Berezovsky was a gangster and thief who killed himself
Murder theories don't add up and the dead oligarch was no heroic upholder of democracy, writes Daragh McDowell
WHILE Boris Berezovsky the man is now dead, with all indicators pointing to his own hand, the Berezovsky of western media coverage lives on.
Casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that a serious critic of the Putin regime and prominent dissident had perished under inherently murky circumstances. Few reports mentioned the cynicism, corruption and violence that marked Berezovsky's tenure in the halls of Russian power in the 1990s. Instead of the likely truth – a broken man with an ugly past sadly ending his life – a narrative of political martyrdom has formed the undertones and even overtones of how the story was reported.
Part of this can be put down to the fact that journalists are meant to write interesting stories and assassination is more interesting than suicide. Before the initial autopsy, the maintaining of an open mind was a defensible position. But as the evidence became clearer, the determination to find something suspicious became desperate.
The Evening Standard devoted several paragraphs of a front-page article to largely anonymous quotes from 'close friends' insisting that the oligarch had been murdered, with absolutely no evidence to back their statements up.
The Guardian's coverage was memorably summarised by a headline in the magazine Forbes: "Was Boris Berezovsky murdered? The evidence strongly suggests no, but Luke Harding says maybe!"
Reasons for suspicion included the death, five years ago, of Badri Patarkatsishvili from a heart attack and vague assertions that Berezovsky's reportedly ruinous financial situation (he recently lost an untold fortune suing Roman Abramovich and losing) had been sorted out. The case for murder – so thin it reads like something Lionel Hutz, The Simpsons' shyster attorney, would present – has nevertheless been heavily promoted.
More worrying is what has gone almost completely unreported – how Berezovsky came to be who he was and what he had done to get there.
The gruesome death of his chauffeur in a 1994 car bombing was endlessly recounted. The 2004 death of Paul Klebnikov, the first American journalist murdered in Russia went largely unmentioned.
Forbes, Klebnikov's employer at the time of his death, was again the exception, running a lengthy piece outlining the circumstances of his murder and a strong case pointing towards Berezovsky as the man who ordered the hit.
Klebnikov and his colleagues had implicated Berezovsky in the murder of another journalist, the hugely popular Vladislav Listyev, as well as corruption in his political and business dealings.
Also left under-examined was Berezovsky's perversion of the Russian state into a source of massive revenues for himself and others of the most well-connected oligarchs (including Mikhail Khodorkovsky), at the expense of the Russian people themselves.
This inner circle came to call itself 'the Family', a name whose suggestion of a mafia clique is entirely intentional. Berezovsky's claim that he exiled himself from Russia due to Putin's increasing authoritarianism went unchallenged too often, while the fact that Berezovsky himself was instrumental in Putin's rise to power was mentioned too little.
This is because the narrative of the assassinated dissident needs the victim to be at least somewhat sympathetic. A thief and a gangster who was run out of his country when the seemingly pliable man he thought would protect his assets double-crossed him is not such a romantic figure.
Yet this is the story of Berezovsky's exit from Russia. Putin, for all his flaws, was determined to end the erosion of the Russian state itself and the dominance of an unelected cabal of businessmen with dubious ethics.
This is not just a question of media criticism or even journalistic ethics. Russia is changing, a civil society demolished by communism and undermined by its successors is finally beginning to emerge and find its own vitality and means of challenging the regime.
The holding up of Berezovsky as an example of the 'opposition' to Putin in the West has alienated us from even the growing ranks of Putin's opponents. His cynical abuse of power was too widely known among ordinary Russians. State media could broadcast the most lurid claims about him in life, safe in the knowledge that audiences would assume that at least some of it was true.
Compare this with the Kremlin's ongoing frustration in its efforts to take down Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who has become a focal point for the opposition. Navalny has a reputation for integrity in his business dealings that is unheard of in a country where corruption is seemingly omnipresent. The authorities have been forced to expend massive resources to find something to use against him, as the absence of real crimes would fatally undermine any prosecution.
Navalny is also a nationalist and the new generation of Russia's opposition is still little understood in the West. By failing to tell the unvarnished truth about Berezovsky, the media contributed to popular fears that the West sought to bring Russia back to the humiliation of the 1990s, a fear that was used to reinforce Putin's authority.
Berezovsky's death should serve as a call to drop our illusions about some of the dodgier and more self-serving of Putin's opponents and focus more on getting to know what the opposition supported by Russians themselves believes.
Putin and Putinism won't last forever – perhaps not even much longer. If we want to play a positive role in the development of its replacement, we have to stop spinning for the likes of Berezovsky.