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Various Authors 6:38 p.m., Sept. 24
San Diegans who want to see how a Russian oligarch and one of Vladimir Putin's friends lives don't have to go far today. Just truck on down to the B Street pier, where a yacht belonging to Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, said to be the fifth richest person in Russia and the 50th richest on earth, is tied up.
It's not just any yacht. The 377-foot motor yacht Luna, launched in 2009, is billed as the world’s largest expedition yacht," according to superyachts.com:
The large, open aft deck holds a covered swimming pool and sunbathing areas, much like the stunning 82m Alfa Nero, with a dedicated open luxury leisure area featuring a beach club leading down to the swim platform.
The boat's owner has an even more interesting story, related in vivid detail during a lawsuit tried earlier this year in London that was brought by Abramovich's ex-partner and fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky - now a fugitive from Russia residing in the United Kingdom.
The overarching message was clear: his lawsuit was intended not only to restore his own fortunes but also to expose Vladimir Putin as the mastermind behind the criminal operation that is Russia today.
This claim may or may not have been an attempt to frame a personal mission as a noble crusade. Berezovsky is no saint. But the trial has indeed exposed the workings of Russian corruption, and done so in an especially personal and vivid way.
In 1999, a virtual unknown became prime minister of Russia. Secret-police colonel Vladimir Putin had been plucked from bureaucratic obscurity by Berezovsky as Yeltsin’s successor—or so Berezovsky likes to believe.
Berezovsky certainly ran much of Putin’s presidential campaign, using his television channel and other media assets, just as he had done four years earlier with Yeltsin’s campaign; this time he went even further, creating a new political party for the candidate, organizing the speedy publication of an official biography, and virtually inventing Putin’s public image from scratch.
Using their connections, the piece goes on to relate, Berezovsky and Abramovich teamed up to take over former Soviet enterprises.
“Loans for shares,” the scheme through which Abramovich and Berezovsky realized their plan, remains one of the most controversial episodes in recent Russian history. Some call it the robbery of the century. Others say it jump-started the Russian economy. Not unusually for Russia, the facts support both interpretations.
“Loans for shares” was cover for selling off state companies to well-connected businessmen at rock-bottom prices and without parliamentary approval. The buyers would soon become the group of super-rich and ultra-influential Russians known as the oligarchs.
But Berezovsky eventually found himself on the wrong side of Putin and decided it was a good time to leave the country, according to the story.
Berezovsky is one of London’s most inconvenient residents. He fled here from Russia in 2000 and was granted political asylum in 2003. Over the years, an extensive circle of business and political associates has formed around him. The most prominent of these was former secret-police agent Alexander Litvinenko, who died of polonium poisoning in London in November 2006.
Abramovich, on the other hand, remained in Russia, stayed friendly with Putin, and prospered.
On his last day of testimony, Abramovich tried to explain that his instincts had always been to operate openly, but that the reality of post-Soviet Russia simply would not allow it. “I wanted to show everyone that life is different,” he said. “It’s new kind of life, we are earning this money, we wanted to pay taxes and live honestly. And while I was thinking about that, a person, I think his surname was Tarasov [Artem Tarasov, the first self-identified millionaire in the U.S.S.R.], he declared that he had earned three million rubles, that he had paid all the taxes. He was a member of the Communist Party, he paid party contributions, he did everything completely honestly and above board. You can’t imagine what happened in the country: people were saying that he should be put in custody, to prison, this is unbearable, this is shameful, nobody has the right to earn so much; and in the end he left for the U.K. And I remember that very well and I decided that I was not going to stick my neck out. The next person who decided to declare his earnings, his shares, and that he was such an open person, was Mr. Khodorkovsky [oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, arrested in 2003 and still in prison]. Well, at that time I had the desire to declare everything and to show everything and to make it all obvious, but then I decided it won’t lead to anything good; it would only create problems for myself. So I decided: sit quietly and do business and don’t stick your neck.”