Berezovsky v Abramovich is coming soon to a courtroom near you and their louche feud reveals a great deal about the state of Russia today, says Andrei Navrozov
Berezovsky v Abramovich is coming soon to a courtroom near you — and their louche feud reveals a great deal about the state of Russia today, says Andrei Navrozov
ON A FINE morning in autumn a couple of years ago, a ginger-haired gentleman of slight demeanour approached the Hermès in Sloane Street, followed by a group of burly fellows with earpieces whom an alert shop assistant immediately identified as the oligarch’s bodyguards.
History records that this was the day before Putin’s birthday, and rumour follows history by speculating that the Russian was in Hermès to pick out a suitably tasteful gift for his country’s strongman, il capo dei tutti capi, the oligarchs’ justiciar.
What happened next is pure Restoration comedy. Another Russian’s bodyguards had picked up the scent of their own kind, and moments later Boris Berezovsky, subpoena in hand, was watching a tug of war over the shop door handle between his bodyguards and those of Roman Abramovich.
Berezovsky’s prevailed, and a smiling Berezovsky thrust the writ into Abramovich’s hand. The indignant oligarch threw it to the floor, but it was too late. An hour later Berezovsky’s lawyers were collecting the Hermès security camera footage as evidence that service had taken place.
Berezovsky had been trying to serve the writ on Abramovich for months, but until that eventful October day in 2007 the wily oligarch evaded him. Abramovich’s bodyguards had been instructed to beware Greeks et subpoena ferentis, and he even stopped attending the gym of his Chelsea football club for fear that a Berezovsky envoy might lurk on the premises. This winter, after months of stonewalling by Abramovich’s legal team, the nearly 20-year saga Berezovsky v Abramovich will finally be heard in an English court.
This is a tale of two Russian presents, as symbolised by Abramovich’s bauble from Hermès and Berezovsky’s surprise from the Commercial Court in the Queen’s Bench Division, or — to be more precise — of two very different versions of Russia’s present. One is incompatible with liberty or justice, relies on conspiracy and force, and seeks to twist the truth of history as if it were the arm of a political dissident.
The other envisions an open Russia, socially and politically within the European mainstream, and regards British law and Westminster democracy as the great benchmarks of civilisation’s millennial discourse.
BEREZOVSKY IS DEMANDING $4 billion from his associate. In essence the case comes down to the claim that Abramovich, with the connivance of Putin’s government, swindled and blackmailed Berezovsky out of his interests in the oil giant Sibneft, now part of government-controlled Gazprom, and in the aluminium producer Rusal, now part of Oleg Deripaska’s tottering empire.
I have obtained and read the court papers with the excitement reserved by others for Proust. One seldom gets glimpses of louche life like this. ‘Soon after Glushkov’s arrest in December 2000,’ plead Berezovsky’s lawyers, ‘Mr Abramovich met Mr Berezovsky and Mr Patarkatsishvili at Mr Berezovsky’s home in Cap d’Antibes.’
Counter Abramovich’s lawyers: ‘The defendant cannot now recall where the meeting took place, although he believes it was unlikely to have been in southern France at that time of year.’ Badri Patarkatsishvili was to have been a principal witness for Berezovsky in this case. Unfortunately, the Georgian billionaire died in London soon after Abramovich’s having accepted English jurisdiction.
Berezovsky puts his $4 billion claim into a political context, citing evidence of arrest, persecution and intimidation, such as the finding of the European Court of Human Rights in Gusinsky v Russia, brought by another erstwhile associate, Vladimir Gusinsky, and highlighting the use by the state of criminal proceedings and detention on remand ‘as commercial bargaining strategies’. Such strategies, Berezovsky argues, were used by Abramovich to force him to sell his interests to him for a fraction of their market value.
Abramovich’s lawyers play coy, denying that ‘the Russian state was at any material time “operating through” the defendant, whatever might be meant by that’, or that the claimant’s associates were ‘“vulnerable to threats and pressure”, whatever that phrase might mean’. But, if Putin’s Russia is such an ordinary place to do business, how can the defendant explain, for instance, his payout to Berezovsky of $1.3 billion on one occasion?
Here Abramovich changes his tune. The cash was paid, he says, ‘in recognition of the political assistance and protection Mr Berezovsky had provided in respect of the creation of Sibneft’. In other words, I’ll do business with you when it suits me, but I’m the one who’s going to walk away with the money.
I cannot wait to see what the English court has to say about these two conflicting versions of Russia’s present.