"There are no coincidences” is one of those untraceable quotes.
As untraceable as the possible connections among deaths of at least three prominent Russians – and enemies of the Kremlin -- in Britain in less than a decade.
British media and security experts are asking whether that’s too many to put down as mere accidents of fate. Or the work of Russian hit squads playing out political or financial feuds on the highways and byways of Britain.
Boris Berezovsky, a brilliant mathematician-turned-Russian official-turned oligarch – was found dead in his locked bathroom Saturday in a secluded Berkshire mansion. The police said there was “no evidence of third party involvement” and suicide was suspected. The autopsy results are pending.
Some friends say Berezovsky was deeply despondent after losing most of his vast fortune in a $5 billion legal grudge-fest with fellow mogul Roman Abramovich and receiving a humiliating tongue-lashing from the judge.
His $53 million bill for legal costs was followed by a claim for $7.6 million in compensation from his former girlfriend over a house sale. The onetime billionaire was said to be worried about supporting his six children.
But Berezovsky was under charges of fraud, money-laundering and political manipulation in Russia, and British police warned him six years ago of an assassination plot against him.
He was also an associate of 52-year-old Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili, who died in his own mansion in southern England in 2008 – of apparent heart failure – after hiring bodyguards to protect him against an attack.
And coincidentally (or not) Berezovsky was a friend and supporter of Alexander Litvenenko, a renegade former KGB agent who met a grisly death in a London hospital in 2006, poisoned by radioactive polonium.
British investigators suspect former KGB officer and Russian politician Andrei Lugovoi, who denies the charge and is protected by parliamentary immunity. An inquest will be held in London this fall.
But last November, another mysterious death, in a leafy London suburb, started the conspiracy wheels turning again in Moscow’s direction.
Alexander Perepilichny, a wealthy 44-year-old asset manager as retiring as Berezovsky was flamboyant, would never have made headlines in Hello magazine. But he also ran afoul of the Kremlin when he found, to his shock, that Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky had died in prison after alerting the authorities to a massive alleged tax fraud reaching up to senior levels of government.
Realizing that some of his clients might be involved in the scheme, Perepilichny took a large sum of money and ran to Britain with his family in 2009. He opened the books on Swiss bank accounts, which were sent to the Swiss police, and an investigation spread to six countries, with the suspects’ bank accounts being frozen.
Death threats followed. Although his home was heavily guarded, Perepilichny died at the roadside while on an early morning jog. Autopsy results were “inconclusive,” and police toxicology reports are due this month.
Another “coincidence:” a suspect in the Litvenenko murder is said to have launched legal action against Perepilichny for “failing to pay back debts,” according to the Guardian.
Five others allegedly linked to the Magnitsky investigation of tax fraud -- and a network of allegedly corrupt officials and criminals -- have died in Russia since the late tax lawyer began his probe. One was said to have fallen off a building while “his heart felt poorly.”
Are these coincidences, or a web too tangled to be unwoven in a court of law?
Here’s a last word from acerbic Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, in Laughter in the Dark: “A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish - but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
Olivia Ward was bureau chief in Moscow in the 1990s. She has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia, winning both national and international awards.