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Billionaire’s Putin feud a plot line in poisoning

No ordinary billionaire, Boris Berezovsky is a onetime mathematician who travels around London with a posse of bodyguards. He openly taunts Russian President Vladimir Putin and is now a central figure in the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the most sensational case of international intrigue since the Cold War.
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No ordinary billionaire, Boris Berezovsky is a onetime mathematician who travels around London with a posse of bodyguards. He openly taunts Russian President Vladimir Putin and once wore a rubber cartoonish mask of his face. Accustomed to drama, he is now a central figure in the fatal poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the most sensational case of international intrigue since the Cold War.

Police found traces of the poison, radioactive polonium-210, in Berezovsky's office in elegant Mayfair in central London. He said Litvinenko came there Nov. 1, the day he began feeling ill.

Berezovsky, 60, had credited Litvinenko with saving him from assassination in the 1990s, and the billionaire helped Litvinenko financially after he fled Russia in 2000 and settled in London. Berezovsky visited the sickened man at the hospital shortly before he died last month and attended his burial Thursday.

As detectives pursue the murder case in Moscow and London, Berezovsky is saying he believes Putin is behind it, while Kremlin supporters see dark emigre conspiracies to smear Russia's reputation by engineering a spectacular murder.

On Friday, Russian news media reported that a third person in the case was suffering radiation illness -- Andrei Lugovoy, a Russian businessman who had met Litvinenko at a London hotel Nov. 1. Like many people in the investigation, Lugovoy had a connection to Berezovsky; he was formerly chief of security at a television network once controlled by the billionaire.

Prominent story line
As the investigation widens, the feud between the president and the billionaire remains a prominent story line in the mystery.

"They know each other personally. That adds to the animosity," said Alex Goldfarb, who runs the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, a New York-based organization funded by Berezovsky.

Goldfarb said Berezovsky helped Putin into office "on the assumption that he would continue the democratic reforms" of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. But Berezovsky has been horrified that "since Mr. Putin has come to power, there has been a systematic dismantling of democratic institutions," Goldfarb said. "His conflict with Putin has grown to Shakespearean proportions. . . . Mr. Putin hates him."

The stated aim of the civil liberties foundation is to fund democracy-building and civil rights causes in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Berezovsky's detractors say that even if it funds some worthy causes, it is a tool for a scheming Berezovsky with visions of ousting Putin and returning to Russia as a kingmaker.

Berezovsky, trained as a mathematician, became rich during the chaotic birth pangs of Russian capitalism following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, the state began selling off assets in often dubious privatization deals that left a few people with gigantic piles of cash.

Berezovsky got, among other things, major stakes in the oil company Sibneft, the TV station ORT and Aeroflot. He and other so-called oligarchs wielded enormous political power behind the scenes, and Berezovsky threw his support behind Putin's bid to become president in 2000.

A bitter feud emerges
But according to Putin's supporters, Berezovsky unhappily discovered that the new president would not be his puppet.

Sergei Markov, a political consultant with close ties to the Kremlin, said that when Putin took office, he told "all big businessmen that you can do business or you can do politics," not both, and said "that major political resources, such as television, should belong to the state." He added: "Berezovsky resisted, and as a result he began to fight the Kremlin. . . . He has continued this fight from London, and he believes he can overthrow Putin's team and return as an oligarch."

Markov described Berezovsky as a "world-class provocateur . . . a character from Dostoevski because he shows how intensive the dialogue can be between the human soul and the devil."

According to Goldfarb, Berezovsky "thinks of himself as a politician, not as a businessman," and is "a very rare combination of a passionate guy with a cool mind. He struggles between passion and reason." He called Berezovsky "outgoing, mercurial."

Tireless and fast-talking, Berezovsky has employed a well-connected public relations firm in London to handle questions for him. He declined an interview request for this article, although when Litvinenko was dying, Berezovsky said in a telephone interview that he had "no doubt" that his friend had been poisoned on the "order from President Putin."

Tim Bell, who was knighted after helping Britain's then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher win three elections, and his Bell Pottinger Group public relations firm have been handling inquiries about Berezovsky and lent help with the Litvinenko case. For example, it helped distribute the photo of a gaunt, bald Litvinenko in a hospital bed just before he died.

Some people in Moscow see Berezovsky's involvement as another campaign to ruin Putin's reputation internationally.

Litvinenko "had close contacts with some of the Russian oligarchs who fell from grace, including Boris Berezovsky, who lost the opportunity to buy off the authorities with his stolen money," Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, told reporters last month. "They did not want to put up with it and could have staged a deliberate action against Russia."

Prosecutors in Russia, meanwhile, had earlier accused Berezovsky of a host of crimes, including fraud and backing a violent overthrow of Putin's government. Berezovsky denies all the allegations.

The Bush connection
To the annoyance of those who consider him an outlaw, Berezovsky has been photographed with Neil Bush, President Bush's brother. Bell, the public relations executive in London, said he introduced Berezovsky to Neil Bush in 2003. Berezovsky later became an investor in Ignite! Learning, Bush's educational software company.

Britain has granted the Russian political asylum; a British judge turned down a Russian request to extradite him, agreeing with Berezovsky that the charges were politically motivated.

After one extradition court appearance in 2003, Berezovsky triumphantly donned a rubber mask of Putin, a gesture that was seen as mocking the man once called his protege. Putin has landed his own punches, too. At a 2001 news conference, when asked about Berezovsky, he replied, "Who's that?"

Litvinenko, a former member of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB, accused the agency of involvement in apartment building bombings in 1999 in which 300 people died. He also said the security service had ordered him to kill Berezovsky.

Litvinenko said at a Moscow news conference in 1998 that a superior told him "that I had not allowed patriots to kill the Jew who had robbed half the country," according to a transcript.

Litvinenko's warning led Berezovsky to credit him "with saving my life."

Before this threat and his feud with Putin, Berezovsky narrowly escaped assassination. In 1994, while he was in a Mercedes 600 sedan, behind his driver and bodyguard, a bomb concealed in a parked car exploded, decapitating the driver. The bodyguard lost an eye, and Berezovsky suffered burns.

Among the many theories floating around the Litvinenko poisoning case is that somebody used his agonizing death to send a message to Berezovsky.

A flower vendor in Mayfair who sees Berezovsky coming and going said that "I have no idea what that man does," but that he is the only one in London who appears to have tighter security than the royal family.

Finn reported from Moscow. Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.