The first oligarch dies, his kleptocracy thrives

March 25, 2013

By Pierre Briançon

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Boris Berezovsky built something that lasted. The man found dead on March 23 may have been alone, broken, bitter, and a shadow of his flamboyant former self as Russia’s richest man and king-maker. Yet the system he invented two decades ago in the throes of the big Soviet meltdown is functioning well. The men at the top may have changed, and turned against their former mentor and master. But the rulers of today’s Russia – both the oligarchs who looted the country’s resources and branched out, and the clique of ex-KGB officials working hard to get their hands on a share of the loot – are Berezovsky’s children.

Berezovsky was the first to understand what could be made of the chaos that followed the USSR’s fall in 1991. The former mathematician had enjoyed a head start in the last years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, building a small stake in a decrepit automaker. It took someone shrewd and determined to realise that the country would be lawless for some time – the absurd Soviet legal system was gone, and no one knew what to put in its place.

He moved on to oil and media, and his fortune and influence helped Boris Yeltsin in his difficult re-election as president in 1996. Then came a role as fixer for the Yeltsin family and regime, masterminding many a Kremlin intrigue.

Berezovksy was the first oligarch. He invented, and perfected, the nexus of intertwined interests between the country’s new billionaires and the power structure, where mutual dependency is the guarantee of long-time survival. Oligarchs could choose a government to their liking, and ministers could hope to become oligarchs. Berezovksy orchestrated the back and forth.

Then something happened that still puzzles: he lost his touch. In 1999, he pulled Vladimir Putin from bureaucratic obscurity to make him Russia’s prime minister. He misunderstood the little man he thought his protégé, who rose to president within a few months. Berezovsky became one of the first billionaire-victims of the cold and ruthless political clampdown of the Putin era. Considering his role as chief architect of the modern corrupt system, one shouldn’t wonder if Russians shed few tears at the news of his death.

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