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By John Helmer, Moscow

In the final summing-up of Boris Berezovsky’s case for several billion dollars in stolen goods against Roman Abramovich, the name of Vladimir Putin turns up just four times.

The four mentions by Berezovsky’s counsel, Laurence Rabinowitz, during his two-day court presentation on January 17 and 18, are more noteworthy for what they aren’t.

In one, a note to himself by Badri Patarkatsashvili, claims that Abramovich offered $150 million to acquire shares of the television group ORT in 2000, which Berezovsky controlled at the time, to buy the latter out and thereby secure then President Putin’s political standing from what has already been testified to as Berezovsky’s effort to use television to undermine him. The second and third mentions are glancing references to Abramovich’s relationship to Putin and the claim that Putin didn’t want him to buy the ORT shares. The fourth is a reference to Abramovich’s eagerness to ingratiate himself with Putin by getting rid of Berezovsky’s influence over television coverage.

For the opposition which has materialized against Putin since the December parliamentary poll, no relevant evidence has appeared in the High Court testimony or in the witness documents to substantiate the thieves-and-swindlers allegations against Putin or his political allies. On the other hand, the trial has produced a treasure trove of evidence of the thieves-and-swindlers variety against several of the most powerful businessmen in Russia. Putin himself has acknowledged that in his sole comment about the entire affair. That was at his national broadcast on December 15. “What can I say? It would be better if they held this trial in Russia. [Question: Would Russian gain from this economically?] This would be more honest – both for them and our country. The money was made and stolen here – let them divide it here, too.”

In the same session, Putin also said: “I wouldn’t say that oligarchs who buy foreign sports teams or invest money abroad are necessarily evil”. As for their wealth, he avoided making that a presidential campaign issue: “[Q: What do you think about Russia’s billionaires?] I have already said that, in principle, privatisation was neither fair nor equitable, but that it is inappropriate to dismantle things now.”

As for the one oligarch he faces in the campaign for president, Mikhail Prokhorov, Putin was cool but unthreatening. “Mikhail Prokhorov is a citizen of the Russian Federation who meets the age requirement and who has the right to run for president of the Russian Federation. I know that Mikhail Prokhorov planned and tried to establish a party, a right-wing party in our political lexicon. But some problems arose, as many are aware. However, Mikhail Prokhorov is a consistent person who never backs down. As I understand, he has decided to use a new platform in order to promote the ideas he thinks are right for this country. He acts in line with the law and the Constitution. Just like any other person, he has the right to do this. I won’t say that I wish him success because I also plan to run for president, but I’m confident that he will be a worthy …a strong rival.”

Putin’s reference to a trial for Berezovsky, Abramovich and the others implicated in what he calls their stealing doesn’t preclude his taking that action unilaterally himself – against Abramovich and those Abramovich has been identified in the High Court as his partners and advisors – principally, Oleg Deripaska, to whom Abramovich sold United Company Rusal, and Eugene Shvidler, Abramovich’s partner in the Millhouse Capital holding, whose biggest Russian businesses at present are Evraz, the steelmaker, and Highland Gold.

But if Putin is largely irrelevant to the evidence that must be judged in Berezovsky v Abramovich, the case itself is the first forensic examination, inside Russia or outside, of how these particular oligarchs’ shareholding positions were acquired, and what the legal consequences would be now for their internationally listed shareholding companies if the acquisition chain were to be unravelled by the High Court; and the assets, or money compensation ordered for transfer to others.

In this week’s summation, Rabinowitz for Berezovsky laid out for the presiding judge and the Kremlin what crimes have been committed and by whom. In his final statement to Justice Dame Elizabeth Gloster, it was argued that Abramovich has openly pleaded guilty to one crime in order to get away with the other one of defrauding his shareholding partners.

My Lady, perhaps most significantly so far as concerns the second Rusal sale and the final contractual documentation executed by Mr Abramovich is the deed of acknowledgement in which Mr Abramovich openly acknowledged that he was not and never had been the beneficial owner of the last 25 per cent tranche of Rusal and that the beneficial ownership of that tranche as vested in whom ever Mr Patarkatsishvili said it was vested in. The language of the deed of acknowledgement on this point is so clear that, for once, not even Mr Abramovich can seek to argue that something has gone wrong with the contractual wording or that it should be read subject to some Russian tradition or business understanding.

Mr Abramovich is therefore reduced to arguing that he was prepared knowingly to put his name to a false document and that he was willing — he was a willing party to a money-laundering scheme designed to deceive western banks and to transfer millions into western bank accounts.

