Chelsea fans can breathe easy. The rumors of Roman Abramovich being detained by the FBI, are just that. Rumors.
Even without the rampant rumor mongering, it was perhaps inevitable the owner of Chelsea FC would feature in news headlines all of this week, considering his arch-foe and former business partner Boris Berezovsky just took his own life.
When you think of Russian oligarchs batting each other for supremacy, you could be forgiven for picturing a very Siberian setting. London, on the other hand, would hardly seem a fitting venue for an oligarch cage match. And yet it’s the city of Big Ben and the Tube where some of the most recent and defining acts in Russian political theater have taken place.
Boris Berezovsky, a former professor of mathematics from a humble background, transformed himself into the most dominant oligarch in the 90s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Having found his way into the Yeltsin establishment, Berezovsky first got a taste of the good life as steward of a chain of automobile dealerships. Life was good back then, very good for the oligarchs. It seems almost surreal then, that a man who once had the Kremlin on speed dial would be found dead alone, broken and miserable in a bathroom.
Boris Berezovsky’s meteoric rise and fall, is in complete contrast to the rise and rise of another oligarch who seems to have learned from the mistakes of his compatriots. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich came from such an unfortunate background, that Boris’ almost seems aristocratic in comparison. Details remain sketchy, but while Boris was already king of his castle and master of his domain, he came across a young, risk-taking genius with a knack for business. Berezovsky saw the young man, Roman Abramovich, as a protégé and someone he could likely mold in his image.
Berezovksy went into business with Roman Abramovich, as the Russian economy opened up and collaborated with the Chelsea owner by taking over controlling stakes in the lucrative oil giant, Sibneft. As Berezovsky meddled in politics, Abramovich lay low. While both were elected members of the Duma, Russia’s house of representatives, and served together, it would soon become evident that only the older oligarch was intent on playing with fire.
It wouldn’t be the exception. Berezovsky was among the power-brokers that ushered in a relatively unknown successor into the big leagues, as Boris Yeltsin’s heir-apparent. As Yeltsin’s power waned, Boris Berezovksy got to work along with other business magnates in Russia. They identified, drafted and ushered in the head of the FSB, the agency that succeeded the powerful KGB, as the man to take over the reins of power and rule by their dictates.
That man’s name? Vladimir Putin.
It remains unclear what transpired between the oligarch and the man-in-waiting, but it soon became clear that Putin was not as pliable as Berezovsky and the oligarchs hoped he would be. Yeltsin’s ill-health may have made him easier for the oligarchs to deal with, but Putin was a man in the prime of his life, intent on establishing a new era in Russian politics. Almost immediately after ascending to power, Putin stamped down on oligarch authority. As Berezovsky saw his relationship with the President deteriorate, he became increasingly vocal in his criticism of the latter – especially his handling of the Kursk submarine crisis.
Berezovksy fled to London and continued to harangue, to little effect, the Putin administration. In the meantime, Roman Abramovich whose apparent distaste for politics endeared him to the new powers in the Kremlin, grew in strength. As long as the young billionaire was content to stay in the business lane, he would face little opposition from the powers that be and could go about his business amassing untold riches.
Roman Abramovich then pressed Berezovksy to sell him his share of Sibneft, on grounds there was a reasonable risk the Putin regime would nationalize that stake without due compensation. Finding himself in a corner, Berezovksy sold his stake to Abramovich for a comparatively smaller sum. After the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, an ally of Berezovsky, was assassinated in London, things came to a head.
Berezovsky became increasingly belligerent, and filed a $6.5 billion case against Roman Abramovich in London for allegedly having swindled and blackmailed him. The Chelsea owner tried in vain to have the case transferred to Russia, but Boris would have his way. Having successfully sued Russia TV, and Forbes for defamation in London, Berezovsky was reasonably confident in his chances of winning a successful settlement.
In 2012, however, after a long and bruising battle, the court ruled in Abramovich’s favor. As if to rub salt into his wounds, Berezovsky was asked to pay 100 million pounds in legal fees to Abramovich and was called an “inherently unreliable witness” and “deliberately dishonest” in the official judgment. Boris was found dead on March 23rd, 2013 after having suffered the ignominy of seeing his assets frozen in response to a suit filed by his former flame, Elena Gorbunova. While the cause of death remains ‘unknown’, authorities have no reason to suspect foul play.
While it’s almost certain, Putin will be in a celebratory mood at the demise of his foe, it’s unclear what the enigmatic Roman Abramovich feels about the episode. In true fashion, Roman Abramovich had little to say after his triumph in court. There was little to gloat about since Berezovsky was seen as finished, in every sense of the word. If anything the Chelsea owner craved a return to relative obscurity and the life of anonymity he prizes more than anything else.
Berezovsky’s death threatens to undermine the Russian’s peace of mind, at the very least. The investigation and added media glare on his links to Boris Berezovksy and the complicated world of Russian politics is unlikely to be welcome news at breakfast time, at the Abramovich household.
The Russian opposition, or the anti-Putin alliance to be specific, is likely to use Berezovsky’s death as a call to rally around the flag. With Abramovich being Putin’s closest ally in London, it’s conceivable that some of that misdirected angst will land at his doorstep. Cue the rumors of his being detained. These headaches notwithstanding, the Chelsea owner has a bigger worry to contend with.
The Putin administration now without its biggest rival, is likely to be on the watch for any sort of perceived challenge from any new corner of the Russian landscape and beyond. There are no permanent friends in politics. Berezovsky was once the darling of the establishment, before he was deemed a nuisance.
Roman Abramovich has displayed considerable restraint thus far, by laying low and steering clear of the power games that stir in the deepest recesses of the Kremlin. But should he ever be tempted to push the envelope, he need only remind himself of the heavy price other oligarchs have paid for crossing those with little patience.
And if he ever needs a place of relative calm and stability, there’s always Chelsea FC.