x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Russian oligarchs Abramovich and Berezovsky in $2bn London High Court battle

Berezovsky is to argue in the High Court in London that Abramovich threatened a decade ago that unless Berezovsky sold Abramovich his stakes in the Russian oil company Sibneft and the aluminium company Rusal, Abramovich would get Putin to expropriate the shares on behalf of the state.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is accused by Boris Berezovsky of forcing Berezovsky into a deal to sell two companies at vastly less than their real value. AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is accused by Boris Berezovsky of forcing Berezovsky into a deal to sell two companies at vastly less than their real value. AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA

LONDON // Two Russian oligarchs will clash in the High Court in London this week over alleged threats that led to the sale of a stake in an oil company for a US$3 billion loss.

The battle of the billionaires will feature two former friends and business partners who have now become sworn enemies: Boris Berezovsky, 65, an opponent of Vladimir Putin living in exile in London, and Roman Abramovich, 44, the owner of Chelsea Football Club and allegedly a Kremlin favourite.

At the heart of the court case, which is expected to last three months, is a claim by Mr Berezovsky that Mr Abramovich coerced him into selling him his 21.5 per cent stake in the Russian oil company Sibneft for the knockdown price of $1.2bn (Dh4.4bn).

According to Addleshaw Goddard, Mr Berezovsky's lawyers, Mr Abramovich threatened a decade ago that unless Mr Berezovsky sold him his stakes in both Sibneft and the Russian aluminium company Rusal, he would get then-president Mr Putin to expropriate the shares on behalf of the state.

Mr Berezovsky, who has been granted political asylum in Britain after fleeing Russia 11 years ago after falling out with Mr Putin and facing embezzlement charges, which he denies, is claiming $3bn damages in relation to the Sibneft shares and $650 million for the stake in Rusal.

The case, which was launched five years ago and is already estimated to have cost both men millions in legal fees, is finally coming to court after Mr Abramovich's lawyers failed in their final attempt to have it thrown out this year.

Mr Berezovsky only succeeded in serving the writ on Mr Abramovich, claiming breach of trust and breach of fiduciary claims, in 2007, when the pair scuffled in Sloane Square in central London after a private investigator had tracked down the reclusive Chelsea FC owner.

The judge, Sir Anthony Colman, ordering in April that the case should go ahead, said that while some of Mr Berezovsky's case appeared weak, "I am satisfied that it is impossible to say that this claim has no real prospect of success."

Much is expected to hinge on a meeting in December 2000 attended by both billionaires at a seaside chateau that Mr Berezovsky used to own at Cap d'Antibes on the French Riviera.

It was at this meeting, which was also attended by Mr Berezovsky's friend and business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili, that the three billionaires met to sort out their complex business arrangements regarding the two companies, according to Mr Berezovsky's claim.

Lawyers for Mr Abramovich, however, have since maintained in court hearings that Mr Berezovsky never had an interest in either Sibneft or Rusal.

Mr Berezovsky, who now lives in a mansion just outside London patrolled by ex-French Foreign Legion security guards, told The Sunday Times at the weekend that the case was primarily about the huge sums of money involved.

"But," he added, "it's also about the fact that I will not accept intimidation. I have full confidence in the British system and, whatever the outcome, I'll feel I had a fair hearing.

"Abramovich likes to portray himself as a world-class businessman. Then he should have nothing to fear answering questions before a world-class court. I am very much looking forward to my day on the stand."

dsapsted@thenational.ae