March 13, 2018 / 8:50 PM / 7 days ago

After spy is poisoned, Britain mulls closing door to London for Russia's rich

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Britain’s response to the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal on its soil, using a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union, could hit members of the Russian elite hard if it closes the door on their London lifestyles.

Members of the emergency services wearing protective clothing work near the bench where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in Salisbury, Britain, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Britain gave Russian President Vladimir Putin until midnight on Tuesday to provide an explanation for the attack, and is due to consider its official response on Wednesday.

One possible counter-measure, suggested by British lawmaker Tom Tugendhat, could involve denying Russia’s so-called oligarchs access to the luxuries of London, where many have channelled their fortunes, traded their companies and relocated their family lives.

Most prominent among the residents of “Londongrad”, as the British capital has been nicknamed for its popularity among the Russian elite, are Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, respectively owner and major shareholder of the English football clubs Chelsea and Arsenal.

But they are far from alone. Around 10-15 percent of the 96 Russians on the so-called “oligarch list” published by the U.S. Treasury Department in January could have close ties to Britain, according to Vladimir Ashurkov, a businessman and critic of the Kremlin based in London.

“It’s very possible that Britain will take measures that could affect these individuals,” Ashurkov said.

“We know that London is a large haven for money that come from Russia ... Britain has the capacity to investigate this money and the activity of specific people,” he added.

Among the best-known are a group of long-time business partners associated with the investment vehicle LetterOne, which sports three offices in London’s wealthy Mayfair district alone.

The firm’s founder, Mikhail Fridman, owns a mansion in London’s Highgate, according to the company restoring the property.

One of the firm’s investors, Petr Aven, has given journalists tours around his estate in Surrey, in the southeast of England.

FILE PHOTO: Chairman of the supervisory board of Alfa Group consortium Mikhail Fridman attends a session during the Week of Russian Business, organized by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs in Moscow, Russia March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin/File Photo

Cutting Russians off from the British education system would also sting. One of Fridman’s children attends a prestigious British boarding school, photos on his social media account suggest.

Two sons of Russian entrepreneur and Tinkoff Bank owner Oleg Tinkov attend private school in Britain, according to their LinkedIn and Facebook profiles.

And two of Aven’s children have described attending school in Britain before going on to study at Yale University in the United States.

Some wealthy Russians are in London specifically because they have fallen foul of the Kremlin.

FILE PHOTO: Oleg Tinkov, Chairman of Tinkoff Credit Systems, smiles during an interview with Reuters journalists in Moscow, Russia September 25, 2012. REUTERS/William Webster/File Photo

After being fired as Moscow mayor in 2010, Yuri Luzhkov moved his family to London, saying he feared for their safety.

Last December Yelena Baturina, his wife and Russia’s wealthiest woman, was made a director of the charity the Mayor’s Fund for London, according to Britain’s business directory Companies House.

Their daughter Olga studied at University College London, her social media accounts show.

It is by no means certain that oligarchs bringing their money home would receive a warm welcome, said Christopher Weafer, senior partner at Macro-Advisory, a consultancy in Moscow.

“Oligarchs could find themselves in the middle, in the firing ground as it were,” Weafer said.

“They could be the target of sanctions applied by the UK government, but on the other hand they will get absolutely no sympathy in Russia, because they brought their money out and spent it outside the country.”

Reuters has no evidence that any of the people mentioned, or their businesses, are going to be subject to any new British restrictions.

Editing by Kevin Liffey

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