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By John Helmer, Moscow

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently conceded that the oligarchs who were running Russia behind the shaking hand and raddled brain of Boris Yeltsin had caused such chaos, Putin was obliged to use what he called “manual control” to recover the country. The evidence given last week in the UK High Court trial of Berezovsky v Abramovich reveals what Abramovich got up to outside Russia, when he thought he was safe from Kremlin supervision – holidays, airplane rides, limousine and helicopter trips between seaside villas and ski chalets, lots of them. That is according to Christian Sponring, the Austrian cook who became Abramovich’s major domo, and after fourteen years, still is.

In December 1997, Putin, aged 45, was employed by Yeltsin to run the Main Control Directorate of the Kremlin. Sponring, aged 25, was employed by Abramovich to cook his meals. Before that, Sponring had been trained in his native Austria, and starting at the age of 15 he worked in “the best restaurants in Austria, London and various places.” Between 1997 and 2005, when he was living with Abramovich, he could speak German and English but couldn’t follow what was said in Russian. Since 2005, his Russian has improved to the point where Abramovich and he talk to each other. His Russian has improved; Sponring now says it is “very basic but I am able to communicate.”

In his first summer in 1998, he remembers staying at a Mediterranean villa called Clocher de la Garoupe at Antibes. The next summer he remembers staying at Villa Serena at Cap Ferrat. He also cooked on yachts, ski chalets in Courchevel, and Moscow residences where the group also went. When Abramovich was at work in Moscow, Sponring says he did the cooking, and there were others to cook for the family members who were elsewhere.

Sponring was called as a witness because he remembers that the Clocher de la Garoupe was next door to Berezovsky’s villa at Antibes. Berezovsky has testified that he bought both properties with money Abramovich gave him out of the cashflow of the Sibneft oil company. Berezovsky told the court during his testimony on October 11 that the Clocher de la Garoupe was a guesthouse, the place where he put the guest overflow when he was in residence next door.

Sponring testified in court on November 15 that the relationship between Abramovich and Berezovsky was “a very polite friendly one”, as his own relationship with Abramovich grew friendlier, and he graduated from the kitchen to the front door. Eventually, Sponring told the court, he was appointed in charge of Abramovich’s projects. Asked what these were, Sponring said: “party arrangements. – anything which involves food obviously would be my responsibility, as well as all staff matters, and everything amongst the houses I’m involved in as well.”

“I have seen incredible places and had fantastic trips with Mr Abramovich,” he added. So many years ago, Sponring was asked, was he so sure he could remember exactly who was having the fun, and how much fun they were having? To take one example, asked Berezovsky’s advocate, how about the goings-on at the Chalet Seban in Courchevel, when the snow was thick on the ground and festivities were under way in January 2001?

“Were you aware whether or not Mr Abramovich had met Mr Patarkatsishvili when he was in Courchevel?” “No, I was not aware. I was spending a lot of time in the kitchen.”

After the smoke from the crème brulee had cleared, Sponring now testifies, he climbed into a helicopter to fly north to another French alpine resort, Megeve. Along on the ride were Abramovich, his then wife Irina, and at least one of the children, plus a pilot. When they landed at the heliport at Megeve, Sponring said there was a meeting. Abramovich sat at one table; Sponring sat at another with the wife and children. He didn’t do any cooking on the occasion. Everyone, he remembers, was talking in Russian. But Sponring also testified; “I wouldn’t have understood the Russian conversation at all.” Still, his eyes were in good form. He says he saw Abramovich was meeting Berezovsky at the other table.

Sponring claims now that the meeting took an hour. Abramovich claims in his own testimony that he doesn’t recall anything Berezovsky said or that Berezovsky said anything. Asked if he could hear Berezovsky talking, Sponring testified; “I’m not able to assist on that.”

Sponring was also asked to remember whether Abramovich made a habit of embracing or hugging people, and whether at the meeting with Berezovsky at the Megeve heliport café in 2001, Abramovich and Berezvsky had hugged each other. According to Sponring, his boss is discriminating with hugging. “It doesn’t happen all the time. It rather indicates if someone knows each other very well or not. Mr Abramovich, for example, doesn’t do it to so many people.”

“I wasn’t there all the time when Mr Abramovich greeted people or said goodbye to people. Again, I was in the kitchen so I’ve not seen that all the time. But definitely it is not something he will do to a lot of people.” A not so culinary point, because hugging isn’t normal between people who have broken with each other and accuse each of lying and cheating. But Sponring does remember that at the close of the January 2001 meeting at Megeve, Abramovich and Berezovsky hugged each other.

Berezovsky has testified earlier in the trial that he had, then that he hadn’t met Abramovich at Megeve. The judge intervened to ask Berezovsky which he meant to say. Berezovsky said there had been no meeting in Megeve.

What happened is significant because Berezovsky’s testimony is that by January of 2001, he had broken with Abramovich for betraying him, he alleges, with Putin. According to Berezovsky’s lawyer in court, Sponring had made up the story of the meeting and embrace at Megeve “either on false recollection or misplaced loyalty and that, 11 years after the event, you [Sponring] have no real memory of Mr Berezovsky being there, because he wasn’t.”

“That is completely not correct,” Sponring replied, before being released from the witness box.

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