With the death of Boris Berezovsky over the weekend, old rumours and speculation were in abundance in the British media. It is being widely suggested that he may have taken his own life, a not unlikely scenario considering the huge personal and financial losses he had suffered in recent times. On the other hand, many who knew him are reported as saying this would be very much out of character. For those who knew him only from media coverage, it is indeed difficult to believe that this über-confident man would have allowed himself to be brought to such depths of despair; whatever one thought about Berezovsky, I don’t think anyone doubted but that he was a survivor. The second possibility is that the causes were natural and to date this also has not been ruled out. Either of these two possibilities will mean that this is ultimately a private tragedy and that commentary can move to discussion of who Berezovsky was and what he stood for, in the way that obit columns ordinarily go about their business. The third possibility, that the Russian state might somehow be involved, will make this very much a matter of public interest.
No matter what the final determination, his death brings another tricky moment in the UK’s relations with Russia. The nature of the death of Alexander Litvinenko is evidently on the minds of all those involved in investigating Berezovsky’s death, with reports that those on the scene first were trained in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) emergencies. The implications of having CBRN officers on hand will not be lost on the Kremlin, underlining as they do the fact that when it comes to Russia, UK officials are extremely cautious and very distrustful.
However, in Russia itself, you don’t have to dig too deep to find analysis that argues Berezovsky’s death marks the end of an era. For many Russians, Berezovsky symbolised all the failures of the turn to democracy, a maths professor turned oligarch who made, and retained for himself, a huge personal fortune while the vast majority of Russia’s population struggled to put food on their tables. Few ordinary Russians felt sympathy when the political tide turned against Berezovsky.
The same sense of an end to unfortunate times will not apply to UK-Russia relations though. It is true that the person of Berezovsky is not unimportant in respect of understanding this bilateral relationship. After he fell out with Putin and fled to London, the Russian authorities made repeated requests for his extradition to no avail. This, as well as the habit for a while of the British media to wheel Berezovsky out to deliver the dissident’s perspective, meant that he had a directly negative impact on inter-state relations. With his death, a point of contention is lost. But that is all. The inquest into Litvinenko’s death will continue, Russia and the UK will continue to be divided on Syria and on the question of intervention generally. The UK will continue to take Russia to task over its human rights record and many business people will continue to see Russia as a high-risk investment opportunity. In short, Berezovsky or no, the era of poor UK-Russia relations shows little sign of coming to an end.