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Tuesday, March 26, 2013 

Not to speak ill of the dead...

The news of the death of Boris Berezovsky was undoubtedly one of those "oh Christ" moments.  The unexpected death of another of the exiles from Putin's Russia was always going to be investigated extremely carefully, lest there be even the slightest indication that it was anything other than natural or swiftly explained.  Such is the level of mistrust and suspicion directed at the government, much of it warranted, it must be said, the deaths of other dissidents and refugees have all been previously seized upon as potentially the work of the FSB, most notably in the case of Arkadi "Badri" Patarkatsishvili, who was quickly found to have passed away as a result of a heart attack, although that conclusion did little to allay the fears of those who think we should underestimate the KGB's successor at our peril.

It certainly isn't unknown for murders to be presented as suicides, including by those far less competent than state actors.  This said, everything known at the moment does point towards Berezovsky taking his own life.  A man who had spent two decades living in luxury, extremely highly regarded by the elite first in Russia in the 90s and then in the UK in the 2000s, he had been brought low through his own greed.  Described by Mrs Justice Gloster in the case he brought against his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich as a "inherently unreliable witness" and of being "deliberately dishonest", the massive legal fees probably hurt more.  Combined with a huge settlement with his second wife, it was reported last week he was looking to sell an Andy Warhol print of Lenin worth around £50,000, something that appears to contradict the claims made since by Nikolai Glushkov that he had "managed to resolve his financial issues".  Having lost much if not almost all of his fortune, his friends report he had been depressed, and had sought treatment at the Priory.  Although those same friends have reported he seemed better, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that he may well have relapsed.

Nor does the timing make much sense.  Why dispense with someone who no longer poses a threat of any sort? Who knows just how much money Berezovsky did put in to attempting to get rid of Putin, but the results have been pretty negligible.  We can of course draw the analogy with Trotsky, in that Stalin's nemesis had never been so far removed from influence as he was when Ramón Mercader wielded the ice pick, but Berezovsky was no Trotsky (and Putin is no Stalin for that matter), however much the Kremlin's news agencies demonised him.

One thing Berezovsky's death ought to bring into sharper focus is the rather underreported evidence heard at the hearing ahead of the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The lawyer on behalf of Litvinenko's widow, Marina, made submissions that set out the former KGB and FSB officer had swapped sides, and was a paid MI6 agent when he was poisoned with polonium.  It also seems as though he was working with the Spanish intelligence agencies, and that the plan was for him to travel with his alleged murderer, Andrei Lugovi, to the country to provide further information to the authorities there on the Russian mafia.

Not only does this raise questions about whether MI6 breached their duty of care to Litvinenko, it also puts his murder into an entirely different perspective.  This wasn't just a assassination of a man we offered shelter to, it was the murder of a state asset, and it was never felt appropriate that this should become public, at least not before his widow seemed to have exhausted every other avenue in her search for justice.  It also means that for years MI6 had someone on its books (the Mail claimed back in 2007 that Litvinenko had been an officer, but it wasn't widely followed up) who was making the most serious allegations possible about a rival service: that the FSB and Putin were prepared to bomb their own citizens in furtherance of their political aims.  It doesn't really get much more serious.  Were MI6 aware of any specific threats against Litvinenko, or indeed have any concerns whatsoever about having on the payroll someone who had become an enemy of his former employer?  And what of Berezovsky?  Did he have an association with the intelligence agencies too?

Whether we'll learn much from the inquest, delayed now until October, is unclear.  The government files on Litvinenko will be examined in secret before it opens after William Hague applied for a public interest immunity certificate, and so how much will be heard in public remains to be seen.

One vital witness due to appear was Berezovsky.  Something that has never been properly explained is just how far the relationship between Lugovi and Berezovsky went; Lugovi had served as the head of security for ORT, the Russian television channel then owned by Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili, and so was someone Berezovsky believed could be trusted.  Regardless of the individual circumstances, that almost all those involved have either died or are boycotting the proceedings (Lugovi) doesn't inspire confidence that much is going to be resolved beyond what we already know.

Nonetheless, few in Russia will have shed tears at Berezovsky passing, even if few have much affection for Putin at this point.  Berezovsky's reputation as the robber baron in chief was in place long before he fled.  Indeed, it's arguable that if Russia hadn't been given the economic shock treatment it received after the fall of the Soviet Union, and if the oligarchs hadn't in turn profited so hugely from the rigged sell off of state assets that the Russian public wouldn't have taken so much to the strongman who was determined to put an end to the chaos that has now come to represent Yeltsin's reign.  That the likes of Berezovsky were taken so quickly into the bosom of the British establishment with little in the way of questioning about just what did go on in Russia during the mid-90s ought to be an abiding shame.  The least we can do now is ensure the truth about the death of Alexander Litvinenko comes out.

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