Paranoid? Quite possibly, but it’s the price of survival
Wealthy Russians have moved to the Home Counties not to indulge a love of golf but to find shelter from what they see as predatory tax authorities, intrusive secret policemen, politicised courts and the infighting of the business caste that had a habit of turning nasty.
The high walls of gated communities in Surrey or the reassuring proximity of Windsor Great Park have not taken away the fear, however. Some assassination plots are imagined, others are real but botched. And, sometimes, a rich man drops dead in Leatherhead or Weybridge, far away from home.
The sudden death of Alexander Perepilichny, 44, and the apparent heart failure of Badri Patarkatsishvili, 52, the Georgian entrepreneur, may not have been hits — but suspicions linger on. There are too many scores being settled, too many open feuds between Russia and the exiled Russians of Britain, to have blind faith in an innocent death.
When German Gorbuntsov, 45, a banker, was shot in Canary Wharf in March it seemed to some Russians that to be paranoid was to be in full possession of the facts. He survived — but it appeared to demonstrate the deadly reach of Russian vengeance.
One explanation for the shooting was that Mr Gorbuntsov knew too much about another gun attack, on Alexander Antonov, also a banker (whose son Vladimir once owned Portsmouth FC). “If I go back to Russia they will kill me,” said Mr Gorbuntsov, tapping into the primal anxiety of the exiled Russian.
What was striking, though, is that the shooting did not fall into the mould of Russianlinked violence in Britain; it resembled, rather, the hits in Russia in the wild privatisation phase in the 1990s. Since the end of the Cold War, kill-ings have tended to be spillovers from the North or South Caucasus, with hardened Chechens being high up on the Home Office watchlist. They are often linked, albeit in a spidery way, with threats to the businessman Boris Berezovsky, who was given asylum in 2003 after surviving an assassination attempt in Moscow in 1994. His Mercedes blew up, decapitating his driver. Having had his television interests stripped from him, he was plainly seen as an enemy by the Kremlin. His funding of opposition groups, his open hostility to Vladimir Putin and the refusal of the British authorities to extradite him to Russia made him and those around him an open target.
Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in a sushi bar with radioactive material in 2006, was a close associate; a member of what the Russian press calls the “London Circle”. In 2007, a Chechen hitman appears to have travelled to London with the intent of killing Mr Berezovsky. In March this year, MI5 warned Akhmed Zakayev, the exiled former Prime Minister of Chechnya, that he had been selected as a target. He was a friend of Mr Litvinenko.
Even Mr Patarkatsishvili had once been a close business associate of Mr Berezovsky.
Mr Berezovsky has been demonised by the Kremlin. A police colonel arrested this year for participating in the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and Putin critic, told his interrogators that Mr Berezovsky and Mr Zakayev were behind the murder. Naturally the tycoon and Mr Zakayev dismissed the claim. And naturally the Kremlin pooh-poohs as propaganda the possibility that anyone has been gunning for the London Circle.
Yet there is a great deal of venom in official Moscow about the businessmen.
It prefers oligarchs to collect football teams, pamper their wives and count their billions.
The Russian Embassy in London points out that there have been no registered cases of murdered Russian citizens in the UK for five years. Sure enough, the great bulk of wealthy exiles live a peaceful existence, using London as a trading base, investing in property and art, sending their children to expensive schools. The source of their wealth may sometimes be a little murky but the Russian mafia label is a cliché. The violence and the dark vendettas function at a different level, and with varying degrees of intensity.
Russia watchers believe that the moves in both the US and Britain to name about 60 Russians on the so-called Magnitsky list may bring new tensions. The names include very senior officials in the judiciary and the secret police, including at least one that has made a career in the Kremlin, who are in some way implicated in the death of the whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. They will have their assets frozen and are likely to face a travel ban but most of all they will be brought out of the shadows. Mr Perepilichny, the “supergrass”, knew some of them.