Adriel Kasonta
Tempus fugit, aeternitas manet

Roman Abramovich and the ugly case of Aryanization

Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich sits in his box before their English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, December 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich sits in his box before their English Premier League soccer match against Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, December 19, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

What has unfolded in Ukraine almost a month ago is a great tragedy both for the Ukrainians and Russians, with the current conflict bringing the worst and best in people.

The saddest part is that its consequences go far beyond the borders of the battlefield, with severe implications that could not have been imagined before by Jews and non-Jews alike who, just like me, well remember history lessons about the Holocaust and its impact on individuals – especially those with a significant amount of wealth.

Vilification of Roman Abramovich

It is fair to argue that in 2016 the UK press set its sight on Roman Abramovich, who has been the Chelsea football club owner since 2003, for the first time.

During a Panorama documentary aired on BBC One, an attempt was made to link the Russian-born Jewish billionaire to Vladimir Putin claiming that the former transferred a $35 million worth Olympia yacht as a gift to the Russian president through an offshore company.

Even though claims made by Dimitry Skarga, who ran the state company Sovcomflot and allegedly oversaw the shady operation, were dismissed by Abramovich’s lawyers as “unsubstantiated”, the stain on the billionaire’s character remained and effectively laid the groundwork for smearing his good name in the future.

It did not take long to see results, as two years later, Abramovich faced a delay in renewing his UK Tier 1 investor visa (the type of visa that was scrapped last month) amid the Skripals poisoning controversy that has impacted UK-Russia relations, although he was in no way involved in the said attack.

As a result of the apparent discrimination, the Jewish billionaire withdrew his visa application in the UK and decided to fly to Tel Aviv and exercise his right to apply for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which was successfully granted to him.

After eventually returning to London in October 2021 to visit his family members, Roman Abramovich has become a target – along with seven other individuals, including Alisher Usmanov (due to having links to Everton football club) – of a group of 24 MPs from opposition parties who have labelled them in their letter to then the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab as those being among “key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy, with significant ties/assets in the West.”

It was also the first time when the British lawmaker, Layla Moran, who serves as the Liberal Democrat’s foreign affairs spokesperson, proposed sanctioning the Russian-Jewish billionaire solely based on being included on a list issued by Alexei Navalny’s team, which came after his detention by the Russian state, in an alleged move to put pressure on Vladimir Putin – again, although this would not have any legal basis as neither of the mentioned targets had personal involvement in the imprisonment of Navalny.

What can, however, be understood, taking into account Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge’s performance at the emergency debate in the House of Commons that took place at that time, is the fact that the main aim of putting sanctions on Abramovich and Usmanov was the fact that both of them “have significant wealth, property and links to English football clubs”. In other words, they are “the people with the money.”

The fall of the ‘Roman Empire’ as a consequence of the conflict in Ukraine

Ever since the conflict in Ukraine broke out, there has been a significant push among British lawmakers to punish wealthy Russians with business links to the country.

What is worth noting is the fact that at first, PM Boris Johson – perhaps unconsciously or out of simple human decency – apparently tried to save Roman Abramovich from being sanctioned by claiming that he was “already facing sanctions”, and only when was pressed by Labour MP Chris Bryant to “correct the record” to clarify the confusion, Johnson apologized and admitted that he “misspoke”.

What has followed the British Prime Minister’s statement, and MP Brant’s subsequent call to size Abramovich’s assets, was a move by the Russian-Jewish billionaire to cede management over Chelsea to trustees of the club’s charitable foundation.

One can only imagine how painful that had to be for the man who has given the club his heart, time and £1.5 billion worth of loans investment since buying it in 2003, which resulted in winning 21 trophies, including the first Fifa World Cup in Abu Dhabi last month, and being currently ranked by Forbes as the seventh most valuable football club worth $3.2 billion.

While the UK government effectively targeted Abramovich by freezing his assets and eventually preventing him from selling the Chelsea FC, on March 10, 2022, on the basis of labelling him as “prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch” who is said to be “associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilizing Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades,” it is crucial to remember that he was the one who tried to help to broker peace between Moscow and Kiev in Belarus after being “contacted by the Ukrainian side”, as spokeswoman Rola Brentlin asserted in a statement.

