Left-wing and right-wing newspapers have defined Jonathan Sumption as “the most brilliant mind in the United Kingdom”, and it was he who defended the oligarch Roman Abramóvich (Saratov, Russia, 55 years old) against his former partner and then staunch enemy, Boris Berezovsky . In the legal gossip there was talk of a minute that was around six million euros. It was in 2012. A year later, Berezovsky, the oligarch who prospered under Boris Yeltsin but had to flee Russia because of his visceral confrontation with Vladimir Putin, was found hanged in the bathroom of his Sunninghill mansion in the English countryside. Abramóvich enjoyed a decade of sporting triumphs, at the helm of his Chelsea FC, and a establishment British willing to look the other way, ignore the origin of his fortune, and roll out the red carpet.
The 2014 bombing of Donetsk’s glittering Dombas Arena, UEFA’s only six-star football stadium, alerted old English leaders who regularly met at Chelsea’s offices to the indecipherable war dividing southeastern Ukraine. When the owner of the club invited them to a coffee, the first thing they did was ask him about the position of his friend Putin. According to one of those present at that informal meeting, his response was somber. “I don’t think this war has a solution,” Abramovich told them. “Between Putin and Yeltsin there is an important difference. Yeltsin had negative things that are very positive in this type of conflict, while Putin has positive things that become negative in situations like this. Putin should read fewer history books and watch fewer Iron Curtain movies.”
British public opinion, to a greater or lesser degree, never ceased to associate Abramovich with the Russian mafia. But the Chelsea council of wise men had him for an eccentric benefactor. Someone not fond of smiling, owner of a caustic sense of humor, stern but courteous, unassuming class and sensitive to listen, even when warned that he was throwing his money away because he constantly invested in overvalued or deficit projects and assets. , divided as he was between leisure, art, and his altruistic obsessions, such as financing the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with tens of millions of euros.
He spoke little about Russian politics, but when he did, without giving it much importance, everyone knew that his authority was second to none. That day in the summer of 2014, his interlocutors interpreted that while Yeltsin liked life more than power, there was no way to buy Putin when his Byzantine dream of recovering the Soviet Union stood in the way. “This,” says this source; “For the Russian oligarchs, who are the most hedonistic, it was always a problem.”
The one who would become the most powerful and famous of the Russian oligarchs was an almost anonymous character until 1999. So elusive that when Putin took over the leadership of Boris Yeltsin’s government that year, no media had published a photo of him , although by then he was already the owner of Sibneft, Russia’s largest oil producer.
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Alexei Venediktov, then director of radio of Moscow, noticed unusual movements in the Kremlin, when on the morning of August 9, 1999, Putin got out of the official car that left him at the door of the Presidential Building, on his first day in office. He was in the throes of Yeltsin’s second term, and high-ranking officials huddled in the corridors like actors waiting for the call from the casting supervisor. They took turns entering the office where Abramovich, then a 33-year-old bearded young man, patiently questioned them before certifying his suitability to hold the various ministries.
close to power
Abramovich was part of what in Moscow was called The family, a group so close to Yeltsin that they ended up meeting systematically at his dacha, on the outskirts of Moscow. “I promise you I’m not interested in politics,” he told Venediktov when he last saw him, the journalist told the book’s authors. Abramovich, the billionaire from nowhere. “When I reminded him of how I saw him with my own eyes while helping to select Putin’s first cabinet, he told me: ‘That never happened.’
He was born in Saratov in 1966 into a poor family of Jewish origin. Before he was three years old, he lost his mother and father and passed into the care of his uncles and grandparents. He dropped out of school at 16, worked as a mechanic, and even tried his hand at the Red Army. His entrepreneurial adventure began with the sale of plastic toys in street markets. But when Mikhail Gorbachev legalized private entrepreneurship he founded Uyut, a toy manufacturing company that allowed him to earn 20 times more than an average civil servant and put him in contact with the Administration at the time the Soviet Union was collapsing.
Abramóvich detected his opportunity by obtaining a license to export hydrocarbons. “An export license in the early 1990s in Russia was equivalent to a license to print money,” observed Christia Freeland of the Financial Times. It began to trade in oil and gas, two resources that were abundant in Russia and poorly managed during the Soviet era. Its privatization, in collusion with the authority of the moment, created a large part of that saga of mega-billionaires, the so-called oligarchs.
Drowned by the economic crisis of 1995, Yeltsin needed funds to rebuild confidence in his government and win the next election. He got them through a loan-for-shares scheme that became the most colossal privatization program in history. This is how Abramovich and his partner, Boris Berezovsky, asked for a loan and by designing multiple companies they simulated the bid that allowed them to acquire 49% of Sibneft for 100 million dollars. The Government financed itself in exchange for selling off state properties in a framework full of legal loopholes. If the operation was not reviewed, it was because Yeltsin himself ignored the informer of the Audit Chamber of the Russian Federation, which in 1998 estimated that “the market value of 51% of Sibneft was 2,800 million dollars, 25 times higher than the initial auctioned price.
Few Russian oligarchs have emerged unscathed from the transition from Yeltsin to Putin. If Abramóvich prospered, it was because of his nose to interpret that he should side with Putin in the successive conflicts that pitted the president against the capitalists. When Putin proposed to nationalize energy production, he immediately relented. In September 2005, after collecting €1 billion in dividends, he sold Sibneft to Gazprom for around €9 billion. The operation made him the most liquid man in the world a year after buying Chelsea for 150 million. “For us it was like winning the lottery,” recalls a club leader who prefers anonymity.
Due to his links with the Jewish community in Ukraine, the government of Volodímir Zelenski proposed him as an intermediary in the peace negotiations that he has been holding with Russia for a week. Abramovich’s presence at the Belarus conference contrasts with his hasty estrangement from London and the sale of Chelsea.
The invasion of Ukraine has exposed the powerful of the United Kingdom to the evidence of their relations with the Russian billionaires whom they now threaten with sanctions. Abramovich is the epitome of this wealth. Boris Johnson’s government, however, has so far been unable to go after the most famous oligarch of all.
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