– A look back at the history of the oligarchs and their love for Switzerland
Many Russian billionaires have close ties to Switzerland. Historical decryption, from perestroika to current sanctions, including lavish property purchases on the shores of Lake Geneva.
The oligarch, a name that conveys many fantasies. The term refers to the largest fortunes in Eastern Europe. It appears in the mid-nineties. It was at that time mainly a group of young wolves, from good families and very well trained. They generally had their first experiences during the period of perestroika led by Mikhail Gorbachev, from his coming to power in 1985.
They built up a certain amount of capital and, above all, they weaved an excellent network of relations, which they used to their advantage during the privatizations carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992. Those who managed to conquer the large industrial groups became immeasurably rich. Officially, the first billionaire was Boris Berezovsky, a brilliant mathematician who came very close to the presidential family. The man was able to seize several companies such as Aeroflot, AvtoVAZ (the manufacturer of Lada cars) or the oil company Sibneft during the privatizations thanks to his political connections.
Under Putin, conditioned oligarchs
Things began to change in 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power. Those who accepted the Kremlin’s conditions for not interfering in politics, and at its request to provide it with some services, did not suffer and were able to continue to develop their business. Those who did not want to bow met a far less enviable fate.
So Mikhail Khodorkovsky, if Bilan has just published an interview, lost all his Russian assets and spent ten years in prison. Boris Berezovsky, an industrialist who bought the Sibneft oil group together with Roman Abramovich during the privatization, has gone into exile in London. He died there in 2013, officially of suicide, though doubts continue.
In the early 90’s, Boris Berezovsky founded Andava and Forus in Lausanne. He was accused by the Russian government of withdrawing funds from the Aeroflot company through its Swiss companies. Funds were blocked in 1999 before Switzerland repaid 53 million to Russia 11 years later.
As for Vladimir Gussinsky, media mogul and owner of the Most Bank, he built up his fortune thanks to his proximity to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. The independence of its media has displeased those in power. The oligarch was forced to hand over his assets to Gazprom. He now lives in the United States and prefers diving to business.
Teenage friends, judo, KGB
The current oligarchs, whose fortunes are growing best and whose influence is strongest, are Vladimir Putin’s friends. They met either as teenagers, in the judo department or in the KGB or even at the town hall in St. Petersburg and have known each other for decades.
They are also his most loyal friends. Gennady Timtchenko, who has lived in Geneva for many years, is one of them. This former KGB agent with a Finnish passport owes Gunvor his fortune. Its proximity to Vladimir Putin has facilitated the company’s access to Russian oil for export.
Some have lost oligarch status because they have done bad business, or their businesses have been “swallowed up” by “big sharks”, sometimes with the Kremlin’s approval.
An independence that pays cash
Dimitri Zimin represents a very special case. This scientist founded the telecommunications company Vimpelcom in 1992. It operated under the Beeline brand and quickly became a national leader in its field. In 2001, he left the operation, became honorary president and created the Dynasty Foundation, where he invested most of his fortune.
The dynasty played a significant role in funding the work of young Russian researchers until 2015. It then had to be dissolved after the authorities attributed the status of foreign agent because its activities were too independent in the eyes of the Kremlin.
Far from being deterred, the Dimitri Zimin founded the Zimin Family Foundation, which supports scientific projects internationally. on After his death in December 2021, his son Boris took over the management of the fund.
21 nationals of the former USSR among the 300 richest in Switzerland
Switzerland, especially its French-speaking part, has always had a unique place in the hearts of Russians, beginning with the members of the imperial family. Anarchists and revolutionaries, including Lenin, also went through Switzerland.
As soon as the Iron Curtain fell, businessmen from the former USSR came to Switzerland, first on vacation, and very quickly began to establish bridgeheads there. Banks, trading companies, administrators and lawyers were the main recipients of this first wave. Private schools experienced a large influx of students from the countries of the former USSR while their parents went for treatment at our private clinics.
