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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Oligarch Berezovsky, A 3rd Strike




When security agents in black ski masks and camouflage descended on the offices of the Sibneft oil company, it was yet another strike at famed financier Boris Berezovsky.


In just the past two weeks, Berezovsky has been pushed at least partly out of the picture at both the Transaero airline and at ORT television, two of his most prized properties.


He continues to hold a low-key government job as executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States - but even that may be in danger, as Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov over the weekend criticized Berezovsky's CIS work.


Now Sibneft, Russia's seventh-largest oil producer, is under fire. At 9 a.m. Tuesday, plainclothes prosecutors and masked agents of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, carrying automatic weapons turned up at Sibneft's downtown office with a warrant. They sealed all entrances, refusing to let anyone out and allowing only company employees in, and the building remained clamped down until 6:30 p.m. No documents were removed by either prosecutors or employees.


Though Berezovsky was reportedly one of the buyers of Sibneft in a collusive 1995 privatization auction held behind closed doors, he today claims to have surrendered all commercial interests and to remain only "an adviser" to Sibneft management.


Few seemed to believe that Tuesday, as an army of television cameras assembled outside of the LogoVAZ mansion in Moscow. And though that particular monument to Berezovsky's might was quiet, most politics and business watchers in Russia agreed that Tuesday's raid on Sibneft was a major setback for its celebrity oligarch.


"This looks like a powerful attack on Berezovsky," said a government analyst who asked not to be named. "But for this man, it's just another episode in a striking biography."


Striking indeed. Berezovsky, a former math professor, first came into the public eye in 1994, when he survived a car bomb that decapitated his chauffeur. Having parlayed his LogoVAZ car dealership into something of a financial powerhouse, Berezovsky would go on to acquire major oil and media holdings through murky deals still poorly understood today.


He also grew close to President Boris Yeltsin and his family. According to Russian media reports and to Alexander Korzhakov - a former Kremlin security chief and for years the man Yeltsin called his "best friend" - Berezovsky, among other things, brokered the publication abroad of Yeltsin's 1994 memoirs "The Struggle for Russia," and funneled Yeltsin's royalties through his own hands.


And there have been darker allegations. Forbes magazine dubbed him "the Godfather of the Kremlin" in 1996 and suggested he was behind the infamous murder of ORT journalist Vladislav Listiev. In the run-up to the 1996 presidential vote, Berezovsky mounted a major public campaign that called for canceling the elections, out of fear a Communist win would ignite civil war. And Berezovsky himself late last year claimed to have uncovered - and foiled - a contract-murder-for-hire bureau within the FSB that had been scheming to have him killed.


Of course, Berezovsky's greatest fame comes from his own self-promotion. Immediately after Yeltsin's 1996 re-election, Berezovsky accepted a high-profile Kremlin post with the Security Council, and then told journalists he and six other financiers funded Yeltsin's re-election, were dictating some Kremlin policy and controlled half of the Russian economy.


That was before Aug. 17. The ruble devaluation toppled the banking empires of many of those so-called Berezovsky Seven, and Berezovsky's great patron - Yeltsin - seemed to have simultaneously cooled towards him and become less relevant due to his illnesses.


Then two weeks ago, on Jan. 20, the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper ran an article saying Berezovsky owned a security company called Atoll that had bugged the offices and homes of Yeltsin and of the president's family members and friends. In MK's account, Berezovsky intended to use the illegally collected information to blackmail Yeltsin, and to extort protection for his business interests.


It was far from the first Russian media attack on Berezovsky over the past five years. Two years ago at about this same time, for example, MK had reported that Berezovsky had acquired 49 percent of Aeroflot, the national airline, and had engineered the appointment of Valery Okulov - Yeltsin's son-in-law - as general director.


But this month, MK's article seemed to bring fast and furious results. Prosecutors soon after opened a criminal investigation into the Atoll security firm - an investigation they cited in their warrant to search Sibneft and another 20 locations around town, among them unspecified private apartments.


Before the raid was over, Sibneft's acting president Yevgeny Shvidler issued a public statement saying the company "has nothing to do with the work of the security firm," and investigators' suspicions "are bound to prove groundless."


"We are readily cooperating with the Prosecutor's Office, we realize that the people who are there have jobs to do and we are happy to help," said a company official who asked not to be identified. "I don't think there are any implications for the company, it's business as usual; I've spoken at length to most of our key partners and they are very reassured about that."


Less than two weeks ago, LogoVAZ was struck from the list of shareholders of Transaero, in which it held a 12.3 percent stake. Other firms reportedly owned by Berezovsky control another 32.7 percent of Transaero.


And last week, Berezovsky saw his influence at ORT endangered, when a Moscow Arbitration Court imposed temporary administration at the national television channel.


Berezovsky's stake in ORT is not known. But former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov once publiclyalleged Berezovsky pays major key salaries at the station, and Berezovsky's influence on ORT news coverage has been dominant. That dominance could remain despite the formal appointment of a bankruptcy administrator.


"I am positive we will be watching [ORT anchor Sergei] Dorenko slamming the Prosecutor's Office next Saturday [in his weekend analytical show], we will see a lot of pro-Berezovsky stuff in Nezavisimaya Gazeta tomorrow," said the government analyst. "I think he still has some resources and they should not be underestimated."