March 24, 2013
[Update: On Monday evening, March 25th, British police said an autopsy has found that the cause of Berezovsky's death "is consistent with hanging" and that there is "nothing to indicate a violent struggle." Further tests are being carried out, including toxicology and histology exams, the results of which may take several weeks.]
Paul Klebnikov’s body was barely cold on July 9, 2004, when Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky whipped out his tongue from its holster and publicly called the 41-year-old editor of Forbes-Russia “a dishonest reporter.” It was an odious thing to say, not least because Paul’s family was only starting to digest the news that he’d been shot nine times from a semiautomatic pistol as he walked out of his Moscow office. He survived a ride in an ambulance that wasn’t equipped with functioning oxygen equipment, but apparently died in a “stuck” elevator at a Moscow hospital.
Yesterday it was Berezovsky’s turn — his body was found in his locked bathroom in his mansion in England. A day earlier, he gave the last interview of his life , ironically enough to Forbes-Russia, where he told the reporter in a London hotel lobby that he had nothing to live for. And while it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead so soon after they expire, I think the 67-year-old oligarch has earned an exception here. Klebnikov was (and remains) the only investigative reporter who exposed Berezovsky for what he truly was: a corrupt, dangerous thug, a chronic (court-certified) liar, and – as Paul wrote in Forbes magazine and in a 2000 biography of Boris — the “Godfather of the Kremlin.”
Paul paid dearly for his groundbreaking investigative journalism about Berezovsky, in terms of six years of time-consuming and unwarranted litigation brought against him and Forbes by the onetime billionaire. (More on that case later.) He may also have paid for it with his life. That’s because Boris has long been one of the main suspects for masterminding the contract-killing of my old friend and colleague. Berezovsky’s sudden death may unlock long-kept secrets that could prove his guilt, or vindicate his claims that he had nothing to do with it. At least that’s my hope, for the sake not only of the Klebnikov family, but also for Berezovsky’s descendants.
For nearly nine years, the Klebnikovs have worked tirelessly for justice — meeting with Russian officials, prosecutors, lawyers, anyone who might have a shred of information to share about the case. “Boris Berezovsky was a symbol of everything that went wrong in Russia in the past 25 years,” Paul’s brother Peter told me today. “I will not miss him. The Russian government is convinced he killed Paul. It’s conceivable; he certainly was evil enough and unbalanced enough to do it. But we have seen no evidence from the Russian side. Therefore we urge President Putin to produce the evidence and finally mount a serious investigation into who ordered my brother’s murder.”
One fear is that, instead of Berezovsky’s death creating a space for more sunlight in the case, it could have the opposite effect. “Our ongoing concern is that there will be a lack of incentive and interest on the part of the Russian prosecutors and the Russian government to continue to focus on the open investigation,” says Michael Klebnikov, another brother of Paul’s. “We’re still looking for clear answers as to who is responsible for the murder of an American citizen who was doing his job.”
In 2005, a year after the assassination, I decided to launch an investigative media alliance called Project Klebnikov . Our goal has been to try and keep a flame burning under the unsolved case, and to encourage and assist other reporters to continue the work that Paul was doing there. The group’s members include Bloomberg, The Economist , Forbes , Vanity Fair , and some of the best and most seasoned investigative reporters in the world. Given the dire economics of investigative reporting nowadays (and the fear that Russia reporters live under), our work has ebbed and flowed. But we’ll never give up. Klebnikov was the first American reporter to be murdered in Russia, and with his silencing the world lost one of its foremost experts on the vast and murky crossroads of Russian organized crime, Kremlin politics, Chechen terrorists, billionaire oligarchs, and the spread of Russian mafia conglomerates around the world.
