Chelseas owner is vulnerable to UK retaliation because of his close proximity to Russian president
There is a compelling, two-word justification for why Roman Abramovich is apparently having difficulties renewing his British visa: Vladimir Putin.
According to reports from Moscow, Abramovich was unable to watch his Chelsea team's 1-0 victory over Manchester United in Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley because his investor's visa expired last month. His private Boeing jet has not been back to the UK since 1 April.
It is uncertain whether the oligarch's visa woes are temporary and soon to be resolved, or something more permanent akin to a de facto ban. Abramovich has declined to comment. His representatives have said merely, and tactfully, that these procedures is taking a little longer than usual.
Either way, the postpone appears to be the result of a new, tougher posture against Russian nationals by the British authorities in the wake of the attempted slaying in March of the Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. Relations between London and Moscow are once again in the deep freeze.
The government signalled it was reviewing tier 1 investor visas, given to nearly 700 wealthy Russians between 2008 and 2015. Abramovich is one of them. Other oligarchs- some famous names, some lesser known mid-ranking businessmen- will be wondering if they too can expect visa trouble.
Abramovich were subject to British retaliation because of his proximity to President Putin. Their relationship goes back a long way. Abramovich was one of Putin's early supporters. He recommended him for the top Kremlin job to Boris Yeltsin, when Russia's ailing leader was looking for a successor.
According to the late oligarch Boris Berezovsky in evidence to the high court in London, Abramovich enjoyed significant political influence in Moscow from the second half of the 1990 s. In October 1999, he attended Putin's birthday party. Soon afterwards, Abramovich allegedly bought Putin, then the prime minister, a $50 m yacht.” The request came from Mr Putin ,” Berezovsky said in evidence.
By the time Putin became president in 2000, Abramovich played important roles in shaping the new government, Berezovsky added in his evidence. Abramovich selected members of Putin's cabinet, he claimed. Abramovich had the power to open and shut criminal cases and to initiate investigations and arrests. it was alleged. He was, in short, a big Kremlin player, albeit one who operated behind the scenes.
Abramovich successfully defeated Berezovsky in a subsequent London civil court case and rejects most of his claims. Still, there is no doubt that Abramovich has friendly relations with Putin. In 2003, Abramovich bought Chelsea football club for PS140m. Two years later, he was involved in another larger transaction when he sold his petroleum company, Sibneft, to state-run Gazprom. He got $13 bn.
The visa review by the British authorities appears to acknowledge the dual role played by oligarchs in Putin's system. Oligarchs are entrepreneurs. But they can also be country emissaries. From the Sochi Olympics to this summer's World Cup, oligarchs have fulfilled requests from the presidential administration, building stadia, international sporting facilities and Russia's latest bridge to Crimea.
Between 2000 and 2008, Abramovich was governor of Chukotka, a sparsely populated and cold region in Russia's far east. He transformed its national territory with his billions. The Chelsea FC owner has bankrolled Russia's football union and “the member states national” squad. His football academy has built all-weather pitches across the country.
Roman Borisovich, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner, described the review of investor visas as a” clever and delicate way” of hitting back at Moscow. Russia's ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, has suggested Russian businessmen may now take legal action in the British courts. Borisovich predicts this won't happen.
” The last thing these guys want is to have a public hearing in the UK. They would have to answer questions like' how did you attain your money' and' are you the real owned of your assets ‘? Plus' are you a conduit for the Russian regime or an instrument for meddling in other countries ‘?
” I would like to see all this in the high court .”
Borisovich said the UK government was belatedly abandoning its' no questions asked' policy, something that had built London attractive to Russia's super-rich. He pointed out that Moscow billionaires did not typically move their factories or production centres to the UK. Rather, they deposited their money here, buying up property that could subsequently be resold.
In recent years, Abramovich has maintained a low profile, both in Russia and the UK. He was at first surprised by the enormous media attention that accompanied his buy of Chelsea but got used to it, Russian football pundits say. They add that Abramovich is smart, talented, bright and engaged.
His last on-the-record interview appears to have been with the Observer back in 2006. Asked where home was- he has several- Abramovich said:' I live on a plane. I like to visit London. If I had to think where I could live if not Moscow, London would be my first choice and second “wouldve been” New York. In Moscow I feel most comfortable .”
” It cannot buy you happiness ,” Abramovich said, speaking of money. He added:” Some independence, yes .” Seemingly, however, even a lot of fund is no guarantee of a British visa. The question for Abramovich now is whether he decides to tough out the latest period of political turbulence. Or sell Chelsea and retreat to Moscow.
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