the summer of 1999 a series of bomb attacks were carried out against a number of apartment buildings in Moscow. The Russian authorities have accused jihadi rebels from the northern Caucasus of carrying out the bombings. At the time the leaders of the jihadi rebels including their most famous fighter Shamil Basayev openly admitted jihadi involvement in the bombings. Subsequently the Russian authorities identified the actual persons they say carried out the bombings. Most were killed in the fighting in the northern Caucasus. A number have been captured and were tried and imprisoned for the crime.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that jihadi terrorists were behind the apartment bombings the myth has persisted that they were the work of the Russian authorities. Since the bomb attacks according to this theory were the work of the FSB, supposedly the lineal successor of the former Soviet KGB in which Putin once served and of which Putin had until just a few months before been the head, it is assumed he was involved. Whenever the subject of the apartment bombings comes up the British media invariably implies that there are doubts about who was responsible and several British journalists have at various times hinted that Putin was involved. Putin’s most recent biographer, Masha Gessen, says she believes Putin was involved.
I had occasion to research the Moscow apartment bombings seven years ago. I quickly concluded that neither Putin nor the FSB nor any other branch of the Russian government were involved and that the bombings were the work of jihadi terrorists just as the Russian authorities say they were.
More to the point it became obvious to me that even if Berezovsky was not the actual originator of the myth that the Russian authorities were behind the apartment bombings he was the person who was largely responsible for keeping the myth alive. Witness after witness to the supposed involvement of the Russian authorities in the bombings turned out either to have connections to Berezovsky or to people connected to Berezovsky who could be plausibly described as members of his network. Always and invariably the trail led back to Berezovsky. Even witnesses who initially seemed to be genuinely independent proved to have had been in contact with Berezovsky or his agents.
I remember being impressed at the time by the amount of energy and resources Berezovsky had invested in the affair. The most detailed account of the Russian authorities’ supposed involvement in the bombings was a book co authored by Litvinenko who was at the time Berezovsky’s employee. The book was worthless as evidence as shown by the fact that around half the interviews in it were anonymous. It remains however the often unacknowledged source for many of the details that regularly appear in the western press about the affair.
Berezovsky Putin’s patron?
Berezovsky has repeatedly claimed that Putin was originally his protégé and that it was he who recommended Putin to Yeltsin first to head the FSB and then for the post of Prime Minister and eventual successor. If one is to believe Berezovsky it is Berezovsky who is responsible for Putin’s rise to power.
This story is universally believed I believe even in Russia itself. It has become the accepted narrative of Putin’s rise to power. Corroboration is sometimes said to be provided by records that supposedly show an unusually large number of meetings between Berezovsky and Putin. It is of course also the case that Berezovsky’s television and radio stations and newspapers strongly supported Putin in the December 1999 parliamentary elections and in the March 2000 Presidential elections. Not only is it widely assumed that Putin was originally Berezovsky’s protégé but the speed with which Putin turned against Berezovsky once he became President is regularly cited at least in Britain as evidence for Putin’s ruthless and treacherous personality.
It has always puzzled me that this claim is so widely believed. The only evidence for it ultimately comes from Berezovsky himself. All the accounts one reads of Berezovsky’s meetings with Yeltsin in which he is supposed to have recommended Putin to Yeltsin and of Berezovsky’s actions on Putin’s behalf appear to originate with Berezovsky.
In the recent case the Judge had to decide whether to believe Berezovsky’s account of meetings Berezovsky claims to have had with Abramovich. The Judge decided that Berezovsky’s account of these meetings was false. If Berezovsky’s account of these meetings with Abramovich is false why suppose his account of his meetings with Yeltsin is true?
The difficulty in believing that Putin was Berezovsky’s protege is that in the autumn of 1998 when Berezovsky claims he was lobbying Yeltsin on Putin’s behalf Berezovsky claimed the FSB was planning to kill him (see above). Putin at that time was the head of the FSB. In other words, if one is to believe Berezovsky, he was lobbying for the promotion of the man who headed the organisation that was trying to kill him.
The claim Putin was Berezovsky’s protégé looks to me like another example of Berezovsky’s grandiosity (very obvious during the trial) and his propensity, mentioned by the Judge, “to make things up as he goes along” and to change and contradict his own story when it suits him.
As for the numerous meetings between Putin and Berezovsky these do not prove that Putin was Berezovsky’s protégé. What they show (if they really happened) is Berezovsky’s importance at the time in the dysfunctional Russian power structure and the need for even senior officials like Putin to pay him court. As to Berezovsky’s support for Putin in the parliamentary and Presidential elections of 1999 and 2000, it tends to get forgotten that the alternatives to Putin in those elections were Primakov and Zyuganov both of whom were Berezovsky’s sworn enemies. Indeed Primakov is supposed to have wanted to have Berezovsky arrested. What choice did Berezovsky therefore have?
Berezovsky champion of the free press?
