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Berezovsky Sells All Russia Assets

Boris Berezovsky said Friday that he was selling the remnants of his business empire, including the Kommersant newspaper, to his longtime partner Badri Patarkatsishvili in an effort to shield it from Kremlin pressure.

Berezovsky, a kingmaker turned fierce Kremlin critic, said he was selling out because his Georgian partner, who has been a joint owner in many of Berezovsky's businesses, was unnerved by his recent claim that he has spent the last year and a half working to overthrow President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking by telephone Friday from London, Berezovsky said the handover could help shield the businesses from mounting political pressure. "Nothing is ever safe in today's Russia. The authorities can take away property whenever they like. But this will help reduce the risks," he said.

Apart from Kommersant, however, it is not exactly clear which businesses are left for Berezovsky to sell.

Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili have been business partners since the early 1990s, when they set up LogoVAZ, the car dealership from which the rest of their vast oil-to-metals empire sprang. Their clout swiftly vanished in 2000 when Berezovsky fell from Putin's favor, just months after helping engineer his rise to power.

After a criminal investigation into Berezovsky's business practices began, Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili fled the country and faced attempts by Russian prosecutors to extradite them on charges of large-scale fraud.

Berezovsky denies the charges.

Berezovsky said Friday that even though Patarkatsishvili was a close associate, the sale would reduce the risks for Kommersant and the other businesses.

"Badri is only wanted by the Russian authorities because he happens to do business with me. As soon as we stop being partners, I believe the charges against him will be lifted," Berezovsky said.

Berezovsky fled Russia in November 2000 for Britain, where he has since received political asylum. While Berezovsky settled in with a country estate near London, a squad of French Foreign Legion veterans as bodyguards and a plush office in Mayfair, Patarkatsishvili headed for his native Georgia. There, he has become one of the country's wealthiest and most well-connected businessmen.

But while Patarkatsishvili has maintained a low political profile, Berezovsky has threatened to take his revenge on Putin and once vowed to invest $100 million to oust him from power. Even though Berezovsky has spent the last few years touting his influence, many in Russia see him as a spent political force.

Berezovsky claims to have helped bankroll Ukraine's Orange Revolution, in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets in November 2004 to help pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko gain victory over Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych.

While Yushchenko and his aides have denied ever receiving any financial support from Berezovsky, the claims nevertheless unnerved the Kremlin.

Last month, Berezovsky upped the ante by going on Ekho Moskvy radio to say he was preparing to "seize power by force" in Russia.

Meanwhile, via his New York-based For Civil Liberties foundation, Berezovsky has been quietly financing NGOs and groups that oppose the Kremlin, both in Russia and in the "near abroad."

Kommersant, too, often takes an opposition line.

Berezovsky said Friday that the sale of his stake in the paper to Patarkatsishvili, who is already a co-owner, would not have an impact on its editorial policy. "Badri is already chairman of the board," Berezovsky said.

Kommersant commercial director Pavel Filenkov also said he did not expect any change. "This isn't even a sale. It's a redistribution of shares," he said.

He agreed that the handover could help safeguard the paper from political pressure. "Berezovsky is not exactly an unambiguous figure, especially after his recent statements about overthrowing the regime by force. I'm sure this was part of the reasoning for the deal," he said Friday. "On the surface, Berezovsky has always had much more to do with politics, while Badri has always been a businessman."

Berezovsky's recent remarks about overthrowing the authorities have been widely interpreted as meaning he was plotting an armed coup. Berezovsky on Friday, however, insisted that what he was planning did not involve chaos or bloodshed on the streets. The Orange Revolution, he said, was the kind of regime change he had in mind.

"This happened by force because people came out on the streets and demonstrated. These people showed they were a real force to be reckoned with, and this is the threat to Putin's regime," Berezovsky said.

He said the countdown to the coup had begun a long time ago. "It began with proof this regime is unconstitutional. There have been many, many steps taken since then," he said.

A wave of demonstrations a year ago against botched social benefits reforms, and sporadic protests since then, have unnerved the Kremlin. There has been no direct evidence of financing from Berezovsky.

Filenkov said he did not know of any recent threats against Kommersant or of any hints from state officials that the paper could come under fire.

Berezovsky-controlled ORT television, now known as Channel One, was taken over by the state in 2000 shortly after he clashed with the Kremlin. Berezovsky's TV-6 channel also came under fire, eventually being taken off the air in 2003.

So far, however, Kommersant does not appear to have come under any overt pressure.

Berezovsky has said he and Patarkatsishvili have already been forced to sell much of the vast business empire they amassed in the 1990s. Last July, Berezovsky threatened to sue his former partner Roman Abramovich, saying he had been forced to sell his stakes in ORT, Sibneft and Russian Aluminum at knockdown prices in a series of sales from 2000 to 2003.

When asked Friday, Berezovsky declined to give details of which businesses apart from Kommersant would be involved in the sale.

Vedomosti on Friday cited a source close to the Borjomi mineral water company in Georgia as saying that Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili indirectly owned shares in a fund called Bary Discovered Partners. The unnamed source said the fund owned about $1 billion in assets, including Borjomi, the Bamby candy factory and several food-manufacturing plants in Serbia.

Patarkatsishvili could not be immediately reached for comment.

Berezovsky said the transaction could take six months to complete, saying the assets had to be evaluated first.

Many commentators said the sale looked like nothing more than a Berezovsky PR stunt. But Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that at face value the transfer looked positive, at least for Kommersant. "Considering how good the authorities have gotten at using the oligarchs to conjure up suspicion in society about liberal democracy and fear of independent media, and ... that Berezovsky's reputation is not exactly irreproachable, ... the sale of Berezovsky's assets and his channels of influence is a positive factor," Shevtsova said.

She called on Berezovsky also to stop funding NGOs. "If I was in the place of these NGOs, I would not take money from Berezovsky," she said.

Berezovsky, however, said he had no intention of doing that. "I will not stop this program," he said.

(The Moscow Times 20.ii.06)

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