Meet the oligarchs: Switzerland’s awkward guests

Vladimir Putin and Viktor Vekselberg (right) during a meeting, Moscow 2017. Imago/russian Look

Switzerland is widely assumed to be one of the favourite global destinations for Russian billionaires with links to the Kremlin.

This content was published on March 25, 2022 - 09:00

Multiple passports, visas and residences make it difficult to trace the exact whereabouts of oligarchs. Lawyers and financial advisors are busy obscuring the trail of their billions with shell companies and trust funds.

Sorting the fact from the fiction is far from straightforward. But the unmistakable fingerprints of some sanctioned Russians can still be found in Switzerland – and not just in the banking system.

The confirmed residents

Viktor Vekselberg is easily the most visible Russian billionaire in Switzerland. He took residence in 2007 and has lived in the Alpine country ever since, despite being on the receiving end of sanctions in 2018 and more recent measures.

He announced his arrival with a spate of company takeovers through his holding company Renova. Sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Crimea forced him to reduce his personal stake in the Swiss industrial landscape to avoid exposing these firms to trade restrictions. In March, the United States moved to impound a yacht and private jet, accusing Vekselberg of having close links with Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry Pumpyansky, Moscow 2021. Reuters / Sergei Ilnitsky

The Tamedia media group reports four other sanctioned Russians with a confirmed Swiss residence: Andrey Melnichenko, Dmitry Pumpyanski and his wife and son. But it’s less clear whether Putin’s alleged lover, Alina Kabaeva, lives in Switzerland along with their presumed love child.

Andrei Melnichenko, Moscow 2018. Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

One person definitely not residing in Switzerland is Alisher Usmanov. Canton Vaud was pushed to deny such press rumours, saying that the iron ore magnate “does not have any residency authorisation in Switzerland”.

The nearly-man

Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich has long had business links with Switzerland, according to Tamedia. But in 2016, the federal police blocked his bid to obtain a Swiss residency visa in canton Valais, saying he posed a “reputational risk for Switzerland and a threat to public safety”.

Some 85 Russians hold so-called “Golden Visas” in Switzerland, the migration office told Tamedia. These residency permits are fast-tracked to wealthy applicants if the authorities deem it in the “public interest”.

Abramovich is not to be found among these Russians after his legal challenge against the federal police decision fell on deaf ears in the Swiss courts.

Roman Abramovich, London, 2022. Reuters / John Sibley

Bricks and mortar

Nothing stands out quite like a lakeside villa or Alpine holiday home. The Swiss authorities and media are busy tracking down properties belonging to sanctioned Russians.

Petr Aven, a major shareholder of the group that owns Russia’s biggest private bank Alfa, has recently had his luxury mountain villa in the Bernese Oberland seized.

Petr Aven, Moscow, 2017. Sputnik Via Afp / Maksim Blinov

The media has named other oligarchs with Swiss properties, such as Gennady Timchenko. In 2014, the sanctioned commodities magnate was forced to sell his stake in the oil trading company Gunvor, which operates in Geneva.

Gennady Timchenko, Saint Petersburg, 2017. Imago/russian Look

While the Swiss authorities say they are freezing assets, including property, they are often reluctant to give precise details, citing confidentiality rules.

Collateral damage

Julius Bär bank’s former head of Russia, Central and Eastern Europe, Evgeni Smuschkovich, has been forced to step down, reportedly for his links to a sanctioned Russian oligarch.

The Zurich-based banking group said it was to “protect the bank”, without giving further details.

But the media website InsideParadeplatz reports that Smuschkovich is married to the daughter of a Belarusian oligarch, Mikalai Varabei, who has been sanctioned for his perceived links to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Soft factors

Wealthy Russians are also drawn to Switzerland for reasons beyond banking and business.

Switzerland’s exclusive private schools and hospitals attract wealthy clients from across the world. Russians also send their children to such schools at the Lyceum Alpinum and the Rosenberg Institute. And they turn to the like of the Hirslanden Group and the Schloss Mammern Clinic for five-star health treatments.

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