Berezovsky has represented his falling out with Putin as a consequence of a power grab by Putin who supposedly wanted to take Russia in a more authoritarian and anti democratic direction to which Berezovsky as a democrat was naturally opposed. Putin supposedly also wanted to gain control of the Russian media, which was at this time largely divided between Berezovsky and his former associate and erstwhile rival Guzinsky. According to Berezovsky it was this that made Putin turn against him causing Berezovsky and Guzinsky to flee into exile. Putin’s “seizure” of the Russian media from Berezovsky and Guzinsky is according to this narrative, which is universally believed in Britain, a key event in the consolidation of Putin’s power.
To assess the truth of this claim it is necessary to consider the Judge’s assessment of the other party to the case, Roman Abramovich. Since the case could have been decided purely on the Judge’s assessment of Berezovsky’s truthfulness or otherwise the Judge did not need to assess Abramovich’s honesty and truthfulness as a witness. The Judge nonetheless did so and here is what she said:
“….Mr. Abramovich gave careful and thoughtful answers, which were focused on the specific issues about which he was being questioned. At all times, he was concerned to ensure that he understood the precise question, and the precise premise underlying, the question which he was being asked. He was meticulous in making sure that, despite the difficulties of the translation process, he understood the sense of the questions which was being put to him. To a certain extent that difference, no doubt, reflected the different personalities of the two men, for which I gave every allowance possible to Mr. Berezovsky. But it also reflected Mr. Abramovich’s responsible approach to giving answers which he could honestly support.
In conclusion I found Mr. Abramovich to be a truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness.”
In his evidence at the trial Abramovich, who the Judge says is a “truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness” said that Berezovsky in the 1990s ran what was to all intents and purposes a gigantic protection and extortion racket which obliged people like Abramovich to pay him enormous sums of money in return for protection. Abramovich also said that Berezovsky’s demands were backed by the threat of Berezovsky’s widely believed connections to Chechen terrorists and gangsters. According to Abramovich Berezovsky used the enormous sums of money people like Abramovich paid him to live a lifestyle that would have embarrassed a Roman emperor.
The Judge said in her Judgment that there was more to the relationship between Berezovsky and Abramovich than had come out in Court. Nonetheless she called Abramovich a “truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness”. Abramovich’s description of Berezovsky’s conduct in the 1990s was part of his evidence in the case and was an essential part of his defence so when the Judge said that he is a “truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness” she was saying she believed him.
Is an individual who extorts billions of dollars through a protection racket a fit and proper person to run national television stations and newspapers? The short answer is no. Abramovich, who the Judge says is “a truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness”, says that that is exactly the sort of person Berezovsky was. Seen in this light Putin’s actions to relieve Berezovsky of control of his television stations and newspapers was not a sinister authoritarian power grab but a public service.
Berezovsky has claimed ever since he left Russia in 2000 that he was threatened by Putin and by the Russian government into transferring his interest in the Russian oil company Sibneft to Abramovich.
This claim has been universally believed in Britain. The Financial Times in a somewhat plaintive article published following the Judgment says the forced transfer of Berezovsky’s interest in Sibneft to Abramovich is part of the accepted narrative of events in Russia after Putin came to power. The incident is routinely cited as evidence for the disregard of private property rights and legal processes in Russia and of Putin’s personal involvement in such matters and of his brutal methods.
There is no need in relation to the Sibneft affair to draw any inferences from the Judge’s assessment of Berezovsky’s personality since the Sibneft affair was actually part of the case Berezovsky brought against Abramovich which the Judge had to decide. Her decision is that Berezovsky’s account is untrue. The Judge said that Putin and the Russian government never threatened Berezovsky to force Berezovsky to transfer his interest in Sibneft to Abramovich. A British Judge heard what Berezovsky and Abramovich had to say and decided that a key part of the accepted narrative of recent Russian history as believed in Britain is false.
In 2006 the former FSB agent Litvinenko died in London in murky circumstances. The British authorities claim he was poisoned with polonium and have named a former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi as his killer. The British authorities have not however as of the time of writing released the autopsy report and the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death are currently under investigation by a British Coroner.
What gets overlooked in British accounts of the Litvinenko affair is that all the main individuals involved in the affair, Litvinenko, Lugovoi and Goldfarb are connected to Berezovsky. At the time of his death Litvinenko was living in a house owned by Berezovsky and had been associated with Berezovsky since at least 1994 though shortly before his death he had stopped actually working for Berezovsky. Goldfarb who orchestrated the blizzard of publicity around the case following Litvinenko’s death and who produced what he claims is a deathbed declaration of Litvinenko’s which accuses Putin of his murder is a long time associate of Berezovsky’s who heads a New York based charity founded and funded by Berezovsky. Lugovoi once provided security services for Berezovsky’s television and radio company.
Over the course of the police investigation into Litvinenko’s death polonium traces were found in buildings occupied by businesses belonging to Berezovsky. Notwithstanding this and notwithstanding Berezovsky’s known connections with the most important persons involved in the case the British authorities refused a Russian request for Russian investigators to interview him about it.
