Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich paid $2bn (£1.3bn) to fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky for his services as a political “godfather” in the turbulent years after the collapse of communism, Abramovich’s lawyer has disclosed.
The two former allies are trading legal blows at the high court in London, where Berezovsky is suing Abramovich for £3.2bn. Berezovsky, who lives in self-imposed exile in Britain, claims Abramovich intimidated him into selling shares in the Russian oil company Sibneft at a fraction of their value. He alleges breach of trust and breach of contract.
Abramovich’s lawyer, Jonathan Sumption, denied the allegation on Tuesday , saying that in corrupt and chaotic post-Soviet Russia, Berezovsky was a “powerbroker” to whom Abramovich’s businesses paid large sums for patronage.
Sumption said that in Russia at the time, “there was no rule of law”. “The police were corrupt. The courts were unpredictable at best … Nobody could go into business without access to political power. If you didn’t have political power yourself, you needed access to a godfather who did.”
Sumption said the two men had agreed that “for substantial cash payments”, Abramovich and Sibneft would enjoy Berezovsky’s political patronage.
He said that between 1995 and 2002, Berezovsky, then a media mogul, received $2bn from Abramovich’s businesses, as well as money for personal expenses, including “palaces in France”, private planes, works of art and jewellery.
But he said Berezovsky did not put money into Sibneft, which was created during the breakup of Russia’s state-owned businesses, and he was not the registered owner of its shares.
“His contribution was important, indeed it was indispensable,” said Sumption. “But it was almost entirely political.”
Berezovsky, a Kremlin insider during the rule of Boris Yeltsin, fled to Britain after Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000. He has since been a vocal critic of the Kremlin.
Berezovsky’s lawyer, Laurence Rabinowitz, had said on Monday that relations between the two oligarchs turned sour after Berezovsky fell out with Russia’s political leaders.
He claimed that Abramovich then betrayed him in return for wealth and influence.
“It is our case that Mr Abramovich at that point demonstrated that he was a man to whom wealth and influence mattered more than friendship and loyalty,” he said.
Abramovich sold Sibneft to Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom in a multibillion-dollar deal in 2005. He has owned Chelsea football club since 2003.
The court case between the two men is expected to last two months.