Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich has spent years trying to adopt a low profile. Photo: AFP / Ben Stansall
Chelsea's billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich has spent years trying to adopt a low profile. Photo: AFP / Ben Stansall

Billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich might not be a recluse but he is a past master at keeping a low profile. The Russian oligarch and the owner of English Premier League giants Chelsea hates publicity of any kind, shuns the gossip pages and rarely talks to the media.

His last major interview, in The Guardian newspaper, was more than a decade ago. “To be exact, it’s been 12.5 years!” his spokesman, John Mann, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

Close aids have described him as “shy.” Others have said he is “ruthless.”

Angry would probably be an apt description after his lawyers were forced to deny allegations of “money laundering” and links with “criminal organizations” during the past week.

Two years earlier, he had applied for Swiss residency to settle in the chic ski resort of Verbier in the Canton of Valais.

What followed next was another bizarre chapter in Abramovich’s bizarre life.

On Tuesday, he lost a seven-month legal battle against the Zurich-based newspaper group Tamedia to prevent the publication of information which might explain why he failed to gain Swiss residency.

Journalists from Tamedia obtained a secret file from the Federal Office of Police advising immigration officials to reject his application, claiming he was a “threat to public security” if he became a resident.

Denied allegations

“After half a year in court we can reveal that Swiss federal police see Chelsea Football Club boss Roman Abramovich as a possible danger for the country,” Thomas Knellwolf, a Tamedia investigative journalist, said. “That’s why he can’t move to Switzerland.”

Abramovich vehemently denied the allegations with his lawyer Daniel Glasl issuing the following statement:

“We are extremely disappointed by the release and publication of confidential information from Swiss government files regarding Mr. Abramovich, which occurred in clear violation of Swiss criminal law and Swiss data protection laws.

“We have filed a request for correction of facts to the Swiss Federal Police and will be filing a criminal complaint against unknown persons responsible for dissemination of this confidential information.

“Any suggestion that Mr. Abramovich has been involved in money laundering or has contacts with criminal organizations is entirely false.”

Back in May, Abramovich became an Israeli citizen after falling into a UK visa limbo. He is now allowed to return to his £90 million (US$117 million) mansion in London’s exclusive Kensington Palace Gardens for six months of the year.

With a personal fortune of  $11.9 billion according to Forbes, the 51-year-old has an extensive property portfolio. It includes the Chateau de la Croe in the south of France, which was once rented by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor – King Edward VIII before his abdication in 1936 and American socialite Wallis Simpson.

He also has a townhouse in New York’s Manhattan and an estate on the Caribbean island of St Barts along with a fleet of private jets and yachts.

Still, it was a high-profile court case in London seven years ago which shed light on how he went from being a penniless orphan to a member of Moscow’s nouveau riche set in the late 1990s.

Old business partner and fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky sued Abramovich for $5 billion, claiming he had been cheated out of shares in oil group Sibneft and aluminum giant Rusal. He later lost the suit.

But in testimony, Abramovich was painted as a behind-the-scenes player at the court of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Berezovsky, who died in 2013, claimed that Abramovich had promised to buy Putin a $50 million yacht shortly before he became president in 2000. The presiding judge in the case concluded that Abramovich had “privileged access” to Putin.

At the height of his influence, billionaire Berezovsky had watertight Kremlin connections and was part of the inner circle of the late President Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s.

He later fell out with Putin and fled to the UK.

In 2003, Abramovich arrived on the London scene and saved Chelsea from near-bankruptcy in a £140 million deal, turning the Premier League club into a world-famous brand after investing more than £1.1 billion in the team.

Visa pressures

During this period, he sold Rusal for $1 billion and then Sibneft for $13 billion in 2005.

But the political climate has changed in the past 15 years. There is even talk he is prepared to sell Chelsea for $3 billion after rejecting bids of more than $2 billion.

The rumors started to circulate in the summer after tensions between the UK and Russia increased after ex-spy Sergei Scribal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the city of Salisbury in Southwest England after being poisoned by a nerve agent.

The whole episode resembled a plot line from a John le Carre Cold War novel.

Since then, ‘friends of Putin’ have come under visa pressures in London, including Abramovich.

“We should have been asking tougher questions, and we’ve started to do that over the last 12 months,” Ben Wallace, the British minister of State for Security at the Home Office, told Bloomberg Businessweek.

“We always reserve the right to revoke any of these visas. We have the power to simply say, ‘No, thank you. You’re not welcome,’ ” he added.

For Abramovich, it appears the doors, which were always open, are now starting to close.

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