A little later, and as their fortunes progressed, they came to settle in Switzerland, most often through tax packages, and offered themselves the most beautiful properties on the market. People like Viktor Vekselberg, whose fortunes come from metals and oil, have bought up local businesses, others have launched businesses or even invested in real estate. In 2021, the list of the 300 richest in Switzerland compiled by Bilan had 21 nationals of the former USSR.
To distance oneself from the official rhetoric
Like the rest of the world, the oligarchs say they were taken aback and shocked by the Russian attack on Ukraine. Both the Russians and the Ukrainians have become difficult to reach, and remain very discreet about their location. Under the stamp of anonymity, many Russians, who often have Ukrainian roots, admit to having great difficulty understanding the logic of their president’s approach.
In recent days, some of the oligarchs have gradually begun to distance themselves from official rhetoric. The first to do so, three days after the Russian attack, were Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska. Others joined them.
Mikhail Fridman, now under Western sanctions, created the Alfa Group, which in particular owns the largest private bank in Russia. He was born in Ukraine and participated with Vekselberg in the privatization of the tanker TLK, which was subsequently sold. As for Oleg Deripaska, he owns the Rusal group, the world No. 2 in aluminum.
The one who has gone the furthest is Roman Abramovich, who a few years ago wanted to settle in Valais, but was refused a residence permit. He put his English football club Chelsea, worth three billion dollars, up for sale and promised to donate the proceeds from the sale to war victims, both in Russia and Ukraine. Roman Abramovich, a Russian, Israeli and recently Portuguese citizen, is also among those who have declared themselves ready to play the role of mediator in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.
As for their response to Western sanctions, even those who do not want to talk about it can not hide their disappointment. Alisher Usmanov claims in the press that he finds them unfair. This oligarch, who received a residence permit in Switzerland in 2016, took advantage of metallurgy before diversifying into technology companies. With the blessing of the Kremlin, he acquired media, some of which belonged to Boris Berezovsky.
To the anecdote, Bilan was in communication with the representative of an important Russian businessman, after investing heavily in our country when the list of sanctions came out. When we told him his boss was not on the list, his relief was evident over the phone.
Inheritance that melts
According to the Bloomberg Bureau, which updates its list of billionaires daily, it is the oligarch whose fortune has fallen the most since the beginning of the year, according to figures from March 4. Gennady Timtchenko (click on the links to see their profile among the 300 richest in Switzerland), with a loss of 53.9%. Ukrainian Rinat Akhmetov, whose son Damir recently moved to Genevalost 50.8 pct.
Alicher Ousmanov sees his fortune fall by 12.6%, not including the seizure of his yacht, worth $ 600 million. Viktor Vekselbergmeanwhile, lost 12.3 per cent. The only exception is according to Bloomberg Andrey Melnichenko, resident of St. Moritz, whose wealth has increased by 17.6 per cent. He does not dispute this figure through his spokesperson. He explains this with a sharp rise in the price of fertilizer produced and sold by his EuroChem group based in Zug. This oligarch became rich in the banking sector thanks to the MDM establishment, which he co-founded before diversifying into fertilizer and coal.
Oligarchs with multiple passports
Another peculiarity, like Roman Abramovich, many of these businessmen have multiple passports. Among Europeans, the most common is the Cypriot passport, the Maltese passport has also become very popular in recent years. (Read our article: How to buy a European passport)
If they have lived in a foreign country for a long time, they can also have the passport of the country of residence. Their children, who have generally studied abroad, also very often have another passport and use it for all their administrative procedures. This poses a legal problem, especially for the banks’ compliance department. The latter are now very careful with passport holders from Eastern Europe.
With the war in Ukraine and its aftermath, several interlocutors said they were considering giving up their Russian nationality. Some want to avoid the inconvenience this passport may cause them, others say they are ashamed of their government, including those who previously supported it.
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