The Russian businessman and political exile Boris Berezovsky finally took to the witness stand at London's High Court yesterday to deny allegations of corruption and insist that it was mostly his own "intellectual capacity" that had seen him become one of the most influential people in Russia after the collapse of Communism.
Mr Berezovsky is seeking damages in excess of £3bn from the Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, who he claims intimidated him into selling his stake in the hugely profitable oil firm Sibneft at a discounted price.
Mr Berezovsky questioned Mr Abramovich's intelligence and attributed his fellow Russian's wealth to an ability to ingratiate himself with powerful people.
Journalists from all over the world packed the courtroom at the Rolls Building in the City of London for the fourth day of a trial that is expected to last more than two months, forcing dozens to listen in overflow rooms. "There isn't a courtroom in the land big enough to accommodate all of you," the judge Mrs Justice Gloster told reporters.
Mr Berezovsky was sworn in in English, and answered questions in English, but sat in the witness box with a Russian interpreter.
Acting for Mr Abramovich is arguably the country's leading barrister, Jonathan Sumption QC, who suggested that in post-Communist Russia "a businessman like Mr Abramovich had no chance of building business interests without political influence". Mr Berezovsky said: "It depends on how smart he is and how much leverage he has. To get leverage you need to be smart – and he is not so."
Mr Abramovich, he claimed, was "good at getting people to like him" and "good at psychology".
"He is good at appearing to be humble," he said. "He is happy to spend days just socialising with important or powerful people if that is what is needed so [that] he can get closer to them."
Surrounded by lawyers, Mr Abramovich listened through headphones to a Russian translation of proceedings. He gave little reaction as the court heard how Mr Berezovsky had been invited to join then Russian President Boris Yeltsin's "Presidential tennis club" and began to exert political influence over the President through Mr Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and her soon-to-be husband Valentin Yumashev, Mr Yeltsin's chief of staff.
It is alleged that Mr Berezovsky acted as a "political godfather" to Mr Abramovich and supported Mr Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election via his TV network ORT. In return for this support, the court has heard, Mr Berezovsky persuaded Mr Yeltsin to sell two state oil companies at auction, via which Mr Abramovich built his considerable fortune. It is this, he has claimed, that entitles him to a share of the £7.4bn Mr Abramovich received when he sold Sibneft in 2005. Outlining the nature of the agreement between Mr Berezovsky and President Yeltsin, Mr Sumption said: "You will get the support of my television network, and in return you will put me in a position where I can extract large sums of money from these two businesses." "That is correct, yes." Mr Berezovsky replied. "Would it be fair to describe that as a corrupt bargain?" Mr Sumption asked. "Definitely not," Mr Berezovsky said.
Mr Berezovsky found himself in some difficulty when questioned about a libel action he brought against Forbes magazine in 2001 after an article in the magazine described him as a "corrupt and unscrupulous businessman, [who took] control of mass media companies for his own ends, both business and political".
Mr Sumption produced witness statements from the trial in which Mr Berezovsky denied he exerted significant influence over President Yeltsin, the very matter on which his claim in this case depends. "Why did you deny it, and then sign a statement in support of your denial?" asked Mr Sumption.
"That is a good question," Mr Berezovsky replied, prompting considerable laughter from Mr Abramovich's lawyers. "Yes," said Mrs Justice Gloster. "And it is a question which you will have to answer."
Mr Berezovsky was shown his statement from the Forbes libel action, in which he stated that after 1997 he "no longer [had] any role in the management of [Sibneft] nor any shareholding". Mr Berezovsky's claim in this case is that in 2001 Mr Abramovich forced him to sell his Sibneft shares for less than they were worth. Mr Berezovsky now claims his interests were only an "oral agreement", and they relate to half of the 50 per cent controlled by Mr Abramovich, and that the two positions are not contradictory.
Mr Berezovsky apologised for his English on a number of occasions and was frequently instructed by Mr Sumption to answer the question he had been asked. Later Mr Berezovsky refused to continue until a document he had signed was produced in its original Russian, and asked for all documents to be available in his native tongue. Mr Abramovich claims that a £1.3bn payment he made to Mr Berezovsky in 2001 was an acknowledgement of his "debt of honour" to Mr Berezovsky, whose political influence had made the creation of Sibneft possible, not a forced purchase of his stake, and that Mr Berezovsky held no shares in the company. Mr Berezovsky is expected to answer questions until the end of next week, while Mr Abramovich will give evidence in November.
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