Paul Klebnikov (1963-2004)
Several months after Paul was killed, the Kremlin announced that the case was solved and closed, and that a Chechen rebel leader, fugitive, and onetime Moscow gang boss named Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev was the mastermind. The announcement, with no evidence to support it, was met with some skepticism — and some reports had it that Nukhayev actually died long before Paul’s death. Nonetheless, in a brief meeting with the Klebnikov family in New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, President Putin himself insisted Nukhaev was their man, that the fugitive would be captured and prosecuted, and that he would personally oversee the case. But that never happened.
Two Chechens with alleged links to Nukhaev were arrested and charged with being the hit men, but their trial was closed to the public and press, with all the participants under a strict gag order by the judge. Nonetheless, a reconstruction at the time by me in Forbes of what went down in that courtroom raised serious questions about Russia’s criminal justice system. In short: Despite a seemingly-solid case by a team of the country’s best prosecutors, the suspects were acquitted, and one of them was allowed to disappear before an appeal of the case could be heard. (At one point in the trial, a female acquaintance of one defendant recalled the men speaking shortly before Klebnikov was murdered about a “big job,” for which they were to receive $3 million from London.)
Like Berezovsky, Nukhaev had a motive. He was also furious about a book that Paul had written about him — this one published in 2003 and titled “Conversation with a Barbarian.” Over the next year, Paul was gathering string for future articles that linked Nukhaev and other Chechen warlords with Berezovsky. One focus of his was possible links to Berezovsky involving the misuse of Chechnya reconstruction funds, following the second Russian-Chechen war in 2000.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Last summer, Berezovsky’s Chechen links came to the surface in a $6.5 billion London lawsuit that he had brought (and lost) against Roman Abramovich, a rival Russian oligarch. Abramovich claimed during the trial that Boris had links to Chechen terrorists, while an ex-Chechen separatist claimed that Boris financed separatists in the 1990s. Berezovsky denied these and other allegations, but, at the conclusion of the trial , the judge in the case — Mrs. [Elizabeth] Justice Glosser — valued what she called Abramovich’s “responsible approach to giving answers he could honestly support.”
In contrast, she just annihilated Berezovsky. She proclaimed him an “unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes. At times the evidence he gave was deliberately dishonest.” At other times, the judge concluded, Berezovsky had “deluded himself into believing his own version of events.” She ordered him to pay Abramovich’s legal fees, which exceeded $100 million.
Of course, Klebnikov had concluded that much about Berezovsky nearly two decades ago. Recalls Forbes’ London counsel, David Hooper, one of the world’s top media-defense lawyers: “The man was a fairly polished liar because one of the things that Paul accused him of was how he milked his links with [Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and set up bank accounts for Yeltsin. Berezovsky denied it, but in the Abramovich case it suited him to change his story and say the opposite — so his evidence now became that he did have those close links with Yeltsin, and he claimed that that is what made him so valuable to Abramovich. He was a brazen liar, but Mrs. Justice Gloster saw through his mendacity.”
Gloster’s decision seems to have contributed to a financial collapse that Berezovsky has been suffering for quite some time. In the exclusive interview with Forbes-Russia in London’s Four Seasons hotel, the day before his body was found, he told the reporter that his “life didn’t make any sense. I’m 67. And I don’t know what to do.” A piano (no violins, apparently) played in the background. He was in a deep depression, according to associates, a fact that seemed noticeable to the reporter, Ilya Zhegulev.
British police are literally leaving no stone unturned in their probe of his death, creating a two-mile-long blockade around the mansion, and searching the property for chemical, biological and nuclear materials. When that’s done, Scotland Yard might want to consider focusing its attention on how and why England has become a retirement paradise for hundreds, if not thousands, of toxic Russian gangsters. For more than a decade, many of them have abused the country’s legal system and financial markets with relative impunity.
The police appear to have ruled out foul play in the godfather’s unexplained departure. Meanwhile, a longtime Berezovsky lawyer and spokesman wrote on his Facebook page that he was told it was suicide. If so, I’d like to imagine Berezovsky was thinking about Paul following that Forbes interview –the only one he had granted after his defeat to Abramovich. “Berezovsky died alone, broke and depressed,” says Musa Klebnikov, Paul’s widow. “I wonder if he had a bad conscience.”
