Two of Britain’s most famous oligarchs – political exile Boris Berezovsky and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich – have clashed in the high court in a sensational case that is likely to set a record for privately-funded litigation in the UK.
The court heard claims that Abramovich blackmailed and betrayed Berezovsky, his former mentor, and put wealth and influence above loyalty and friendship. Berezovsky says Abramovich intimidated him into selling shares in the Russian oil company Sibnet at a fraction of their real value.
Berezovsky is claiming more than £3.2bn ($5bn) in damages from Abramovich over the Sibneft deal, his barrister, Laurence Rabinowitz QC, said, opening the 12-week trial. Berezovsky – who fled Russia in 2000 after falling out with President Vladimir Putin – also wants £363m ($564m) in compensation for another deal involving the Russian aluminium giant Rusal.
The case was taking place in the new Rolls building of the commercial court in London’s Fetter Lane, before Mrs Justice Gloster.
Both Russians sat at opposite ends of the packed courtroom. They arrived separately, looking relaxed. Abramovich listened to the proceedings in Russian via headphones. Their respective entourages included bodyguards wearing dark glasses, numerous legal assistants and friends.
Rabinowitz told the judge that both men had worked together to create Sibneft in 1995 and became friends. He said Berezovsky had been betrayed after falling out with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and leaving Moscow for Britain in October 2000. “This is a case about two men who – and this is common ground – worked together to acquire an asset – that is Sibneft – that would make them wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most people,” said Rabinowitz.
“In the process, we say, [they] became and remained good friends until, that is, Mr Berezovsky, who had adopted a high political profile in Russia, not least through his control of certain media outlets, fell out with those in power in the Kremlin and was forced to leave his home and create a new life abroad.”
He said Abramovich was left with the choice of remaining loyal or betraying Berezovsky and seeking “to profit from his difficulties”.
Abramovich had made threats that Berezovsky’s interests in Sibneft would be expropriated “by those in the Kremlin led by Mr Putin who regarded Mr Berezovsky as an enemy”, the court heard. Berezovsky had no choice but to sell at a knock-down price, said Rabinowitz.
He added: “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 and this has led him, finally, to go so far as to even deny that he and Mr Berezovsky were actually ever friends.”