By CASSANDRA VINOGRAD
FILE – A Wednesday, July 18, 2007 photo from files showing Russian exile Boris Berezovsky, a close friend of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko who was poisoned by Polonium 2-10, speaking to the media in a news conference in London. United Kingdom police have said that Berezovsky has been found dead Saturday March 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File)
LONDON (AP) — Boris Berezovsky, a self-exiled and outspoken Russian tycoon who had a bitter falling out with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found dead in southeast England on Saturday. He was 67.
In recent years, the one-time Kremlin powerbroker-turned-thorn in Putin’s side fended off verbal and legal attacks in cases that often bore political undertones — and bit into his fortune.
The cause of Berezovsky’s death was not immediately clear, and Thames Valley police said it was being treated as “unexplained.” The police would not directly identify him, but when asked about Berezovsky by name they read a statement saying they were investigating the death of a 67-year-old man at a property in Ascot, a town 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of London.
Lawyer Alexander Dobrovinsky told Russian state TV that his client — who had survived assassination attempts in the past — lately had been in “a horrible, terrible” emotional state.
“All he had was debts,” Dobrovinsky said. “He was practically destroyed. He was selling his paintings and other things.”
A mathematician-turned-Mercedes dealer, Berezovsky amassed his wealth during Russia’s chaotic privatization of state assets in the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In return for backing former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he gained political clout and opportunities to buy state assets at knockdown prices, making a fortune in oil and automobiles.
He also played a key role in brokering the rise of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, in 2000. But Berezovsky later fell out of favor with Putin, and eventually sought political asylum in the U.K. in the early 2000s to evade fraud charges he contended were politically motivated.
Berezovsky was one of several so-called Russian “oligarchs” to butt heads with Putin.
After coming into power, the Russian president effectively made a pact: the oligarchs could keep their money if they didn’t challenge him politically. Those who refused often found themselves in dire circumstances. Some were imprisoned — like the former Yukos Oil chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky — while others, like Berezovsky, fled Russia.
The assets of these pariah businessmen, meanwhile, were acquired by state corporations or cooperative tycoons, often at bargain prices.
Over the years, Berezovsky accused Putin of leading Russia toward dictatorship and returning it to a Soviet-style system of state monopoly on the media.
In the U.K., Berezovsky allied himself with an array of other Kremlin critics. Among them was ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who fled Russia with Berezovsky’s help after accusing officials there of plotting to assassinate political opponents.
Litvinenko died on Nov. 26, 2006, after drinking tea laced with a lethal dose of the rare radioactive isotope polonium-210 in a London hotel. From his deathbed, Litvinenko accused the Kremlin of orchestrating his poisoning, and British police named former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi as the prime suspect.
Both Lugovoi and the Kremlin denied the accusations, with the former instead claiming that Berezovsky — whom Russia repeatedly sought to extradite on a wide variety of criminal charges — engineered Litvinenko’s death as a way of embarrassing the Kremlin and buttressing his refugee status.
Berezovsky, who considered Litvinenko a close friend, consistently denied the allegations. In 2010, he won a libel case against Kremlin-owned broadcaster All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting, which aired a show in which it was suggested he was behind the former agent’s poisoning.
Berezovsky, too, was the target of assassination attempts. In 1994, a car bomb injured him and killed his driver. He also said he briefly fled the U.K. in 2007 when British intelligence services told him his life was in danger.
“I was informed by Scotland Yard that there was a plot to kill me, and they recommended to me to leave the country,” he told The Associated Press at the time. Scotland Yard later arrested a man on suspicion of conspiring to murder the tycoon.
More recently, Berezovsky has made headlines for costly legal battles that have dealt serious blows to his finances.
Last year, the Russian business magnate was ordered to pay 35 million pounds ($53.3 million) in legal costs to fellow Russian Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, after losing a multimillion-dollar legal battle against him.
Berezovsky had claimed that Abramovich cheated him out of his stakes in the oil group Sibneft, arguing that he blackmailed him into selling the stakes vastly beneath their true worth after he lost Putin’s good graces.
But a judge threw out the case in August, ruling that Berezovsky was a dishonest and unreliable witness, and rejected Berezovsky’s claims that he was threatened by Putin and Alexander Voloshin, a Putin ally, to coerce him to sell his Sibneft stake.
It also recently emerged that Berezovsky ran up legal bills totaling more than 250,000 pounds in just two months of a case against his former partner, Elena Gorbunova, with whom he had two children and who claimed the businessman owed her millions.
Earlier this week, The Times of London newspaper reported that Berezovsky was selling property — including an Andy Warhol portrait of the former Soviet Union leader Vladimir Lenin — to settle his debts and pay expenses owed to lawyers.
The Russian president’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a telephone interview on state television that Berezovsky had sent a letter to Putin about two months ago asking to be allowed to return to Russia. In the letter, Berezovsky acknowledged having made many mistakes, Peskov said.
Peskov said he did not know how Putin reacted to news of the death.
“But you can say that information about the death of someone, no matter who he was, cannot elicit positive emotions,” the spokesman said.
AP writer Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this story.