Roman Abramovich prevails in Russian oligarch court battle

A London judge ruled in favor of Abramovich over fellow Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky in a court battle that dealt with their personal and business relationship.

Andrew Winning/REUTERS/File
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich arrives at a division of the High Court in London in this 2011 file photograph. Abramovich won a court battle on August 31 against former partner Boris Berezovsky, who sued him for $6 billion over claims he was intimidated into selling assets they acquired in the post-Soviet carve-up of Russia's vast natural resources.

Self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky lost his multibillion-dollar legal battle against fellow Russian mogul Roman Abramovich on Friday after a British judge ruled that he didn't tell the truth in the clash over vast oil wealth.

The case in London's High Court sparked broad interest because of its focus on the two oligarchs' personal and business relationship in the chaotic days of post-Soviet Russia. The weeks of testimony included juicy details about their jet-set lifestyles that included yachts, luxury vacations and high-roller spending.

The 64-year-old Berezovsky, a former Kremlin power broker who fell out with Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleged that Abramovich had betrayed and intimidated him into selling his stakes in the Russian oil company Sibneft vastly beneath their true value. Berezovsky had sought more than 3 billion pounds ($4.8 billion) in damages.

Abramovich had denied the charges.

On Friday, Judge Elizabeth Gloster scathingly dismissed Berezovsky's case, calling him "an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purposes."

"I regret to say that the bottom line of my analysis of Mr. Berezovsky's credibility is that he would have said almost anything to support his case," Gloster said in a 38-page summary of her judgment.

In contrast, she found the 45-year-old Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, to be "a truthful, and on the whole reliable, witness."

Berezovsky, who had alleged blackmail and breach of contract, shook his head in court Friday as his defeat became clear. Abramovich did not attend.

Outside the court, Berezovsky accused Gloster of rewriting Russian history.

"I am absolutely amazed by what happened today," he told reporters. "Sometimes I have the impression that Putin himself wrote this judgment."

A statement issued by Abramovich's representatives said his position had been "comprehensively vindicated by the court."

A mathematician-turned-Mercedes dealer, Berezovsky amassed his wealth during Russia's privatization of state assets in the early 1990s. In return for backing former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he gained powerful political connections and opportunities to buy state assets at knockdown prices.

Berezovsky said he mentored Abramovich, treating him like a son, and founded Sibneft with him and a third partner. Berezovsky claimed that the friendship faltered when he fell out with Putin, at which point Abramovich "intimidated" him into selling his Sibneft shares, at a loss of almost $6 billion.

Abramovich said he had paid more than $2.5 billion to Berezovsky for his services as his "political godfather" and reluctantly funded Berezovsky's extravagant lifestyle of yachts and vacation homes because he feared retaliation.

The judge concluded that the deal between the two men was that in return for substantial cash payments, Abramovich and Sibneft would enjoy Berezovsky's political patronage and influence, "which was indispensible to the construction of any major business in the conditions of the 1990s."

The judge rejected Berezovksy's claims that he was threatened by Putin and Alexander Voloshin, a Putin ally, to coerce him to sell his Sibneft stake. She also rejected Berezovsky's claim that he had an agreement which gave him an interest in any aluminum holdings that Abramovich might acquire after 1999.

The case hinged on four alleged oral agreements and almost every aspect of those alleged deals was in dispute, the judge said.

"Significantly there were no contemporaneous notes, memoranda or other documents recording the making of these alleged agreements or referring to their terms," the judge said.

"Such documents as were relied upon by Mr. Berezovsky as circumstantial evidence supporting his case, were usually (but not invariably) considerably later in origin than the alleged agreements."

The burden fell on Berezovsky to convince the court that the agreements had been made, "not for Mr. Abramovich to convince the court otherwise," the judge said.

Gloster was scathing about Berezovsky's credibility.

"At times the evidence which he gave was deliberately dishonest; sometimes he was clearly making his evidence up as he went along in response to the perceived difficulty in answering the questions in a manner consistent with his case; at other times, I gained the impression that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events," she said.

"He departed from his own previous oral evidence, sometimes within minutes of having given it," she added.

Berezovsky said he hadn't decided whether to appeal.

"Life is life," he said. "Now I know what means English court better than before."

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