Billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was left in limbo this week after his U.K. visa expired, as British authorities have not yet granted him a new one. Though it’s unclear why a new visa was not immediately issued, the move follows closely on the heels of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to expel 23 Russian diplomats from U.K. soil in mid-March.
Abramovich is one of the wealthiest people in Britain — he’s currently worth an estimated $12.5 billion — and the owner of Chelsea Football Club. His investor’s visa ran out three weeks ago and is the process of being renewed, although it is taking longer than usual. He has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
“[Abramovich] is in the process of renewing his visa, which is standard procedure. However it is taking a little longer than usual,” a source familiar with the matter told the Sunday Times. “These is no indication that the visa won’t be given…It is just taking longer than usual and it’s not clear why.”
Ever since Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club for $190 million in 2003, he has been a fixture among the London elite. He has bankrolled Chelsea, spending more than $2.7 billion on player transfers since 2003, and also owns a $150 million mansion on Kensington Palace Gardens, complete with its own indoor swimming pool.
However, since the March 4 assassination attempt on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia — carried out using a military-grade nerve agent — the British government has been under increasing pressure to retaliate against Russia, which it says is responsible for the poisoning. Experts agree that one of the most effective ways to get back at Putin would be to crack down on Russian elites’ use of London, either as a playground or a place that they can stash their cash.
"It is highly likely that Russia was responsible" says Theresa May following the nerve agent attack on a former spy in Salisbury and his daughter pic.twitter.com/RS6o5hevaS
— Sky News (@SkyNews) March 12, 2018
“[Buying property] is a really well-trodden path for the corrupt to gain respectability and the London property market is one of the go-to destinations,” Naomi Hirst of Global Witness previously told ThinkProgress. “London is one of the global cities, it’s a very attractive place to live, you also have a global financial center on your doorstep and access to banks, accounting agencies, and PR firms that can help change your reputation. It’s a one-stop shop.”
It’s not clear if Abramovich is being targeted as part of that crackdown, or whether his visa application has been held back for other reasons. But focusing on Russian wealth is no doubt a crucial strategy and key to hindering future national security issues in the U.K.
The importance of this crackdown was detailed on Monday, when a British parliamentary committee warned that London was being used as a “laundromat” for dirty Russian cash and was part of a wider Russian network with darker implications.
“[Assets] stored and laundered in London, both directly and indirectly, support President Putin’s campaign to subvert the international rules-based system,” the report from the foreign affairs committee read. “[The assets] undermine our allies, and erode the mutually-reinforcing international networks that support U.K. foreign policy.”
Downing Street maintains that is “determined” to drive corrupt cash out of the UK and will use all the powers at its disposal, including unexplained wealth orders (UWOs). Introduced in January 2017 as part of the Criminal Finances Act, UWOs are court orders that force the owner of an asset in the UK, worth at least $80,000, to explain how they could afford to buy the asset or risk having it seized.
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd also instructed officials in March to review how 700 wealthy Russians with Tier One visas acquired their fortunes before they came to the U.K. Tier One visas are given to applicants outside the European Union willing to invest at least $2.7 million in the British economy.
“In 2014 and 2015 we took action to tighten up the Tier 1 investor route,” Ben Wallace, the Home Office security minister, told the Daily Telegraph. “This included introducing new powers to refuse applications where there are reasonable grounds to believe funds have been obtained unlawfully. As a result of these reforms, applications reduced by 84 per cent.”