Giving evidence for the second day in his court battle with Berezovsky, Abramovich conceded he owned a string of luxury properties. They include a multimillion pound chateau in France, once belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor; a 420-acre estate in West Sussex, Fyning Hill; and a “large and expensive central London” home, in Lowndes Square, Knightsbridge.
Berezovsky is suing Abramovich for more than $5bn. He claims the Chelsea FC owner betrayed him when he fell out with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin in 2000. Berezovsky says he was forced to sell his interests in the Russian oil company Sibneft at a huge undervaluation. Abramovich denies the claim.
In his witness statement Abramovich – whose fortune is put at $13.4bn – says he was surprised at Berezovsky’s “extravagant lifestyle” in the 1990s, asserting he was “never interested in imitating this”. Berezovsky’s barrister, Laurence Rabinowitz QC, suggested Abramovich’s statement was untrue. Asked whether he had an extravagant lifestyle, the billionaire tycoon replied: “Well, yes, possibly. I agree, yes, that one could put it that way.”
He implied this only become a reality after he bought the football club in 2003, turning him into a global celebrity.
“I think that when I bought Chelsea football club, that did impact my way of life significantly. It was a turning point really,” Abramovich, speaking in Russian, told the high court. He denied having an interest in any other football club, including CSKA Moscow, to which he has previously been linked.
Abramovich claims he and Berezovsky were never business partners. Instead, he says, he paid Berezovsky huge sums of money totalling $2.5bn in return for political and lobbying services inside then President Boris Yeltsin’s government. On Tuesday he acknowledged he and Berezovsky had been friends – but not close friends.
Rabinowitz suggested that their relationship went well beyond that of “protector” and “protectee”, and that they were intimate business partners. He said Abramovich’s then wife Irina and Berezovsky’s girlfriend Elena Gorbunova were good friends, and that the two families frequently spent time together.
Abramovich admitted that between 1995 and 1998 – while Berezovsky was still an enormously influential figure, and before he decamped to Britain – they had spent eight holidays together, often involving luxury yachts. There were cruises in Spain (twice), Sardinia and Corsica. There was also a new year break in 1996/1997 in the Caribbean. Rabinowitz also accused Abramovich of an “unjustified smear” against his client by implying that Berezovsky was involved with Chechen gangsters and terrorists. In his statement Abramovich says Berezovsky acted as a “krysha” — the word means roof in Russian – guaranteeing both political and “physical protection”.
The QC reeled off a list of prominent Chechens active in Russian political life. They included Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s chief ideologue and powerful eminence grise, whose father is Chechen. “Do you say he is a gangster?” Rabinowitz asked. “No, I wouldn’t call Surkov a gangster,” Abramovich replied.
The case continues.