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Late Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky hid millions in ... Serbia?

Russia wants $273 million to be repatriated, and Belgrade is complying.

By Correspondent / August 21, 2013

Officers of the Thames Valley police wait outside the Guildhall in Windsor, England as the inquest into the death of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky takes place, in this March 28, 2013 file photo. Russian authorities have reportedly located more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of Berezovsky's assets allegedly squirreled away in the unlikeliest of places – Serbia – and have taken steps to get them back.

Alastair Grant/AP/File

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Moscow

The renegade oligarch Boris Berezovsky was a thorn in the Kremlin's side from the time he fell out with President Vladimir Putin and was driven into exile almost a decade-and-a-half ago until his death in March.

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Fred Weir has been the Monitor's Moscow correspondent, covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, since 1998. 

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Now Russian authorities, pursuing Mr. Berezovsky beyond the grave, have reportedly located more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of the secretive tycoon's assets allegedly squirreled away in the unlikeliest of places – Serbia – and have taken steps to get them back.

"I was informed yesterday that the High Court in Belgrade seized seven enterprises of Berezovsky valued at approximately 9 billion rubles [$273 million] at our request," Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Zvyagintsev, who heads the ongoing Russian investigation into Berezovsky, told journalists Tuesday.

It would be ironic if Berezovsky left some of his juiciest bits of hidden property in Serbia, one of the few European jurisdictions inclined to cooperate with Russian authorities when it comes to controversial matters involving expatriate Russian oligarchs.

"Russian authorities have probably been sending demands for the confiscation of Berezovsky' s assets to the entire world for a couple of years now," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama, an independent Moscow think tank.

"The bureaucratic machine works slowly but surely. Usually demands made by the Russian prosecutor's office are denied [in the West] because they are often without substance. But Serbia might be inclined to be more responsive to such claims," he adds.

However, some Serbian news reports suggest that the decision to seize the seven companies in favor of the Russian claims may not be final.

Berezovsky, who died in March in an apparent suicide, has been widely thought to have been insolvent. At the time of his death, he reportedly owed about $150 million in unpaid British taxes.

His heirs, squabbling over the remains of his estate, have been using British lawyers and courts to track down whatever assets he may have left behind from amid his tangled business empire, so far without much reported success.

But Russia, which convicted Berezovsky of various crimes in absentia, insists that all property belonging to him is illegal and must be returned to pay his debts in Russia.

"As the Russian Criminal Code stipulates confiscation of property [as punishment] for setting up and participating in a criminal group, the Russian Prosecutor General's Office will continue its legal action aimed at bringing back to Russia the assets that Berezovsky and his accomplices illegally acquired and legalized abroad," deputy prosecutor Mr. Zvyagintsev told the official RIA-Novosti agency this past March.

Russian media quoted Berezovsky's lawyer, Andrey Borovkov as saying he knew nothing of the Serbian assets, which allegedly included majority ownership in two dairies, a soft drink maker, and a chocolate producer, as well as significant stakes in several other companies.

Berezovsky made his once-vast fortune in the freewheeling 1990s by manipulating Kremlin contacts, defrauding investors, and outright extortion, according to the best expert on the subject, Russian-American journalist Paul Klebnikov. Mr. Klebnikov was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004 under circumstances that remain unexplained.

But after fleeing to Britain in 2000, Berezovsky's wealth began to dribble away. Some experts say he failed to make the transition to Western-style business practices, and continued financing ill-advised political schemes to unseat his nemesis, Mr. Putin, from power.

He became the Kremlin's favorite bete noir, and was blamed by Russian media for many controversial and still-unsolved crimes, including the 2006 assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the bizarre murder-by-radiation of exiled dissident Russian security officer Alexander Litvinenko later the same year.

The biggest blow to Berezovsky's financial status was self-inflicted. Last year he lost a bitter, $6.5-billion lawsuit against his former partner and fellow oligarch, Roman Abramovich, in a London court.     

The trial proved a goldmine of information for journalists and historians interested in the machinations and financial depredations of Russia's 1990s tycoons, who spun vast empires from the ruins of the former Soviet economy, often using outright criminal methods.       

Berezovsky was virtually destroyed in a damning verdict that rejected his claims "in their entirety." The judge in the case also appended the scathing personal indictment that Berezovsky as a witness was "vague, internally inconsistent, exaggerated and, at times, incredible."

Some Russian experts say the race to uncover Berezovsky's remaining hidden assets is probably not political anymore.

"Russian authorities want a piece of Berezovsky' s legacy. I don't think this is about revenge anymore, just business," says Andrei Piontkovsky, an expert with the official Institute for Systems Analysis and a long time Kremlin critic. 

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