World News

Russian Billionaire’s Trouble With Visa Fuels Speculation of British Crackdown

Posted May 20, 2018 11:05 p.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2018 11:11 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — When London’s premier soccer team, Chelsea, took the field Saturday in an FA Cup final against its archrival, Manchester United, the team’s billionaire Russian owner was mysteriously absent. Even after Chelsea won the game at Wembley Stadium in London 1-0, Roman Abramovich was nowhere to be seen.

A person close to the Russian oligarch said that his investor visa — initially valid for three years and four months and normally extended with ease after that every two years — expired at the end of April and that an application to renew it was taking far longer than usual. British authorities have given no explanation, the person said.

This has fueled speculation that the British authorities may be pulling the welcome mat for wealthy, Kremlin-connected Russians like Abramovich who have made London their second home.

The British Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration issues, has not publicly commented on why it was taking so long. The security minister, Ben Wallace, said in an email Sunday, “We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”

Diplomatic relations between London and Moscow sank to their lowest level in decades after a nerve agent attack in March on a retired Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the English cathedral town of Salisbury. The two have been released from the hospital and are recovering.

Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Moscow for the brazen attack on British soil, expelled 23 Russian diplomats and rallied Western allies to condemn Russia. Moscow has steadfastly denied any involvement.

May also vowed to “freeze Russian state assets wherever we have the evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of U.K. nationals or residents.” She said, “There is no place for these people — or their money — in our country.”

But Downing Street had appeared to have stepped back from its threats to take broad action against wealthy Russians’ assets and against those oligarchs who benefit from their ties to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

To secure an extension, holders of so-called Tier-1 investor visas issued before 2014 normally need only show that they have $1.35 million under their control in Britain and have invested three-quarters of that amount in British government bonds, shares or in loans to British companies.

With a net worth estimated at more than $10 billion, hundreds of millions of which have been invested in Britain, Abramovich should have no trouble clearing that hurdle. He owns a huge house in London that is worth more than $150 million and is equipped with a subterranean swimming pool.

In April, the U.S. Treasury announced that it was imposing sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs, including several with extensive ties to Britain like Oleg Deripaska, who in November listed his aluminum and energy conglomerate, EN+, on the London stock exchange. But Abramovich was not among those targeted by the United States.

If Abramovich’s British visa delay turns out to be more than a bureaucratic hiccup, it could be a sign that the British government, too, is moving against Russian oligarchs and wants to curb what has been called “Londongrad,” a large community of Russians, both fans and foes of Putin, who have sought shelter in the British capital for their money and families. Perhaps anticipating trouble in Britain, Abramovich, according to Swiss news media reports in February, applied for residency in Switzerland but withdrew his application last year after a cool response from the federal authorities in Bern.

Abramovich, in contrast to some other Russian tycoons, has avoided dabbling publicly in British politics. But his ownership of Chelsea has made him a staple of celebrity and sports coverage in tabloid and serious British newspapers, and he is by far the best-known Russian oligarch in Britain. Chelsea fans hail him as a hero because his hefty investment in buying top-class players has turned the team into a soccer powerhouse.

He has also won good will by donating more than $300 million to a British charity that provides holidays abroad for children with serious illnesses and by hosting lavish, A-list parties on his yacht, the world’s second biggest, and at his mansion in the British Virgin Islands.

Russians who have fallen out with the Kremlin, and British analysts who take a dim view of Putin, view him as a Kremlin lackey. His businesses in Russia, which include oil and other interests, have escaped unscathed under Putin while those of other tycoons critical of the Kremlin, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, have been ransacked by the state.

The delay in renewing his visa comes at a delicate time for Abramovich, who has been struggling in recent weeks to defend his name in Switzerland over $46 million that the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development insists is owed by the oligarch’s now-defunct, Swiss-based oil trading company, Runicom.

The dispute, which dates to the end of the 1990s, resurfaced recently when a court in Freiburg, Switzerland, began hearing testimony, including from Abramovich, who first made his money as an oil trader and then gained control of former state oil fields with help from Berezovsky, a onetime Kremlin ally and tycoon who, after falling out with Putin, fled to Britain and died there in 2013.