But guessing what Boris was ever feeling, thinking, planning, or doing in his life was a hopeless task. He was a master of intrigue, deception and manipulation. A former mathematician, he was always a few moves ahead of his enemies, like a great chess player. Among his feats: Surviving many assassination attempts, including a 1994 car bomb that decapitated his chauffeur. (Boris walked away unscathed.)
I had my own experience with Berezovsky’s duplicity. More than a decade ago, I penned an expose about Russia’s aluminum industry, in which Berezovsky was a big player. At the time, he announced that he wanted to buy Kommersant – Russia’s leading business newspaper — but before he “could,” a newly formed New York company called American Capital announced it had already done so. At a press conference in 1999, American Capital’s “owners,” two previously unknown businessmen, declared they were not connected to any Russian businessmen; shortly thereafter, Berezovsky said he was sorry he’d lost the bid.
In fact, Boris had bought the paper from American Capital. The transaction was a bit complex – but classic Berezovsky. According to a London-based billionaire named Simon Reuben at the time, the $22 million for the purchase was provided to Berezovsky by a Russian named Lev Chernoy — who Simon (and his brother David) had partnered with in a Russian aluminum enterprise called Trans World. Those funds, Simon told me, were sent to Chernoy via Morgan Stanley — and then deducted from Chernoy’s Trans World profits.
Back in those days, while Paul and I had become competitors (he at Forbes , me at Fortune ), we would help each other on complex Russia-related cases when we felt we could. In a sense, we were rivals on the same team. Two months before he was gunned down, I alerted him that a source had provided me with European law enforcement documents that described a meeting between Berezovsky and several known mobsters at a villa in France. I told Paul that I’d give him the papers when I saw him next, but that day never came. He would have been the one reporter, perhaps the only, who could have made sense of it.
And what of the Berezovsky-vs- Forbes libel lawsuit? It was a classic case of “forum shopping” — as UK plaintiff-friendly libel laws are among the Western world’s harshest for journalists to overcome. Berezovsky maintained that the article falsely accused him of crimes. “It [Paul's expose] was a most incredibly authoritative piece,” recalls Forbes attorney Hooper. “It was amazing how he accessed the information and put together his [Berezovsky's] finances.”
But by a narrow 3-2 decision, the House of Lords ruled that, despite Boris’s lack of ties to the United Kingdom, the case could be brought to trial nonetheless. Recalls Hooper: “What was unfortunate was, here was an article that had nothing whatsoever to do with England or English people, and Forbes had a small readership in England of less than 1% of it’s total circulation — and the story was absolutely fine under US law. But the [UK] judges indicated that the story means Berezovsky is being accused of being responsible for murders. Really, what Paul was saying was just that a great many of his business colleagues were dead — and that this was a very murky, bloody pool that Berezovsky was swimming in. It was a very good example of the injustice of the English libel laws.”
In 2003, after six years of grueling litigation, the suit was withdrawn after Forbes published a clarification. (By then, curiously, Berezovsky had somehow managed to fast-track himself into Britain as a political refugee.) Both sides of the libel case agreed to walk away, each absorbing their own legal fees. But last August, following the judge’s blasting of Boris as a liar in the Abramovitz case, and ordering him to pay his opponent’s legal costs, Forbes considered taking action against Berezovsky. It was discussed whether a claim should be brought against the Godfather of the Kremlin for perjury, as well as a demand that he reimburse the magazine for its legal costs as a result. In the end, it was decided to let bygones be bygones. After all, so many people were chasing Berezovsky for money that Forbes would have had to get on a very long line.
Paul Klebnikov: A Remembrance
Richard Behar is the Contributing Editor, Investigations, for Forbes magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com