The exiled Russian businessman and former politician Boris Berezovsky told the High Court in London yesterday of an "absolutely classic KGB black operation" to force him to sell shares in valuable media and oil companies to Roman Abramovich, whom he called "a gangster".
He was giving evidence on the fourth day of a trial in which he is seeking more than £3bn in damages from Mr Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, citing breach of trust and breach of contract.
In yet more Hollywood-style testimony revealing the extraordinary extent of lawlessness in the "Wild East" in Russia at that time, Mr Berezovsky cited an interview in 2000 in which the Russian leader Vladimir Putin said he "had a cudgel in his hand and is ready to hit me on the head with it". By this point, Mr Berezovsky had fallen out with Mr Putin, a former associate, and fled Russia. The court was told that his close friend and ex-business partner Nikolai Glushkov was arrested and imprisoned in Moscow on 7 December 2000, which Mr Berezovsky claims was an attempt to get at him.
"First there is threat. Then there is negotiation," he said. "When negotiation fails there is second threat. This is the type of KGB black arts operation you can read about in textbooks."
It was in this context, he claimed, that a meeting between Mr Abramovich and Mr Berezovsky's business partner, the now deceased Georgian billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvilli, took place at Le Bourget airport near Paris, at which Mr Abramovich's role was as President Putin's messenger.
Lawyers have submitted partial transcripts of a tape of this meeting, made secretly by Mr Patarkatsishvilli's head of security, and which Mr Berezovsky has admitted paying $50m to an unknown person to obtain.
Repeating Mr Patarkatsishvilli's words, he spoke to Mrs Justice Gloster in Russian, forcing his interpreter to translate. "You don't understand. They will waste him [Mr Glushkov]. They will do him in. They will kill him," he said.
Mr Berezovsky and Mr Abramovich were once close business associates, but Mr Berezovsky claims that after Mr Abaramovich "betrayed him" in 2000, he never spoke to him again. "This was the first time we recognised how powerful Abramovich had become," he said. "Abramovich was not a killer but he influenced the killers. He had this opportunity. He already was formed himself, I'm sorry to say, as a gangster."
Mr Berezovsky claims it was agreed that Mr Glushkov would be released in return for the sale of his shares in television network ORT to Mr Abramovich, and that Mr Abramovich broke this promise and later used Mr Glushkov's imprisonment to force him to sell his stake in valuable oil firm Sibneft for $1.3bn – a fraction of its value.
It was pointed out to Mr Berezovsky that his current claims were wildly different from earlier evidence he gave in other cases on the same matter, as well as in media interviews. With regard to one such example, a 2001 interview with the Moscow Times, Mr Berezovsky said: "This interview is a different story. Sometimes I try to send messages, because I recognise me as a politician."
Mr Berezovsky will continue to give evidence for much of this week.
Mr Glushkov is expected to do so in the forthcoming weeks, and Mr Abramovich in November.