The Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich listened intently at London's High Court yesterday as his former friend and business partner Boris Berezovsky accused him of betrayal and of "valuing wealth and influence more than friendship and loyalty".
Lawrence Rabinowitz QC, acting for Mr Berezovsky, 65, told the court his client was seeking "in excess" of $5.5bn (£3.2bn) from Mr Abramovich, who he claims intimidated him into selling Mr Abramovich his shares in their oil firm, Sibneft, at a fraction of their market value. He is also claiming in excess of $564m with regard to the unlawful sale of his shares in the aluminium giant Rusal.
In the latest installment of a long-running legal saga, the two men sat at either end of a packed courtroom, in the first case to be heard in the High Court's new Rolls Building in the City of London. The two legal teams were so large they took up seats in an already full public gallery. Several members of the public were forced to stand for the morning session, among a phalanx of large bodyguards. Mr Abramovich's wealth was estimated earlier this year at £8.6bn; Mr Berezovsky's at £500m.
"This is a case about two men who – and this is common ground – worked together to acquire an asset, that is Sibneft, that would make them wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most people," Mr Rabinowitz told Mrs Justice Gloster, in the opening summary of a case expected to last 15 weeks.
"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."
He said Mr Abramovich was left with the choice of remaining loyal or betraying Mr Berezovsky.
"To remain loyal to Mr Berezovsky, his friend and mentor and the person to whom he owed his newly acquired great fortune, or instead, as we submit, to betray Mr Berezovsky and to seek to profit from his difficulties," Mr Rabinowitz added.
Mr Berezovsky claims Mr Abramovich forced him to sell the shares at a knockdown price, or face having them seized by Russian authorities.
Mr Abramovich's lawyers, led by Jonathan Sumption QC in what is his last case before taking up an appointment as a Supreme Court judge, have previously argued that the High Court in London should not hear the case as it is a matter for the Russian legal system.
But Mr Berezovsky claimed that at a meeting at London's Dorchester Hotel in March 2000 it was agreed his shares in the aluminium company Rusal would be held in a trust governed by English law, meaning that an English court was the appropriate venue to hear the case.
Mr Abramovich and Mr Berezovsky acquired their controlling interest in Sibneft, the large oil company, for about £60m each in 1995, an undertaking that Mr Abramovich has since admitted cost him billions of pounds in "favours" and "protection fees". Its value quickly grew to billions
Mr Abramovich listened to proceedings through headphones feeding a Russian translation. He is expected to be called as a witness in the trial early next month.
Oligarchs head to head
Fortune £500m (was $3bn in 1997). After importing Mercedes cars into Russia, took control of Sibneft oil company and Russia's main TV channel, ORT.
Business interests Few since his exile. Has a box at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium.
Divorce settlement £220m, paid to second wife Galina Besharova.
Yachts Had to sell the 360ft Darius for £200m to ease cashflow problems.
Business interests Chelsea FC, stakes in steel group Evraz and Highland Gold. Built business trading oil products. Has held stakes in Sibneft, Aeroflot, Russia's national airline, and Rusal, the country's aluminium oil monopoly.
Divorce settlement £155m out of court, paid to second wife Irina.
Yachts Four, including 557ft, £1bn Eclipse.