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It has taken almost a decade, much of it filled with intrigue, to settle outstanding questions over the estate of a multibillionaire once considered the wealthiest man in Georgia.by Claudia Harmata 13 November 2017
A secret marriage, suspected forgery, an alleged private-jet kidnapping, and one of the largest estates battles in legal history ─ Badri Patarkatsishvili’s death in 2008 left a legacy fit for movie screens. Just last year in December 2016, eight years after his death, another case in the estates battle was finally settled.
Patarkatsishvili was a Georgian oligarch, born in Tbilisi in 1953. He became the wealthiest man in Georgia, acquiring a fortune estimated at $12 billion ─ but his path to this fortune was veiled with speculation of corruption, as TOL reported in 2004.
His fortune was made in Russia, after his family moved to Moscow in the late 1980s. It was in Russia where he met his best friend and future business partner, Boris Berezovsky – one of the most powerful Russian oligarchs in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Patarkatsishvili joined Berezovksy’s company called LogoVaz, which made its first big profit importing used cars from West Germany. By 1993, together they came to own Avtovaz, a Soviet car manufacturer, Vanity Fair reported in 2009.
This was just the beginning of their extensive business ventures together, but also the beginning of a very close friendship – both men agreeing to split their fortunes equally. Within a decade they would control an astonishing amount of formerly state-owned companies, becoming billionaires and acting as a shadow government, influencing and exploiting the government behind the scenes during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. When Vladimir Putin came into power, he turned on many of the oligarchs, warning them to stay out of politics. Patarkatsishvili fled Russia in 2000, along with Berezovsky – Patarkatsishvili returning to Georgia and Berezovksy settling in London.
Exile did not suit Berezovsky, who became Putin’s loudest critic. As a result of his ties to his outspoken partner, Patarkatsishvili’s business ventures suffered. For this reason, in 2006, the duo publicly announced their financial divorce, with Patarkatsishvili buying out Berezovsky’s share of their business with payments made over three years. Still, feeling pressure under Putin’s regime, Patarkatsishvili fled back to his native Georgia. He initially backed then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, but the two later became bitter enemies, with Patarkatsishvili siding with the opposition, according to The Guardian. He even ran for president against Saakashvili, garnering just seven percent of the vote.
Just a month after the elections, Patarkatsishvili collapsed in his mansion, Downside Manor, in England. An autopsy confirmed his death was caused by a heart attack, but some of his allies speculated of an assassination since Patarkatsishvili had a few months earlier claimed that Chechens were after him. Earlier that year, Georgia’s former defense minister had even claimed in a TV interview that Saakashvili ordered him to have Patarkatsishvili killed – a claim that Saakashvili denied.
Hardly the End of the Story
Shortly after Patarkatsishvili’s death, Joseph Kay and Emanuel Zeltser came to pay their respects ─ but that wasn’t the only purpose of their visit. Kay, a Georgian American, was Patarkatsishvili’s half-cousin and trusted business adviser. He began working for Patarkatsishvili in the 1990s, and when Patarkatsishvili’s businesses were in trouble because of Berezovsky’s political feuds with Putin, Patarkatsishvili started to put several of his holdings and assets into bank accounts under Kay’s name.
Zeltser was Patarkatsishvili’s lawyer, and said he possessed the late billionaire’s last will and testament – to the confusion of his wife Inna, who said her husband had never mentioned he had a lawyer named Zeltser. Zeltser told Inna that the will gave him and Kay full control over the disposition of the estate. Inna was then told that she would inherit a significant part of the estate, but that her late husband had a secret wife and son in Moscow, who would also inherit parts as well. Within a week, Zeltser and Kay were in possession of Patarkatsishvili’s Georgian television station, Imedi, and soon Fisher Island – a 216-acre island off the coast of Miami, Florida – according to Vanity Fair.
Friends and family were horrified, and believed the will produced by Zeltser and Kay was fake. According to both of them, Patarkatsishvili had signed the document on 14 November in New York, with Zeltser’s secretary Vladlena Funk as one of the official witnesses. Funk reportedly told Vanity Fair that Patarkatsishvili chose Kay to be his executor out of fear that Inna would cut his other wife out of the inheritance – he wanted both families to be secure.
Conflict arose when Berezovsky realized Patarkatsishvili had not mentioned him in the will at all, even after the longtime agreement of splitting their wealth in half. He claimed that their “divorce” was only a ruse in order to free Patarkatsishvili from business harassment by Russian authorities, and that nothing had actually changed. The problem, however, was that he had no written proof of this agreement.
Just one month after Patarkatsishvili’s death, both Zeltser and Funk were arrested in Minsk, Belarus. The evening before, they had dined with Berezovsky, later taking his jet to Minsk where they were arrested upon arrival and charged with industrial espionage and forgery. They were convicted in a closed trial that Berezovsky testified in. It turned out that a week before their arrest, Berezovsky’s lawyer had written a letter to the prosecutor general of Belarus, alleging that Zeltser and Funk were attempting to gain unlawful access to Patarkatsishvili’s estate.
The two would later claim that they had been drugged in London by the Belarusian KGB, in cahoots with Berozovsky, and put on his jet against their wishes. Berezovsky denied these allegations and said they were a complete fabrication.
The court cases to follow, over Patarkatsishvili’s estates, spanned multiple cities – including London, New York, Tbilisi, Moscow, and Gibraltar. Berezovsky took Inna to court over his claim to half of Patarkatsishvili’s estate, which was settled in 2012, the agreement remaining confidential, reported the Financial Times. This settlement came shortly after Berezovsky’s loss against Roman Abramovich in a court battle over a contract they had in regards to a Russian aluminum company. Patarkatsishvili was Berezovksy’s leading witness in the case before he died.
The most recent settlement in the battle over Patarkatsishvili’s estates was settled in December 2016, between Patarkatsishvili’s family and Vano Chkhartishvili, a Georgian millionaire, Georgia Today reported. The case involved a number of assets in Georgia – including high-profile real estate. Chkhartishvili won every trial against the Patarkatsishvili family, ending the dispute that was started in 2012 over the Black Sea terminal of Kulevi, Dispatch Weekly reported. Inna claimed that Patarkatsishvili owned the terminal and Chkhartishvili was entrusted to hold the shares for him – however a statement later revealed that the family admitted they did not, in fact, own these shares.
No recent news has surfaced of any ongoing struggles over Patarkatsishvili’s estate. Outsiders can only wonder whether more claims will appear, or whether the players have simply finally exhausted their efforts and all legal remedies. What is clear is that Patarkatsishvili’s death left his friends and family devastated and confused – pitting them against one another in a manner fit for a spy novel about financial intrigue across the successor states of the former Soviet Union.
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