“Yes I confirm this. He is [in an] advocacy role . . . no idea who invited him but he plays very positive role in the process,” said David Arakhamia, head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s party in parliament.

As it was also acknowledged by a Kiev-born Jewish film producer Alexander Rodnyansky, “The Ukrainians had been trying to find someone in Russia who could help in finding a peaceful resolution,” and “they reached out for help and Roman is the person who decided to help and to mobilize support for a peaceful resolution.”

What Rodnyansky also added is that he believes Abramovich’s ability to influence the Kremlin “was limited”, nevertheless admitted that the Russian-Jewish billionaire was the only Russian person willing to help.

Alea iacta est: denunciation and dispossession

As we can see, the UK has made a risky legal move to sanction Roman Abramovich, who can still challenge the decision within three months through the UK’s judicial review process and highly likely win, yet the damage has already been done.

The country is notably the first that sanctioned Abramovich, with the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries arguing the British government has to “deprive Mr Abramovich of benefiting from his ownership of the club”, and UK foreign secretary Liz Truss adding that such people “have no place in our economy.”

Adding the commentary from PM Boris Johnson claiming, while referring to the Russian Jewish billionaire, that “there can be no safe havens for those who have supported Putin’s vicious assault on Ukraine,” this brings to my mind a World War II-era poster that I saw in 2013 during British Library’s exhibition titled PropagandaPower and Persuasion, which showed English, American and USSR flags in the form of half-opened curtains revealing a massive man with a big nose, big eyebrows and a bad look who wears the Jewish star of David. A caption? Derrière tout: le Juif!

Furthermore, taking into the account legal ramification of the sanctions and its main subject, the current situation resembles the “process of expropriating or confiscating Jewish people’s property – their businesses, stores, homes, land, stocks, and cash assets – and handing it over to non-Jewish (“Aryan,” in Nazi usage) individuals or companies, or to the state”, as the Jüdisches Museum Berlin describes “aryanization” (in German, arisierung) or to simply put, “the elimination of the Jewish population from economic life”, with denunciation as its main instrument.

With books like Hostile Takeovers of Large Jewish Companies, 1933–1935 or Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933–1945 providing in-depth knowledge on the topic, the example of Julius and Else Basch’s case, recalled by Allianze Bank, strongly resembles the case of Abramovich, as they also were not allowed to represent their interest themselves in the sale of their business that was placed under the care of a “trustee”.

Broader consequences of targeting Abramovich

Taking into account the lack of any evidence that would suggest Roman Abramovich’s complicity in the war conducted by the Russian state, if we ought to trust Anatol Lieven’s analysis that true power in Moscow belongs to a group called siloviki, not oligarchs, this would suggest that the eight-richest man in Russia and Britain, with a net worth of about $14 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, was probably unjustly targeted.

Unfortunately, the actions taken against him have not only affected him personally, but broader Jewish Diaspora.

To be specific, Portugal which granted Abramovich its citizenship in April 2021 under the 2015 law that offers naturalization to descents of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula at the end of the 15th century has been tightened and “coercive measures” have been taken against rabbi Daniel Litvak who oversaw the department that certifies Portuguese nationality based on criteria that “have been accepted by successive governments” – although the Jewish community in Porto denied any wrongdoing and complained it was the target of a “smear campaign”.

Also, bearing in mind a long-term new strategic partnership between Yad Vashem and Roman Abramovich announced last month (concerning funding in the sum of tens of millions of dollars), the sanctioning of the latter will significantly impact the World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s activities “at a time when Holocaust distortion, denial and politicization are rising alarmingly worldwide” and therefore prove to be detrimental to all the Jews globally.

When it comes to the possible geopolitical implications for the West, the targeted Russian billionaires who were not necessarily supportive towards Putin’s regime so far will now have no other choice but to prove its utility to Kremlin and severely hit by sanctions Russian economy by being forced to do business and invest in the country due to being considered persona non gratas abroad.

If that is the case, the UK has scored its own goal by handing an easy victory to Putin while doing enormous harm to the collective West and the Jews.

About the Author
Adriel Kasonta is a London-based political risk consultant and lawyer. He is the founder of AK Consultancy and former chairman of the International Affairs Committee at Bow Group, the oldest conservative think tank in the UK.
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