Amid swirling conspiracy theories on Berezovsky’s death, Moscow will be mourning the loss of a figure it used to raise the spectre of a return to chaos Kremlin claims the exile wrote to Putin asking for forgiveness and requesting permission to return to the motherland

Even as suicide appears to be the most likely cause of the death in London of fugitive Russian oligarch and Kremlin critic Boris Berezovsky, conspiracy theories are swirling, with his friends pointing the finger at the Kremlin and his foes blaming the British secret services.

“There is speculation among those close to the former billionaire that he was the victim of a professional hit for speaking out against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime, saying suicide was ‘not in his DNA’,” said Britain’s Evening Standard.

Suspicions about the Kremlin’s role in Berezovsky’s death are linked to the 2006 poisoning death of the billionaire’s onetime aide, Alexander Litvinenko, former KGB agent turned Kremlin critic. Berezovsky had accused Mr. Putin of ordering the killing of Litvinenko and claimed the Kremlin was targeting him too.

In Russia the Litvinenko connection has been invoked to argue the case for the involvement of the British secret agents in the killing of the Russian oligarch.

Maverick nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky claims Berezovsky told him when they met in Israel in January that if the Kremlin dropped embezzlement charges and allowed him to return to Russia he was ready to “close the case” on the Litvinenko murder by providing proof that Moscow had nothing to do with it.

According to Mr. Zhirinovsky’s theory, the British authorities “decided to eliminate Berezovsky” so that he could not derail their “anti-Russia scenarios.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Berezovsky had in fact written a letter to Mr. Putin recently asking the President to forgive him for his “mistakes” and “requesting permission to return to the motherland”.

The Daily Mail spiced up the intrigue with a report that Berezovsky had missed a deadline for filing evidence in the ongoing inquest in the death of Litvinenko, which he was to submit a day before he died. According to the paper, Berezovsky was going to reveal “that the former spy was working with Western agencies investigating Putin over money-laundering allegations”.

Or was he waiting for a Kremlin reply to his appeal before scripting a pro- or anti-Russia testimony?

Berezovsky’s girlfriend, Katerina Sabirova, confirmed that he had written to Mr. Putin late last year.

“He read [the letter] to me. He was offering his apologies and asking for permission to return,” Ms Sabirova said in its latest issue of the Moscow weekly The New Times.

She quoted Berezovsky as telling her the letter was his “last chance” to return to Russia, but she did not think Mr. Putin had ever replied.

The repentance letter marked a volte face in Berezovsky’s stance on Mr. Putin. Earlier he used to tell Western media that he was plotting the violent overthrow of Mr. Putin because “there can be no change without force” in Russia.

However, no opposition leader in Russia risked having his name linked to Berezovsky. The exiled oligarch had the image of a “robber baron” and “conman” from the chaotic and criminal era of Boris Yeltsin. After fleeing to Britain in 2000 he was convicted in Russia in absentia on charges of fraud and embezzlement, but there are no documented facts of his subversive activities here.

Western assertions that in exile Berezovsky became Mr. Putin’s “No 1 enemy” are a myth created through the efforts of Berezovsky and the Kremlin. The two fell out when Berezovsky aspired to pull the strings behind Mr. Putin’s throne, the role he had played in Yeltsin’s court after helping finance his re-election in 1996, but misjudged his youthful successor. Within months of assuming presidency in 2000 Mr. Putin told the oligarchs to stay out of politics if they wanted to keep their ill-earned fortunes. Out of three oligarchs who ignored the order, one — Mikhail Khodorkovsky — ended up in prison, and two — Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky — had to emigrate.

In exile the outspoken Berezovsky became a useful bogeyman for the Kremlin, an apt illustration of the saying: “With enemies like this one doesn’t need friends.” “Berezovsky was demonised in Russia as the embodiment of a terrible evil that was to blame for everything,” said political scientist Igor Bunin.

Far from rejoicing at Berezovsky’s departure the Kremlin will moan the loss of such a perfect target, Russian commentators said.

“Berezovsky was a living symbol of the ‘wild 90s’, the scary spectre of which the Kremlin would raise every time people went to the polls,” wrote Utro.ru, an online news resource.

Berezovsky must have finally realised he had allowed himself to be used by the Kremlin propaganda machine as an evil antithesis to Mr. Putin, helping strengthen rather than undermine his regime. This realisation could have fatally aggravated the acute depression Berezovsky was reportedly suffering after losing a $5.5-billion law suit in a London court last year against Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Mr. Abramovich was Berezovsky’s protégé whom he had trusted to run his oil assets and who kicked Berezovsky out of business when he quarrelled with the Kremlin.

The owner of the Chelsea football club and one of Russia’s (and Britain’s) richest men, Mr. Abramovich is still a good friend of Mr. Putin. He likes to flaunt his wealth but steers clear of politics.

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