The Abramovich Victory: The Oligarch Machine in Action

Neither oligarch came out spruced and cleansed, but there is little doubt that Boris Berezovksy emerged the poorer, both in terms of the time spent and effort to target Roman Abramovich.  Abramovich, in contrast, won what is probably the biggest private court case in history, a bruising $6.5 billion battle that rumbled through the British legal establishment.

Berezovsky’s claim that the owner of Chelsea FC had bullied him into parting with shares in Sibneft, an oil and aluminium joint stock company he helped found, was dismissed by Mrs Justice Gloster as a contention born of delusion.  The huge claim was laughed out of court.  “On my analysis of the entirety of the evidence, I found Mr Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be moulded to suit his current purposes.”

Justice Gloster was not particularly impressed by responses in court that turned out to be long winded speeches and assertions about meetings that supposedly took place.  In the end, as if describing a patient suffering from corrosive dementia, the justice felt that Berezovsky had not been “deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events.”  Berezovksy, in turn, concluded that the justice was “rewriting” Russian history.

Abramovich himself was not to be bettered, claiming that Berezovsky had leached money for reasons of political influence while also receiving $1.3 billion to flee to Britannic freedom when President Vladimir Putin was getting hot under the collar.  The life of one benefitting from political protection, or krysha, is a dangerous one indeed.  When Berezovsky started bucking the understanding with the Kremlin, things turned foul.

The judgment was withering of Berezovksy.  For one, the judgment cast some light on the inner workings of the oligarchy in the initial years of its formation under the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin.  Berezovsky was a “political capitalist” in a mould different to the jailed Michel Khodorkovsky, though such labels are not necessarily representative. In the glass house of oligarchic wealth, strange plants have grown.

The trial also revealed the hand of Putin in keeping tabs, then reining in the oligarchs.  The only one doing the real bullying in this regard was the President, who was happily encircling those he felt he needed to. The end result in 2000 was that Berezovsky sold up to Abramovich.  “At that point,” as Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent put it, “Putin could catch the innocent, and insist only that all oligarchs should be kept ‘equidistant’ from the authorities” (The Independent, August 31).  Some, in the peculiarly byzantine nature of Russian politics, were more equidistant than others.

This brings to a bitter end a long chapter of the rivalry between the figures.  Their animosity has provided Londoners with more than their bit of fun – both oligarchs have played musical chairs in terms of which school they send their children.  One moves in, the other moves out.  Their respective offspring daren’t share the same classrooms – their fathers have other things in mind.

Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the value that the oligarch merry ground has had on the London scene.  Abramovich, while he decided to call the case “a uniquely Russian one” was happy that it be held in the English system, one that had “great faith in”.  This is premier league jousting of a different sort, thuggish, threatening, and potentially dangerous.   It’s the big league of cases, and this one will be hard to beat.

The press are even speculating, in light of the decision, where Berezovsky’s friends will go after this encounter. He is, after all, very connected on the British scene, and suggestions of moral fallibility sting – at least to some.  Will the friendship with the Prince and Princess of Kent run cold or vanish into ether?  Even the words of an associate of the couple warranted a mention in The Telegraph (September 3): “Friendship is certainly not a transitory and flexible concept so far as the prince and princess are concerned.”  For some odd reason, press vultures are actually assuming that dishonesty, even if it is hammered by a High Court judge, should lose friends in high and not so high places.  It must be rather dandy to have someone who regards truth as “a transitory, flexible concept”, if that is the sort of fashion statement the royals would like.  Oscar Wilde would have had an epigrammatic field day.

Certainly, that friendship is of the well paid sort – some £320,000 over six years in the Prince’s staff costs being a sizeable sum.  Berezovsky is bound to be making visits and keeping up financial appearances – even if by the seedy back door.  The unnamed associate speaks of it in the tones typical for these sorts of relationships – those between aristocracy on the one hand, and the filthy rich on the other.  “The original donation came about because Mr. Berezovsky has a high regard for the prince, and, in particular, the work of the foundation which he set up in Russia in 2004 to promote heritage, culture and health [principally paediatric burn units] in the country.”

Mine the middle class, as the old wisdom goes, then a dying, antiquated aristocracy shall survive.  No one examined this phenomenon better than Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in The Leopard (Il Gattopardo).  Where there is monumental capital, or at least the impression of it, aristocrats both faux and genuine shall fester.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.