Feuding Russian tycoons face London court ruling

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Two Russian businessmen rose to riches together in the chaotic years of post-Soviet Russia and then became archenemies — and a British judge will soon rule on which oligarch will defeat the other in a multibillion-dollar court battle.

After a seven-month delay, Judge Elizabeth Gloster is expect to deliver a summary ruling Friday to settle the legal feud between Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner, and self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

The feud, the most high-profile commercial case at London's High Court in recent years, has fascinated the British and Russian media with intriguing tales about the tycoons' jet-setting lives and the lawless Wild West years that followed the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

Berezovsky, 66, is a former Kremlin power broker who fled to Britain after falling out with President Vladimir Putin. He sued the 45-year-old Abramovich, who he calls his former friend, protégé and business partner, alleging that Abramovich threatened him into selling his stakes in the Russian oil giant Sibneft vastly beneath their value. Berezovsky alleged blackmail and breach of contract — and is seeking more than 3 billion pounds ($4.8 billion) in damages.

Abramovich has denied the allegations and his lawyer has accused Berezovsky of lying and making up stories.

"I'm an optimistic person, it's in my genes. So, of course, I'm confident that the judgment will go my way," Berezovsky said ahead of the ruling.

Abramovich's lawyers did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

Both tycoons were cross-examined and sat across from each other on most days during the four-month trial, which attracted large crowds of journalists, lawyers and spectators.

The case has sparked so much interest partly because of its focus on the two oligarchs' personal, as well as business, relationship. They were said to have become friends after meeting on a private cruise in the Caribbean, built a business empire together, but parted bitterly when their fortunes were reversed.

Berezovsky, a mathematician-turned-Mercedes dealer, 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 access to valuable assets at very low prices.

Berezovsky says he mentored the younger Abramovich, treated 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 — causing him losses of almost $6 billion.

In separate claims, Berezovsky also alleged breach of trust and breach of contract when Abramovich sold Berezovsky's alleged stake in aluminum conglomerate Rusal without his consent.

Abramovich claims that Berezovsky was not his mentor and never owned the stakes — in fact, he argued that Berezovsky only had a political role in creating Sibneft and never "contributed a single cent" to acquiring or building up the company.

According to Abramovich, he had already paid more than $2.5 billion to Berezovsky for his services as his "political godfather" — a protector whose political influence helped him do business — and reluctantly funded Berezovsky's extravagant lifestyle of yachts and vacation homes because he feared retaliation. He doesn't owe Berezovsky any more money, he said.

"Our business relationship was over and yet he still treated me as his 'cash cow' and expected me to fund all of his expenses," Abramovich claimed in a statement. He described Berezovsky as ambitious, sometimes megalomaniacal, and a man who "would often start believing his own PR."

Charged in Russia with fraud and embezzlement, Berezovsky has been living in London since 2001.

Abramovich lives in Russia and is known to some as the "stealth oligarch" because of his low profile, but is widely known in Britain since he bought the Chelsea soccer club in 2003. His wealth is estimated to be 9.5 billion pounds (about $15 billion) by The Sunday Times.

The pair's feud is just one among many lucrative commercial fraud cases dealing with Russia and Central Asia that have found their way into London courts. Lawyers say many wealthy Russians distrust the legal infrastructure in their own country and flock to English courtrooms because they believe they can find fairness there.

Friday's summary verdict will be followed soon after by an extended judgment and lawyers from both sides will meet in the next few weeks to discuss appeals and legal costs.