Laughter in court as Abramovich backtracks on lavish lifestyle

HELICOPTER trips, smart skiing holidays and plush properties are just a few of the luxuries that changed Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s mind about not imitating a rival’s “extravagant lifestyle”, a London court has heard.

To laughter in London’s Commercial Court, the media-shy owner of Chelsea football club was forced to swallow his words that in 1994 he “was never interested in imitating” the lifestyle of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

The list of Abramovich’s skiing holidays in the luxury resort of Courchevel and in Megeve, both in the French Alps, are the latest insights into the lives of Russian-born oligarchs in a £3 billion (€3.4bn) lawsuit.

Watched for clues about the intertwined worlds of Russian business and politics, the case pits Berezovsky against a former protege whom he accuses of intimidating him in 2000 into selling shares in oil company Sibneft at a fraction of their value.

Abramovich, 45, denies that Berezovsky ever had an interest in the company.

The two were close when making their fortunes in Russia in the 1990s when a small group of businessmen snapped up shares in former state firms sold off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They fell out a decade ago.

Abramovich wrote in his witness statement that in 1994 he was surprised by Berezovsky’s “extravagant lifestyle,” adding: “I was never interested in imitating his lifestyle.”

Laurence Rabinowitz QC, for Berezovsky, yesterday questioned Abramovich about that “assertion” .

“Can we just consider the truthfulness of this assertion, Mr Abramovich, that you, unlike Mr Berezovsky, have never had an interest in what you label an extravagant lifestyle,” he said.

Rabinowitz listed some of the properties Abramovich had owned including: “Fyning Hill, a 420-acre estate and house in West Sussex”; “Lowndes Square, a large and expensive central London property near Knightsbridge” and a “multi-million pound” French chateau “which once belonged to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor”.

He added: “You say you were ‘never interested in imitating this lifestyle’. But you now want to qualify that, do you, to say while you weren’t interested in a lifestyle then, you may have an extravagant lifestyle now?”

Abramovich replied: “Well, yes, possibly. I agree, yes, that one could put it that way. But at that time this was not part of my position.”

Rabinowitz asked: “So when did this change, Mr Abramovich?”

Abramovich said the change came when he bought Chelsea.

Abramovich was speaking in Russian via an interpreter in a courtroom packed with stern-looking bodyguards and armies of lawyers and aides.

The taciturn businessman — worth £10bn — also wrote in a witness statement: “I travelled with my family and my personal assistant ... by helicopter to Megeve.”

Once a close ally of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, Berezovsky, 65, fled to Britain in 2001 after falling out with Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin. Criminal charges were also brought against Berezovsky in Russia over his business dealings.

Abramovich’s relationship with Berezovsky began in late 1994 when he wanted to create what later became Sibneft, he wrote in his witness statement.

To achieve this in the chaotic 1990s Russia, he required the help of a politically connected person and protection from criminal gangs.

“Mr Berezovsky provided me with political support in the second half of the ‘90s and ... physical protection in relation to the creation of Sibneft. In return, Mr Berezovsky expected substantial cash payments from me,” Abramovich wrote.

“Mr Berezovsky’s demands were not tied to any notion of a ‘share of profits’ — be it of Sibneft or any other company.”

The trial continues.

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