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Russian Tycoon Berezovsky Faces Wide Array of Charges

A court in Moscow has begun a trial in absentia for exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky on charges he embezzled more than $8 million from Aeroflot Airlines. VOA Moscow correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines the wide array of allegations against Berezovsky.

Boris Berezovsky says the airline embezzlement charges are a farce, and he has ordered his defense attorneys not to participate in the Moscow trial. A public defender will be appointed to represent Berezovsky, a Kremlin critic and exile who lives in London. He became a billionaire in the 1990s during the post-Soviet privatization of state industries.

On Monday, Berezovsky's attorney said Russian state security, the FSB, also accused his client of plotting to overthrow Russia's government. And the country's media are repeating various recent allegations against Berezovsky made by Vyacheslav Zharko, a Russian citizen who claims the tycoon tried to recruit him as a spy on behalf of Britain's intelligence service.

Zharko also accuses Berezovsky of helping finance the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and working with Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who was poisoned in November with radioactive polonium.

Zharko suggests that Litvinenko himself acquired polonium with the intention of killing President Putin.

In addition, Zharko charges that Litvinenko, and by implication Berezovsky, cooperated with Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus.

Andrei Kortunov, the president of the Russian Scientific Foundation political research organization in Moscow, says the broad range of charges is difficult to believe.

Kortunov says it is difficult to imagine effective cooperation between Islamic terrorists and liberals in Ukraine, because the two have such fundamentally different orientations.

But Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of another Moscow think tank, the Politika Foundation, considers Berezovsky to be, as he puts is, a crook (prokhodimets) of international proportions.

Nikonov says the tycoon has left a trail of scandal and death. He adds that Alexander Litvinenko was part of what he calls Berezovsky's fan club.

Kortunov says there is no sound basis for suspecting Berezovsky of so much criminality, but he concedes the exiled tycoon poses a political problem for the Kremlin.

Kortunov says Berezovsky is able to provoke anti-Russian sentiment in the West and to some extent discredit Russia's political leadership. For that reason, says Kortunov, the tycoon makes the Kremlin uncomfortable and that is why the leadership is fighting him.

The British government granted Berezovsky political asylum in 2003. It has charged Andrei Lugovoi, also a former KGB agent, with the poisoning death of Litvinenko and has demanded Lugovoi's extradition so he can stand trial in Britain.

The Kremlin has refused, and bilateral relations have suffered as both sides accuse one another of harboring criminals. Vyacheslav Nikonov says that is a British tradition.

Nikonov says that Lenin, Trotsky, and various Socialist Revolutionary terrorists wanted by the czarist rulers lived freely in Britain. He says Britain did not extradite those people, because it considered them freedom fighters.

Political analyst Andrei Kortunov says what he calls smart officials both in Britain and Russia are trying to minimize the damage to British-Russian relations caused by these cases.