London’s Russian Tycoon Trial: How Boris Berezovsky Has Already Triumphed

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Olivia Harris / Reuters

Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea football club Roman Abramovich arrives at Commercial Court in London, January 19, 2012.

Roman Abramovich recently threw an $8 million New Year’s Eve party. He once dropped $86 million on a Francis Bacon painting. And he owns a $90 million vacation home in St. Bart’s. That’s in addition to his chateau on the French Riviera, his 540-ft. yacht with two helipads, and England’s Chelsea Football Club, which he purchased in 2003. So when the Russian oligarch entered a London court earlier this week wearing a $140 wristwatch rather than a Rolex, it was only natural the British media wondered aloud if the former rubber duck salesman was watching his roubles.

He just might be. Over the past four months Abramovich has endured a relentless assault on his character and his lifestyle as the defendant in a $6 billion lawsuit launched by his erstwhile mentor Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky—whose influence in Russia rose under Boris Yeltsin and waned under Vladimir Putin—has accused Abramovich of intimidating him into selling his stake in the oil firm Sibneft at a bargain-barrel price, resulting in a multi-billion dollar trading loss. It’s estimated that the two men have spent more than $150 million on court costs thus far.

(SEE: Photos and testimony of prominent Russian dissidents.)

The four-month legal battle between two of the richest men to emerge from the former Soviet Union has provided plenty of tabloid fodder since it kicked off in October. Housed in the brand new, $460 million Rolls Court Building, the trial has exposed the murky underbelly of business in post-Soviet Russia, when Yeltsin traded state-run assets to oligarchs in exchange for their political support. Each morning paparazzi cameras flashed as the oligarchs made their way into the building. Fragrant Russian women in sunglasses flanked the oligarchs and their hangers-on. They were all surrounded by bodyguards, who, with their earpieces and square jaws, resembled walking television sets.

Stefan Wermuth / Reuters

Berezovsky, a famed Soviet mathematician turned businessman, has relished the attention. Since fleeing Russia as a political exile in 2000, he’s been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and has largely integrated into British society. In the courtroom, he frequently wore a red poppy—a British emblem honoring the armed forces who have died in the line of duty—and spoke proficient, if not completely perfect, English. He admitted that Abramovich was “good at getting people to like him and good at psychology,” but insisted that Abramovich—a former orphan turned tycoon—was “not so smart.” At one point Berezovsky revealed that he had promised two of his key witnesses 1% of any winnings in the case. But when challenged a day later by Abramovich’s lawyers he backed down. “As far as witnesses is concerned, nobody [has a financial stake in the outcome of my case], because it’s bribing of the witnesses, as I understand it.”

Abramovich, on the other hand, shies away from media attention and has rarely spoken in public. During the trial it became very clear, very fast that he speaks next to no English. He spoke through a Russian interpreter and answered most of his questions with just one word: Da. He denied that Berezovsky was a mentor and says he is not entitled to dividends from Sibneft because he was never an owner. He explained that he paid Berezovsky $2.5 billion to act as a political godfather and to protect him from criminal gangs. “And still this is not enough for him,” Abramovich said. “I am disappointed and surprised that he additionally asserts a legal claim to a significant further portion of my wealth.” He described Berezovsky as “something of a megalomaniac.”

Throughout the case Ambramovich’s team tried to downplay his lavish lifestyle. In written evidence, he expressed bemusement over a series of media reports. Among other things, he denied that he once spent $47,000 on lunch; that he once purchased a café in Rome after popping in for a coffee; that he bought an $870 million plane with a missile defense system; and that he commissioned a submarine that could withstand nuclear war.

Regardless of the outcome, Berezovsky may already have won. By exposing the backroom deals and Wild West atmosphere of doing business in Russia, he’s undermined his sworn enemy Vladimir Putin. “This lawsuit is a public relations nightmare for Putin and his country,” says Edward Mermelstein, an international lawyer and an authority on commercial deals in Russia and Ukraine. “The financial aspect is not as material here as is the press that is being generated. It puts all of the Russian government and its business people in a bad light.” The fact that Berezovsky chose to launch his case in Britain rather than Russia—where he says he could never get a fair hearing—only adds insult to injury.

Berezovsky, of course, has had to absorb a few blows himself. Witnesses testifying for Abramovich accused Berezovsky of having connections with organized crime in Chechnya. More bizarrely, another witness depicted him as a looney tune who showed up to a meeting at a five-star hotel wearing a nightgown. Berezovsky’s lawyers described that as “pure invention” meant to portray him as a godfather figure rather than a businessman. But Berezovsky is used to it. “He has been demonized for the last 10 years in Russia and he’s seen as a pariah there,” Mermelstein says. “He’s comfortable being the bad guy in all of this.” For Abramovich, who remains firmly in the Kremlin’s inner circle, it’s riskier to be at the center of mudslinging, as it could affect his relationship with Moscow’s leadership. “Abramovich is Russia’s white knight. Russia can’t afford for Abramovich to be presented in a bad light. He’s really a reflection of what surrounds the Kremlin.”

Ambramovich now has plenty of time to mull over the effects of Berezovsky’s legal proceedings on his reputation and his standing with Russia: a decision is not expected for several months.

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.