Battle of the Oligarchs: Russian Exile Seeks Billions from Former Business Partner

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Exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, right, leaves a division of the High Court, in central London October 3, 2011. (Photo: Luke MacGregor / Reuters)

Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch sitting on an estimated fortune of $16 billion, “betrayed and blackmailed” his erstwhile mentor, coercing him to sell his stake in a Russian oil company at a fraction of its value, a High Court in London heard this morning.

Boris Berezovsky, once one of Russia’s most influential oligarchs, says his former protegé forced him to make the sale after Berezovsky fled Russia as a political exile in 2000. He is alleging breach of trust and breach of contract, and is seeking more than $5.5 billion in damages.

Today in court Berezovsky, whose status and fortunes rose under Boris Yeltsin and waned under Vladimir Putin, centered his allegations around the acquisition of Sibneft, an oil and gas company acquired by the two men at the end of 1995 during the privatization of the Russian energy sector. In his opening remarks Laurence Rabinowitz, Berezovsky’s attorney, described how Berezovsky, now 65, and Abramovich, 44, worked together to acquire the firm, which “would make them wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most people.”

“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.” Putin allegedly came to resent Berezovsky after a television channel owned by the oligarch aired highly critical reports of the explosion that sank a Russian submarine in 2000, killing more than 100 crew members. (Berezovsky remains one of Putin’s most outspoken critics.)

It was at this point, the prosecution says, that Abramovich had a choice: remain loyal to his friend and mentor and the man to whom he owed his newly acquired wealth or seek profits from his troubles. “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.” Berezovsky maintains that Abramovich told him the Russian government—to which Berezovsky was now an enemy—would seize his shares if he didn’t agree to sell them. Abramovich purchased Berezovsky’s stake for $1.3 billion—resulting in a trading loss of around $5 billion. Abramovich, who now owns the Chelsea Football Club, sold the company to state-run OAO Gazprom for $13.1 billion in 2005.

Abramovich, an orphan from Siberia who is now the third richest man in Britain, denies all allegations. He is expected to testify at some point during the 15-week trial, which threatens to expose the extent of his ties to the Kremlin.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.