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By John Helmer, Moscow

For long enough already, Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky have been trading mutual recriminations and accusations of bribery, blackmail, extortion, fraud, breach of trust and breach of contract, set out in the latter’s UK High Court claims against the former, so that the biggest surprise at the commencement of the trial this week is the commencement itself. Abramovich has spent more than three years trying to have the claims struck off or dismissed by the court, or the proceedings delayed. He has failed.

That the High Court case would also become a political show trial has not been in doubt, since it is the crux of Berezovsky’s claim that he was compelled to sell shares he claims he owned in Abramovich’s oil company Sibneft, and also (with partner Badri Patarkatsishvili) in Oleg Deripaska’s and Abramovich’s aluminium company Rusal, by political threat and pressure. If he would not have accepted Abramovich’s money, Berezovsky’s court papers and counsel, Lawrence Rabinowitz QC, are testifying, then the Kremlin would strip him of the assets without compensation at all. The current quantum of this political pressure, according to Berezovsky, is about £3.2 billion ($4.9 billion). In the event the High Court makes a split decision, the Sibneft quantum is about $4 billion; the Rusal claim more than $600 million.

The ultimate cashiers, Berezovsky is also claiming for the court to decide, are the late Boris Yeltsin and family members, Vladimir Putin, and other ministers of state. Into the deposition record, counsel and witness testimony, and cross-examination over the next three months, there will be claims that in return for their favour, the political figures received concealed shareholdings in trust.

This isn’t new – it is the open secret of the Russian oligarch system, not only during the privatization phase of the mid-1990s, but also during the phase of initial public share offerings after the 1998 crisis; and of debt recovery and recapitalization after the 2008 crisis. Depending on what substantiates this secret, and who ends up owning what, the process might be judged to be renationalization, even reform. But that’s hardly within the scope of Justice Dame Elizabeth Gloster’s jurisdiction to decide.

Abramovich’s counsel, Jonathan Sumption QC, is also acknowledging this is a political show trial. For Abramovich’s defence, as summarized in his counsel’s opening address to the court, is that Berezovsky extorted protection money from Abramovich, receiving ₤2 billion for influencing the Kremlin to award assets to Abramovich’s businesses, and protect them..

The admission by Sumption at kickoff is stunning, at least as the opening gambit of a man testifying to having his business favoured by the Kremlin: “There was no rule of law. The police were corrupt. The courts were unpredictable at best … Nobody could go into business without access to political power. If you didn’ t have political power yourself, you needed access to a godfather who did.” So Berezovsky was paid to be Abramovich’s godfather with the Kremlin leadership. “His contribution was important, indeed it was indispensable,” added Sumption. “But it was almost entirely political.”

The period testified to by the Abramovich side, in which Berezovsky received his erstwhile protection money was 1995 to 2002, from the last year of Boris Yeltsin’s first term to the third year of Putin’s first term.

The weakness in Berezovsky’s case is the lack of documentary evidence of the contracts, trusts, and cash and asset transfers at stake. “That I would submit,” said Rabinowitz in his opening address to the court for the plaintiff, “is not terribly surprising. Blackmailers will often tend to favour oral threats as opposed to setting it all out in writing…” “Mr Abramovich and Mr Berezovsky ceased entirely to be friends at all. So that, I would suggest, one might surmise again that something happened between the parties during this time to mean that Mr Berezovsky was unwilling thereafter to have anything whatever to do with Mr Abramovich.”

So this is a case founded on what was said, orally but not written down, between the claimants. Without a paper trail, the case lacks what the High Court trial of the state shipping company Sovcomflot against its former chief executives and chartering partner demonstrated in rulings against Sovcomflot last December and March. There can be no doubt that Rabinowitz will require resourcefulness to oblige the presiding judge to accept hearsay as evidence of the way Russia has been governed.

This might also make it easier for Justice Gloster, to dispose of, compared with the judges in the parallel case of Michael Cherney v Oleg Deripaska, where the signed documents of Deripaska’s agreement to hold Cherney’s Rusal shares in trust, have been ruled in the preliminary and appellate decisions to be genuine, and Cherney’s claims against Deripaska to have “a reasonable prospect of success”, according to the judgement of Justice Christopher Clarke.

The compilation of documentary evidence and depositions in that case is almost complete; commencement of the trial is scheduled for less than eight months away.

In the current High Court proceeding, the plaintiff is famously loquacious. When Berezovsky steps up to the witness box, what he will say, flashing immediately on to a dozen computer screens around the courtroom, will not be news.

But when the 45-year old Abramovich steps up, something will happen which has never happened before. Despite his 2-year term as an elected deputy in the State Duma, and his 8-year term as governor of the Chukotka region, Abramovich has never spoken in public, unshielded by PR agents, unaided by lawyers, unprompted by financial advisors. He has never been cross-examined in a court of law in relation to allegations of fraudulent or corrupt business practices. Abramovich’s is a face and a name that are well-known in public, but the voice has never been heard.

Thus, the first test of Abramovich’s credibility will be when he opens his mouth on oath (or affirmation). In some ways, this will be a weightier test than the judgement of Justice Gloster to follow, and the likely appeals to follow that. If Abramovich fails to be credible — if he stumbles over the facts, suffers memory lapses, and displays the body language and vocal pitch of an unconvincing story-teller, then he will make it all the more difficult for Deripaska to follow him into the witness-box at the High Court next April. Before then, sources at the High Court yesterday disclosed, Deripaska has been called as a witness in the Abramovich case. He has requested that his testimony be given from Moscow by video-link.

This is how the political history of Russia is being recorded – who dares may lose, badly.

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