What is therefore notable about this, my Lady, is that Mr Abramovich would rather admit to being a participant in that dishonest scheme rather than to admit the truth, which is altogether more straightforward and which is reflected in much of the other evidence to which I’ve referred, including for example the Curtis notes, Le Bourget and Mr Patarkatsishvili’s proof of evidence. That is that Mr Abramovich never was the sole beneficial owner of the 25 per cent stake in Rusal but rather that he held that stake for and on behalf of Mr Berezovsky and Mr Patarkatsishvili. My Lady, that is all I was proposing to say about the purely factual issues.

If the judge accepts this, the legal consequences for Abramovich are likely to be slight, at least in Russia where money-laundering prosecutions are rare – and never big ones. The commercial consequences for Abramovich in the UK would be costly, but he would retain full control of his principal businesses. Since he doesn’t sit on the boards of publicly listed companies, there is unlikely to be any sanction obliging him to step down. From his performance in the witness-box, Abramovich gives the impression of confidence that whatever reputational damage he may suffer from the High Court ruling, if he loses, his continuing wealth will swiftly neutralize it.

Lying, fabricating the false evidence of others, and colluding in perjury before the court are the charges Rabinowitz laid at Abramovich’s door. But even if Justice Gloster concurs, there is no precedent for the High Court, having judged powerful Russians to have lied their heads off on oath on the stand, to recommend that the Director of Public Prosecutions do something about it. Take Sergei Frank, for example.

In the Berezovsky case, the risk of public sanction for Eugene Shvidler would be marginally greater if the court rules in favour of the plaintiff. Shvidler’s personal testimony in the proceedings may be accepted by the judge, or it may be condemned. But Shvidler’s exposure is limited to the seat he occupies on the board of directors of Evraz; since last November it is the only Russian corporation listed on the main board of the London Stock Exchange. Shvidler could be obliged to vacate the seat, but he would still hang on to the dividend stream that flows to his 3.5% shareholding in the company. His French wine-making business would continue to flow unadulterated.

Eugene Tennenbaum, Abramovich’s accountant and Millhouse sidekick, was called a liar in this week’s closing presentation by Rabinowitz. If that’s also the court’s judgement, the sanctions for Tenenbaum may be a trifle more onerous, but that may be because he’s not quite as rich as his comrades, nor as Russian (he’s Canadian). He too might have to leave the Evraz board to preserve its reputation for propriety, according to the LSE rules and standards.

At this point, Rabinowitz made clear that Deripaska is the most dangerously affected of all; arguably he has more to lose than Abramovich if the court rules for Berezovsky. This is because Deripaska might end up with almost no untied, unpledged and fully owned shares in Rusal if the court ruling grants the legality of the 25% stake claimed by Berezovsky, along with the late Badri Patarkatsishvili. The odds would also rise sharply that the High Court would go on to reject Deripaska’s defence to Michael Cherney’s (Mikhail Chernoy) claims which will go to trial in the High Court in April. They are that Deripaska owes him a 13% shareholding in Rusal, plus a decade of dividends and other assets.

According to the Rusal website, Deripaska claims he currently owns 47.41% through EN+, one of his holding companies. Subtract the Berezovsky-Patarkatsishvili stake now approximating 16% of Rusal in its Hong Kong listed form, and Deripaska would be down to 31.41%. Subtract the Cherney stake – on evidence several High Court judges have already accepted from Cherney — and that would leave Deripaska with a shareholding of just 18.41%. That Deripaska actually controls less than the published bloc of 47% is attested by Kremlin sources familiar with the matter. But even if the silent partners have been persuaded to sit on their hands until now, the prospect of two High Court rulings against Deripaska’s Rusal stake, enforceable around the world, may convince them that the best way to safeguard Rusal’s market capitalization from impending selloff of shares is to save the company from the mistakes Deripaska’s testimony in London have exposed.

According to Rabinowitz, “Mr Abramovich, Mr Shvidler and Mr Deripaska have all plainly worked hard to deny what really happened on that day. I have addressed my Lady on the dressing gown allegation [see this], I’m not going to repeat those submissions. The significant point for present purposes is that Mr Abramovich, Mr Shvidler and Mr Deripaska were plainly so concerned about the truth of the meeting, a meeting which, if Mr Berezovsky’s evidence is accepted, will hurt Mr Deripaska in his litigation with Mr Chernoy, as much as it will harm Mr Abramovich in these proceedings, that they came up with a wholly fabricated attempt to show that no business was conducted there.”

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