Patarkatsishvili Death 'Suspicious'

Arkady Patarkatsishvili, who had claimed that the Georgian government had planned to kill him, died in his mansion in Surrey, southwest of London late Tuesday, age 52.

The Georgian billionaire, whose close associate self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky said he had complained of feeling "unwell," died late in the evening, presumably of a heart attack, his spokesman Guga Kvitashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on Wednesday, Interfax reported.

A spokeswoman for the Surrey Police said by telephone Wednesday that Patarkatsishvili's death was being "treated as suspicious, as with all unexpected deaths."

An autopsy was to be performed later Wednesday to establish the cause of death, the spokeswoman added.

Patarkatsishvili said in December that he had possession of a recording in which an official in the Georgian Interior Ministry asked a Chechen warlord to murder him while he was in London.

Widely known simply as "Badri," Patarkatsishvili began his career as a small-time Komsomol official in Soviet Georgia in the 1970s and is said to have built a fortune of $12 billion.

He is also believed to have had close ties with top politicians in both Tbilisi and Moscow, including President Vladimir Putin.

In an interview in December, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he recalled a discussion he once had with Putin in which he mentioned Patarkatsishvili.

"'Ah, Badri,' Putin said, 'Badri is not a bad guy, he is good,'" Shevardnadze told RIA-Novosti.

Patarkatsishvili had been living in Britain since December, having left Georgia after playing a central role in large anti-government protests in Tbilisi. He was later charged with plotting the overthrow of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Almost five years before, in early 2002, Patarkatsishvili had fled Russia, where he is still wanted on fraud charges related to the theft of cars at AvtoVAZ, then controlled by Berezovsky.

The Prosecutor General's Office also issued an international warrant for his arrest for planning the escape from jail of Nikolai Glushkov, Berezovsky's business partner and a senior Aeroflot official who had been accused of embezzlement and money laundering.

A spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office said Wednesday that it was considering closing the cases against Patarkatsishvili as a result of his death.

Berezovsky, who also lives in London and is wanted on fraud charges in Russia, called the death a "terrible tragedy."

"I have lost my closest friend," Berezovsky said in a statement through Tim Bell, who handles his public relations. Bell said Berezovsky would not comment on the possible cause of death.

On Tuesday, Bell said, Patarkatsishvili held two meetings with Berezovsky. The first was at an unspecified location and the second was in Berezovsky's central London office.

During the course of the day, Patarkatsishvili had complained of feeling unwell, Bell said.

"He didn't feel gravely ill, he just complained of feeling slightly unwell," Bell said.

Nonna Gaprindashvili, a five-time world chess champion and a co-leader of Patarkatsishvili's Our Georgia party, said, "Badri was never ill before," RIA-Novosti reported.

Patarkatsishvili's private doctor, Zaur Kirtikadze, was quoted by the Novosti-Gruzia news agency as saying his patient had no history of heart trouble.

Andrei Lugovoi, a State Duma deputy who spent 14 months in jail for helping Glushkov to escape in 2001, said Wednesday that events in Georgia might have caused the heart attack.

"I was shocked to learn of Badri's death, I knew him for many years, and he was never ill," Lugovoi said in a statement relayed by his press secretary. "Maybe events in Georgia were the cause ... He has always been a patriot."

Lugovoi, who once worked as a private guard for Berezovsky, is wanted in Britain on suspicion of murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a former security service officer also on Berezovsky's payroll and a vocal critic of Putin.

Patarkatsishvili ran against the incumbent Saakashvili in a snap presidential election in Georgia on Jan. 5, polling just over 7 percent of the vote.

In September, former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili accused Saakashvili of plotting to kill Patarkatsishvili, only to retract the charge later.

Later last year, Patarkatsishvili publicly pledged to spend all his wealth, if needed, to knock Saakashvili from power. The Georgian Times newspaper reported Patarkatsishvili's fortune last year at about $12 billion.

Shortly after the elections, his accounts in Georgian banks were frozen and the television company he owned, Imedi, shut down by the authorities.

Known for his moustache and eloquent toasts, Patarkatsishvili was one of the most colorful businessmen of Russia's wild 1990s.

After hooking up with Berezovsky in 1990, he remained his most devoted friend and sometimes servant.

"He was Berezovsky's friend; more than friend; more than a brother," Sergei Dorenko, who headed ORT television's news service under Patarkatsishvili, wrote in his blog Wednesday.

As a result, Patarkatsishvili was at Berezovsky's side for many of the events that occurred in the Kremlin of former President Boris Yeltsin, where Berezovsky held significant influence.

In December 2007, Patarkatsishvili met in London with a senior Georgian Interior Ministry official, Irakli Kodua, who secretly recorded their discussion.

In a transcript published first in the Georgian press and then, in Russian, in Kommersant, Patarkatsishvili spoke of his role in helping to get Putin appointed deputy head of the Kremlin's property management department in 1996.

He said the future president -- who he described during his years working in St. Petersburg City Hall as always wearing a "dirty greenish suit" -- had been calling him twice a day, "begging" for a job in Moscow.

According to the transcript, Patarkatsishvili described how Putin frequently met with him and Berezovsky in a restaurant owned by the LogoVAZ car company and how Berezovsky had tried to steer Putin early in his presidency.

During the recorded conversation, Patarkatsishvili said Berezovsky broke with Putin in August 2000 after he could not get in touch with him for two days after the Kursk submarine sank. Berezovsky was livid that Putin remained on vacation in Sochi during the crisis, neglecting to issue the necessary orders to naval commanders, Patarkatsishvili said, according to the transcript.

After Berezovsky fled Russia, becoming the president's most bitter critic, Patarkatsishvili said he met with Putin, who asked him to choose between him and Berezovsky.

"I told him: You know me -- I will leave with Borya," Patarkatsishvili said, referring to Berezovsky. "And that was it. we hugged each other like brothers, kissed and parted."

Patarkatsishvili did not deny the recording's authenticity when contacted earlier this month, Kommersant reported.

Patarkatsishvili himself owned Kommersant briefly in 2006, after Berezovsky transferred his stake in the paper to him. Patarkatsishvili then sold the shares to Gazprom-connected Alisher Usmanov.