By Vadzim Bylina
The unexpected death of Boris Berezovsky has moved his relations with the Belarusian authorities into the spotlight. Over the past 15 years Boris Berezovsky regularly appeared in Belarusian politics. Analysts are even discussing a possible friendship between Boris Berezovsky and Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
In the 1990s, Berezovsky persuaded Lukashenka to release Russian journalists from Belarusian prison. In the 2000s, he recommended that Lukashenka hire British PR guru Lord Timothy Bell and persuaded him to imprison an American lawyer representing the interests of a relative of deceased Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili.
Berezovsky supported Lukashenka under the most challenging circumstances. After the 2010 presidential elections in Belarus, he claimed that Russian intelligence services had provoked the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in Minsk and that the Russian ruling elite was responsible for failures in Belarus-EU relations.
Boris Meets Aliaksandr in 1997
The first formal meeting between Berezovsky and Lukashenka took place in Minsk in 1997. At that time the Belarusian authorities had detained the TV crew of Russian Public Television and put them in a Hrodna prison. The Russian TV channel controlled by Berezovsky was well-known for its critical reports about Lukashenka.
To demonstrate his influence, Berezovsky came to Minsk with a group of Russian media executives. After a meeting with Lukashenka, Berezovsky publicly condemned the position of the TV channel toward Belarusian officials and as a result the authorities released the journalists. According to Aliaksandr Fiaduta, who wrote a biography of Aliaksandr Lukashenka after that meeting, mutual understanding between the Belarusian president and Boris Beresovzky has always been very good.
The next official meeting occurred in 1998. Berezovsky came to Minsk as an executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The Belarusian ruler warmly greeted him and their meeting lasted over two hours, instead of the intended one hour. They were negotiating the prospects of the CIS, and the Belarusian leader even proposed that Berezovsky settle in Minsk. Subsequently, The Daily Mail reported that Berezovsky had purchased property in Minsk.
Strange Friendship with the Fallen Oligarch
After Berezovsky fell from the grace of Vladimir Putin and the Russian authorities initiated the first criminal case against him in 1999, the Russian oligarch held no official meetings with Lukashenka. Nevertheless, the Russian media regularly reported on meetings between the two friends. Since then, appearances by Boris Beresovsky in Belarus have become somewhat of a mystery.
Some members of the Belarusian media now speculate that Berezovsky organised the escape of the former head of the National Bank of Belarus Tamara Vinnikava from house arrest in Minsk. She is now living in London and has political refugee status.
Tamara Vinnikava denies any involvement by Berezovsky in her escape from Belarus. But in the Ukraine-published Writings of Major Melnichenko, the former president of the Ukraine Leonid Kuchma and the head of his security recalled “how they released Vinnikova from Ukraine with the support of the British”. This made journalists think that this story could involve Berezovsky.
In the 2000s, Berezovsky on several occasions publicly complimented Lukashenka. In turn, the Belarusian president confessed that it was Boris Berezovsky who advised him to hire Lord Timothy Bell, a British peer and a former aid to the former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. For several years Timothy Bell performed public relations work for the Belarusian government.
Zeltser’s Arrest in Minsk
Another story which make Berezovsky's connections in Belarus evident was the arrest of Emanuel Zeltser - the lawyer of one of the relatives of the deceased Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili.
Zeltser represented Joseph Kay, American businessman and stepbrother of Badri Patarkatsishvili. Berezovsky and Kay fought for the assets of the Georgian billionaire. Berezovsky was a long-term business partner of Patarkatsishvili and claimed a part of Patarkatsishvili's money. The Georgian tycoon invested in Belarusian refineries. The Belarusian authorities may also have been an interested party in the division of his inheritance.
The US citizen Emanuel Zeltser flew to Minsk on 12 March 2008 in a plane owned by Boris Berezovsky. Just after the plane landed, Belarusian intelligence services arrested the American lawyer.
They accused Zeltser of forging documents and industrial espionage. As a result, a Belarusian court sentenced Emanuel Zeltser to 3 years in jail. According to the American lawyer, Berezovsky appeared at the closed trial as a witness. When the lawyer of Emanuel Zeltser pointed out that Berezovsky was wanted by the Russian authorities, the judge paid little attention. Zeltser also claims that Berezovsky several times threatened him during his visits to the Belarusian prison where he was kept.
Zeltser spent 15 month in Belarusian prison and the Belarusian authorities released him only after a group of American congressmen visited Minsk. According to independent analysts, Zeltser’s arrest in Minsk helped Berezovsky to divide the assets of Badri Patarkatsishvili.
Berezovsky on the Role of Russian Security Services in Belarus
Boris Berezovsky claimed that the Russian authorities benefited from the events of 19 December 2010. That was the day of presidential elections when the Belarusian authorities surprised everybody by brutally dispersing a peaceful demonstration in Minsk. Hundreds were beaten and arrested, including nearly all presidential candidates (one still remains in prison and two others had to go into exile).
According to Berezovsky, the turn to violence after several months of Lukashenka's fruitful negotiations with EU officials was an operation by the Russian intelligence service and Russian agents in Lukashenka’s security services. He called what happened on the night of 19 December 2010 in Minsk in Belarus "a special operation by the Russian security services". In his view,
Russia can exercise an unlimited influence in this country and essentially they pushed Belarusian authorities into a corner. For the last three years Lukashenka has consistently moved in the direction of democratic reforms.
Some even rumoured that during the 2010 election campaign Berezovsky sponsored the Belarusian opposition. But the contacts of Berezovsky with Minsk in 2008-2009 indicate the opposite.
Berezovsky played a significant role in contemporary Belarusian history. Opposition to Vladimir Putin united the exiled oligarch with the Belarusian ruler for almost 15 years.
Much remains unknown about the interests of what was once the most powerful Russian oligarchs in Belarus. What seems clear is that Berezovsky's opposition to Putin led to a remarkable fall from the height of being the most influential oligarch in Russia to suicide in exile. Playing the role of the most loyal ally of Putin in the West, Lukashenka hopes to remain in power for much longer.