What the publicity campaign orchestrated by Goldfarb following Litvinenko’s death succeeded in doing, whether intentionally or otherwise, was to divert attention away from Berezovsky towards Putin who unlike Berezovsky has had no known connection to any of the persons involved in the case and who is unlikely to have met any of them.
Eventually Berezovsky himself joined in. A book that subsequently appeared about the Litvinenko affair written by the former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith draws heavily on interviews with Berezovsky.
Sixsmith’s book is a testament to the boundless credulity of western journalists and their unshakable faith in Putin’s wickedness and in the wickedness of the Russian government. It refers to Berezovsky as the leader of the Russian opposition, which is absurd, and as Putin’s greatest enemy, which is also absurd. It accepts a building Sixsmith was driven past in Moscow as an FSB secret poisons laboratory on the word of the driver though since Litvinenko is supposed to have been poisoned not with some secret poison but with polonium the relevance of this to Litvinenko’s death is not obvious. It treats a comment by a Russian prosecutor that the Russian authorities had no reason to kill Litvinenko as an admission that the Russian authorities kill people when they have reason to. It contains other similar speculations and non sequiturs too numerous to count.
With a very few honourable exceptions (Mary Dejevsky in the Independent being a case in point) the rest of the British press has followed suit. Both the Times and the Guardian shortly after Litvinenko’s death published editorials that stated baldly that Litvinenko had been murdered in London by the FSB. This also seems to have been the operating assumption of the police when they investigated Litvinenko’s death. It continues to be what most people think about the case including one person who has posted a comment on my blog.
I do not know who killed Litvinenko or how he was murdered or even whether he was murdered at all. I do however wonder whether the British media and the British police would have been quite so willing to assume that Putin and the FSB murdered him if they knew that the person who has been the most enthusiastic proponent of this theory is someone for whom truth is “a transitory, flexible concept”, which can be “moulded” to suit “whatever his current purposes are”.
Berezovsky protected by Britain
Despite his appalling reputation in Russia the British authorities not only granted Berezovsky political asylum, a doubtful but defendable decision, but inexcusably have also given him British travel documents under the name “Platon Elenin”. These mean that when Berezovsky travels abroad with these documents he does so with the British government’s protection.
This person to whom Britain has given travel documents has been exposed by a British Judge in a British Court as a dishonest person who regards truth as a “transitory, flexible concept” which he seeks to mould “to suit his current purposes”. He is also someone who is prepared to go to Court and lie on oath in a case he has brought which has cost British taxpayers millions of pounds and in which his objective was to make for himself and his associates lots of money.
This is a person who though living in Britain and in possession of British travel documents the Judge says remains resident in Russia for tax purposes, which must mean he only pays a limited amount of tax in Britain. How much tax does he pay in Russia?
This same person to whom Britain has given travel documents has been described by the other party to the case (someone who the Judge said was a “truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness”) as running in Russia a gigantic protection racket for his own private gain.
Some years ago the British government refused the Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al Fayed British citizenship notwithstanding that unlike Berezovsky Mohammed Al Fayed was resident in this country and owned major businesses here such as Harrods and Turnbull & Asser which provided employment to thousands of British workers and which paid substantial amounts of money to the British state in tax. I never heard anyone say things about Mohammed Al Fayed that come anywhere close to some of the things that were said about Berezovsky in the Commercial Court.
Stories have circulated about Berezovsky for years so the British authorities when they gave Berezovsky British travel documents could not have been unaware of the things that have been said about him. In 2000 a book about Berezovsky came out which was written by the American investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov, who was subsequently killed. This book gave a detailed and extraordinary account of Berezovsky’s career until then. It also named him “the godfather of the Kremlin”. The British authorities cannot therefore say that they had no warning about the person they were giving travel documents to when they gave them to him. In the light of this and in the light of what the Judge and Abramovich have said about Berezovsky during the case I cannot help but ask myself what Berezovsky has done to deserve British travel documents when Mohammed Al Fayed did not deserve British citizenship.
Conclusion – Berezovsky and the British fantasy of Russia
Over the last decade the British media and the British political establishment have bought into a vision of Russia as a “gangster” or “mafia” state ruled by a corrupt and ruthless kleptocracy presided over by Putin himself. Berezovsky has been an enthusiastic proponent of this vision. He is also its key witness and in so far as belief in it has enabled him to avoid extradition to Russia and to obtain British travel documents is its biggest beneficiary.
When questioned in a British Court by a British Counsel before a British Judge the fictions Berezovsky peddles have been exposed for what they are – his own fantasies. Yet these fantasies have been key building blocks in constructing the vision the British media and establishment have of Russia.
As a witness Berezovsky is now discredited. The British establishment and the British media have however invested far too heavily in the image of Putin and of Russia Berezovsky has played such a big part in fabricating to jettison it. I have no doubt this image will outlast Berezovsky even though he, its main witness, is now discredited. Certainly it will never occur to anyone in Britain to change their view of Russia simply because Berezovsky has been discredited or to consider that what Berezovsky has been doing is falsely accuse others of doing the very things he has been accused of doing himself. Britain as the country that prefers Berezovsky’s fantasies to the truth is the loser.