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Swiss federal police see Abramovich as possible threat to public security
The billionaire football-club owner wanted to establish tax residency in the ski resort of Verbier in Valais. But the Swiss Federal Office of Police view his presence in Switzerland as a danger to public security and a risk to Switzerland's reputation. He is denying that vehemently.
Marie Parvex, Thomas Knellwolf, Oliver Zihlmann et Bernhard Odehnal
Two years ago, Roman Abramovich, one of the world's richest men, took action to set up residence in the Alps. The Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) confirms that the billionaire filed «an application for a residence permit.» In July 2016 the 51-year-old Russian applied for a residence permit in Canton Valais. He also approached the head of the Swiss federal police personally to insist that it be granted. But in fact the migration authorities were about to turn the high-profile move down.
One of the reasons given by Federal Office of Police, or Fedpol, is suspicion of money laundering. According to them, Abramovich allegedly also has contacts to criminal organizations. The police view his presence in Switzerland as a danger to public security and to Switzerland's reputation. However the police have given no indication of the basis for their claims. They therefore cannot be verified. Abramovich himself vehemently denies all the allegations.
«Any suggestion that Mr. Abramovich has been involved in money laundering or has contacts with criminal organizations is entirely false», says his Lawyer Daniel Glasl. «Mr. Abramovich has never been charged with participating in money laundering and does not have a criminal record. He has never had, or been alleged to have, connections with criminal organizations.»
With an estimated net worth of $9 billion, Abramovich ranks 139th on the Forbes 2017 list of the richest people on the planet. He has been owner of England's Chelsea Football Club since 2003. He maintains the world's largest fleet of luxury yachts, dubbed «Abramovich's Navy.» When he applied for a permit to settle in Valais in 2016 – including transfer of his tax residency – the local authorities were overjoyed.
«Given his financial resources, he would be a very attractive taxpayer for the community and the canton,» says Jacques Delevallaz, head of the population and migration service for Canton Valais. «We decided in his favor.»
Abramovich's idea was to establish legal residence in Verbier. Situated at 1500 meters, the Valais ski resort has an abundance of chalets belonging to well-heeled entrepreneurs. The 3,000 year-round residents are outnumbered by a seasonal population of 25,000. The tax climate in the village is friendly, especially for lump-sum taxpayers.
For the time being, however, none of the billionaire's money will be flowing into Valais' treasury. Following their positive ruling, the cantonal authorities forwarded Abramovich's application to the federal authorities for approval. When the dossier reached the desk of officials at Fedpol they put on the brakes.
In January 2017, investigators drafted an assessment for the immigration authorities, in which they argued that Abramovich's presence in the country would constitute a reputational risk for Switzerland – and possibly even a public security risk.
According to Fedpol, Abramovich was known to the government in connection with alleged money laundering and alleged contacts to criminal organizations. Fedpol cited specific money laundering investigations carried out in the late 1990s by the public prosecutor's office in Geneva into a commodity trading company called Runicom. The company was controlled by Abramovich, but he himself was never part of the investigation.
«Runicom, the company at the center of the money-laundering claim, was long-ago cleared of any wrongdoing after a thorough investigation by Swiss authorities», says Mr. Glasl. «Despite multiple requests, Fedpol has failed to provide any evidence supporting these defamatory allegations. In fact, Fedpol has failed to provide any evidence of criminality whatsoever.»
But in its current assessment, Fedpol writes that – based on the earlier, abandoned investigations – it now has reason to believe that a portion of Abramovich's assets were arrived at illegally. Again the police offer no precise grounds for this allegation. Sometime last year, Abramovich got wind of the objections of Swiss police, and decided to take matters into his own hands.
In November 2017 he wrote a letter to Fedpol director Nicoletta della Valle professing his shock. The information Switzerland had on him is false and unfounded, he wrote. He asked that della Valle correct the erroneous information immediately. He wished to reapply for a residence permit. He described the activities of his former commodity trading company Runicom as completely legal.
Fedpol's answer was prompt and matter of fact. His dossier had been carefully checked, they wrote. The ruling would stand. Abramovich was of course free to reapply, in which case the application would be examined again.
The Abramovich case calls attention to a particular type of residence permit. The SEM may immediately grant a foreigner a permit if by doing so Switzerland stands to benefit significantly. Under these circumstances, the legal grounds justify residency owing to «important public interests.»
Most such cases involve extremely rich foreigners who wish to move here for tax reasons. In regulatory parlance, «substantial cantonal financial interests» come into play in these cases. In other words, the applicants are so rich and pay so much in taxes that they are allowed to settle in Switzerland simply for that reason.
According to the SEM, in recent years 578 individuals have been granted permits on these grounds. A third of them were Russian. Oligarch Michael Khodorkovsky is one example. Khodorkovsky's move to Switzerland was also motivated by taxes – but in contrast to Abramovich, the authorities waved Khodorkovsky on through. The case of the football tycoon now raises the question whether Switzerland has changed its practice toward rich Russians.
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