THE Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich was one of the key suspects in the lingering mystery over the possible misuse of a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to Russia. Mr Abramovich and, in particular, his Runicom trading group are named in documentation from a Swiss inquiry into what happened to a huge injection of Western aid designed to prop up the ailing rouble. The Swiss believed that Mr Abramovich, through Runicom, was one of the controllers of a web of secret caisses noires, usually translated as slush funds, which were operated by associates of the former President, Boris Yeltsin.
For the first time, the Swiss have publicly revealed why they were forced to abandon their investigation. Russia and the United States, it has emerged, refused to divulge what they knew about the scandal. As a wall of silence was erected from Moscow to Washington, the investigation was marred by violent intimidation. Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, the investigating magistrate who launched the Swiss investigation, was left bleeding and unconscious in an attack in St Petersburg during a visit to Russia.
The Swiss believed that from 1995, Russia had been creating a network of secret financial reserves abroad, making use of the “correspondence banking” system, where banks are partnered across borders. Runicom, the trading arm of Mr Abramovich’s Russian oil giant Sibneft, was supposed to be one of the controllers of this web. “Access to the caisses noires was limited to about a hundred people close to President Yeltsin who included political leaders as well as top industrialists or directors of private and state banks,” a Swiss investigator stated in a report in 2000. “I know that Runicom group has managed and still manages the caisses noires.”
Mr Abramovich is named in The Sunday Times Rich List as Britain’s wealthiest man, having amassed a fortune of £7.5 billion. Had the Swiss been able to complete their investigations, clues to the source of his affluence might have been revealed.
Few important people want to see the dossier uncovered. The IMF is getting its loan money back from the Russians, with interest. Mr Abramovich’s spokesman, while denying any wrongdoing, says that it sullies the Chelsea FC owner’s good name to resurrect the issue now.
How this one-time oil trader raised under Soviet communism came to own more than the Duke of Westminster by the age of 37 has never been fully explained.