In March 2000, five of Russia’s richest oligarchs met in a suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London to discuss a multibillion-pound merger involving some of the biggest assets in the world aluminum industry.
The tycoons – one of whom arrived from a legal hearing in the House of Lords – discussed Russian politics, the aluminum wars in their country in the 1990s and the creation of the industrial giant Rusal.
A decade later, that hotel summit was at the center of a £3bn high court battle between two of those present, Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky, over the allocation of the abundant resources from the privatization of Russia’s state-controlled industry, including the aluminum merger. It was the most costly private litigation battle ever fought in the British courts. The legal costs in the 2012 case were estimated at up to £100m.
While Abramovich won the legal case – in which Berezovsky demanded compensation for his alleged stake in the aluminum assets – the roots of these global riches, and those involved in managing them, are now coming under intense regulatory scrutiny from financial officials tasked with imposing sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Two of the men at the Dorchester meeting on 13 March 2000 have since died. Berezovsky was found dead in the bathroom of his Berkshire mansion in March 2013 with a ligature around his neck. A coroner recorded an open verdict. The Georgian-born oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was also present, died in February 2008 from a suspected heart attack.
Two others who were at the summit, Abramovich and the billionaire Oleg Deripaska, the founder of Rusal, were last week put on the UK sanctions list. Abramovich’s British assets – including Chelsea football club – have been frozen. The Premier League has disqualified Abramovich as a director of the club
Abramovich and Deripaska were among seven oligarchs targeted in the move: they are said by the government to be worth a combined £15bn. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said officials would continue to “ramp up the pressure on the Putin regime and choke off funds.”
The fifth person present at the 2000 meeting was Soviet-born billionaire Eugene Shvidler, one of the major shareholders in the London-listed global steel company Evraz and a close friend of Abramovich.
Shvidler was also chairman of Millhouse LLC, Abramovich’s Moscow-based investment company, but stepped down last week after sanctions were imposed on the Chelsea owner. Shvidler has kept a low profile for most of his business career, but is now in the spotlight after being named in the sanctions documents over his “close ties” to Abramovich.
A private jet, a Bombardier Global 6500, suspected of being linked to him was impounded last week at Farnborough airport. Ministers are making it a criminal offense for plans owned or chartered by Russians to enter UK airspace.
Shvidler has been described as Abramovich’s “right-hand man”, and the pair have often been spotted together, including on a trip in July 2015 to the Isle of Arran in Scotland. While Abramovich can be urbane and charming, Shvidler is described as more blunt in business dealings. “He can be the bad cop to his good cop,” said one person who has met him.
Asked last week whether Shvidler thought he might be at risk of sanctions, a spokesperson said: “Mr Shvidler is not, and has never been, a citizen of the Russian Federation. Mr Shvidler is not a public person and he is not party to the current events. Mr Shvidler was born in the USSR and left in 1989 as a stateless refugee. He settled in the US and became a US citizen in 1994. Since 2010, Mr Shvidler has also been a citizen of the UK, having arrived under the UK highly skilled visa programme.”
Shvidler’s personal wealth has been estimated by Forbes at £1.3bn. He has a home in Surrey and is reported to own a super yacht, Le Grand Bleu, said to be a gift from Abramovich. His other properties of his have included a Bordeaux vineyard called Château Thénac, a house in Colorado; and a £19m New York apartment. He also previously owned a property in Belgravia, London, which was sold in December 2012 for £55m to a company in the British Virgin Islands.
Shvidler and Abramovich built their fortunes after the privatization of Russian oil company Sibneft in 1996. Shvidler was appointed president of Sibneft in July 1998. In the 2012 court case, the judge considered that Abramovich accepted that he would not have won control of Sibneft without corrupt payments to Berezovksy to influence President Boris Yeltsin over the assets’ future.
Shvidler stood down last week as a director of Evraz, along with nine other non-executive directors, including Sir Michael Peat, a former private secretary to Prince Charles. Abramovich is one of his company’s major shareholders and trading in Evraz shares was suspended by the Financial Conduct Authority, pending clarification of the impact of the sanctions.
The company was accused by the government of potentially threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including the possible supply of steel to the Russian military which may have been used for tanks. Evraz denied the claims and said it did not expect its business to be hit with sanctions. It said it supplied steel for construction projects only and it had not been used in Russian tanks. Shvidler’s spokesperson described the government allegations as “baseless”.
Shvidler is also previously a director of the investment advisory firm MC Peat & Co, which was set up by Sir Michael Peat’s son, Charlie. He stood down in May 2013.
Bill Browder, the financier and critic of the Kremlin, said last week he welcomed the action against Abramovich and other oligarchs, but the sanctions now needed to be widened. He said there should be investigations into the “junior partners of these big oligarchs” and “family members of the oligarchy who may be holding assets on their behalf.”
The spokesperson for Shvidler said: “Mr Shvidler would like to make it clear that, like the rest of us in Europe, he is hoping and praying for peace and an end to the senseless violence in Ukraine. We all hope that the war can be brought to an immediate end.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism