The march of the billionaire oligarchs

Tom Peck reports on the legal shoot-out between Roman Abramovich and his foe Boris Berezovsky

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The Independent Online

Blacked-out Maybachs, private jets, sprawling yachts, glamorous women, helicopter crashes, Arab sheikhs and murdered spies: the transcripts of the extraordinary court case between Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, and his nemesis, Boris Berezovsky, read like the pages of a Hollywood script.

Re-imagined as a child's fairy tale, it might go a little like this: At the top of three flights of winding stairs, in a dimly lit room, down a quiet alleyway in London town, there is a box. And in that box, enough very rich men to fill a football team have quietly sat, one by one, to try to explain why one of the very, very rich men named above should be given a very, very big bit of the other very, very rich man's fortune.

Now, after eight weeks, all the billionaires have been and gone, and Lady Justice Gloster must decide who to give the money to. She still has to hear from expert witnesses in Russian history and Russian law. But the difficulty she faces is that the two accounts of what happened are so wildly different.

Very simply, Mr Berezovsky claims Mr Abramovich forced him to sell valuable shares in commodities firms they jointly owned, or face their being reappropriated by the Kremlin. Mr Abramovich says the pair were never business partners and that Mr Berezovsky owned nothing and was simply his "political godfather", whom he paid for protection and political influence.

Little ground has been conceded by either side as the case has laid bare the extraordinary conditions of "Wild East" Russia in the 1990s. Such a situation "has not been seen in this country since the 15th century", Mr Abramovich's barrister, Jonathan Sumption QC, told the judge. It was "not easy" for British lawyers to understand. "But", he added, "your Ladyship must have read Shakespeare."

Both barristers are yet to make their closing remarks. Mr Sumption will do so shortly before Christmas; Mr Berezovsky's barrister, Laurence Rabinowitz QC, will do so in the new year. Meanwhile, Mrs Justice Gloster has a script far longer than any of the Bard's to ponder, and is not expected to report until at least April.

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