Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgian Subplots: Berezovsky's Game

Readers of my other blogs might remember a couple of posts looking into Rupert Murdoch's strange business deals with former Georgian opposition leader and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili.

Patarkatsishvili died in London earlier this week [WRONG: SEE BELOW] and UK police are treating it as a suspicious death:
His death drew comparisons to the 2006 radiation poisoning in London of ex-Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko. Moscow's refusal to hand over the primary suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, has strained relations between Britain and Russia.

Police found no trace of radiation at the Georgian's mansion, Britain's Press Association reported, citing police sources.

"Even if it is a heart attack, the recent situation in England with the deteriorating relations with Russia has led people to be suspicious even when there aren't any grounds to be suspicious," Natasha Chouvaeva, editor of the Russian-language newspaper London Courier, said of Mr. Patarkatsishvili's death.

In a strange twist, Mr. Lugovoi provided security for Mr. Patarkatsishvili and his businesses for 13 years.
The Imedi media network which was controlled by Patarkatsishvili and Newscorp is now the target of predators. It ceased news broadcasts in January of 2008.
According to Nina Ognianova, the program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the questions surrounding Imedi’s ownership highlight a particularly troubling aspect to Georgia’s media market.

"What is currently not available in Georgia is the transparency of who the owners are, what their interests are. There is a lot of speculation about who is who and what their real stake is in these stations and wherever there is a lot of rumor, there is a lot of room for speculation," she told EurasiaNet in a telephone interview.
And yet the media in Georgia has been hailed as a model for other former Soviet states. Well, I don't think we'll be hearing much more about that for a while.

In another twist, a US lawyer has just been jailed in Belarus:
Emmanuel Zeltser's sentencing Monday comes after being convicted at a closed trial for commercial espionage and using false documents. He is an expert on organized crime and money laundering.
The common thread in both these stories is self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (photo above), who says his "dear friend" Patarkatsishvili complained to him of heart problems when they met just last week.

Yeah, I bet he did.

What's interesting is how these guys like Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili are on side with the UK government in all this. Guess who is representing Patarkatsishvili's widow in court? Lord Goldsmith, Tony Blair's former Attorney General, the man who famously changed his mind about whether it was illegal to invade Iraq.

This plot has lots of twists:
Emanuel Zeltser, who once testified on Capitol Hill about the Russian mob, is a key character in a wrangle over the $12billion (£6billion) fortune of a Georgian oligarch found dead at his country home in Surrey. He was arrested after flying to Belarus and accused of possessing false documents. According to Amnesty International, he has been tortured in custody.

Quite how Mr Zeltser ended up in Belarus is a mystery. The lawyer flew there on a private aircraft owned by the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky - even though Mr Zeltser and Mr Berezovsky are on opposite sides in the fight for the fortune of the dead Georgian, Arkadi Patarkatsishvili.

A law firm representing Mr Berezovsky had already tipped off the authorities in Minsk that the lawyer might be carrying bogus material on his laptop. Lord Goldsmith, now a private lawyer and representing Mr Patarkatsishvili's widow in the case, e-mailed the Belarus ProsecutorGeneral's office to support its investigation of Mr Zeltser and offering to swap information.
UPDATE: I have seen a few reports that Patarkatsishvili died back in February, which is strange. My first link above is from the Dallas News via Associated Press, dated Wednesday, August 13 and saying he dies "last Tuesday". But Wikipedia cites Feb 12, 2008 as the actual death date, with lots of solid news links to back it up:
"Patarkatsishvili, aged 52, collapsed at Downside Manor, his mansion in Leatherhead, Surrey, England on February 12, 2008 at 10.45 pm. Ambulance crew members tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate the businessman, who was pronounced dead at 10.52 pm.[1] As in any other case of unexpected death, Surrey police treated the case as "suspicious" and launched an official investigation.[25]

The businessman spent his last day in the City of London office of international law firm Debevoise and Plimpton, meeting his business partner Boris Berezovsky, his spokesperson Lord Bell and his lawyer Lord Goldsmith QC, as well as fellow exiles, the Russians Nikolai Glushkov and Yuli Dubov [26] From the City he left for Down Street, Mayfair, to visit Berezovsky's office, and at 7.00 pm was returned to Leatherhead with his Maybach. Shortly after dining, Patarkatsishvili told his family he felt unwell and went upstairs to his bedroom where he was found unconscious after a heart attack."
Is this just crap reporting from AP again? Looks like it.
London Lite was first newspaper to inform the British public of the Georgian oligarch's death on the evening of 13 February 2008. In the news of 14 February 2008, Patarkatsishvili's death was covered in The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, etc.
Is the US media just catching up with the British press, six months later? I notice a few other Texas papers ran the misleading AP story last week, following Zeltser's arrest, but maybe it's all a bit too exotic for other US media players.

The Wikipedia entry on Imedi media doesn't give much more clues on Murdoch's involvement. Georgian politics and business are very secretive affairs, as is Murdoch's involvement in geopolitics. The whole thing is very shady indeed.