Berezovsky pays Latvia a quick visit

  • 2005-03-02
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Russian billionaire exile Boris Berezovsky made a surprise one-day visit to Latvia on Feb. 25, during which he praised President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and angered Russia, which wanted the Baltic country to extradite him for massive misappropriation of funds.

Berezovsky arrived on a refugee passport issued by the United Kingdom under the name of Platon Yelenin, an Israeli citizen, on his private jet. He had initially planned for a three-day visit but left early after talk of detainment heated up.

The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the failure of Latvian officials to detain Berezovsky, calling it "an unfriendly act" and saying that it "showed [Latvia's] unreliability as a partner in the fight against organized crime."

The ministry went so far as to say that Latvia's behavior would "not go without consequences."

Berezovsky ostensibly arrived to visit the local chapter of his International Foundation for Civil Liberties. He has pledged to donate $25 million over five years to a fund that will chronicle Stalinist repression and support human rights. He added that he was also interested in business deals in the Baltic state.

During an impromptu press conference the billionaire blasted the Kremlin. "Russia's activities do nothing good for anyone in Latvia. They are creating problems both for Russians and Latvians, but most of all for Russia itself," he said.

"The issue on identical interpretation of fascism and communism is correct," Berezovsky said, referring to President Vike-Freiberga's recent efforts to show Europe and the world that World War II did not end on May 9, 1945 and Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis' proposal to equate Nazi symbols to communist ones. "It is correct that they are rejected as an idea, both fascism and totalitarian communism. Both of them have caused irreparable hazard to Latvia. Therefore, I see the fight against manifestations of extremism as being fully correct, on both wings. My civic position is that neither of them have a place in any country," he said.

Berezovsky, who was an extremely powerful and controversial force in post-Soviet Russia, particularly during the Yeltsin era, said that he had close friends among the state's political elite but declined to identify them.

Latvian Foreign Ministry officials stated they had been unaware of Berezovsky's intention to visit, and that it was not their responsibility, but that of law enforcement agencies to make a decision on detaining the oligarch, who at one point supported President Vladimir Putin.

Law enforcement officials, for their part, seemed to dodge the issue. Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons told the Baltic News Service that, while Berezovsky is on Interpol's most wanted list, Platon Yelenin is not, and after they had learned that Berezovsky was in the country, they awaited for the proper documents asking for his extradition from Russia.

In the meantime, the billionaire was not detained, since the U.K. had given him refugee status, Jekabsons said.

"Such a person as Boris Berezovsky, announced by Russia as wanted, has not crossed Latvia's border in accordance with the documents issued," said Gunars Dabolins, head of Latvia's border guards. "People sometimes have a very similar appearance."

Despite the condemnation and warning of consequences by Russia, some Latvian officials believe the visit will have little impact on relations between the two countries.

"It will not make worse our relations. We did all a state ruled by the law should have done," Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks said.

"Russia's reproaches are out of place. Firstly, the documentation was filed at a very low professional level. Secondly, this person has acquired refugee status in the European Union member state of Great Britain," Pabriks added.