The Jewish-Russian aspiring Briton Roman Abramovich was already the richest Israeli since 2018, and has also been the richest Portuguese since last year. But the passport of the oligarch, owner of the English football club Chelsea and confidant of Russian president Putin, may be suspended. Since this week, the Portuguese government and the Public Prosecutor’s Office have been investigating how Abramovich was able to obtain the Portuguese (and therefore EU) passport.
The Russian took advantage of a law granting citizenship to the descendants of expelled Jews. Critics argue that the law is used by oligarchs to gain a foothold in the EU. It is quite obvious, says the Portuguese anti-corruption activist Jo Ume Batalha, that Abramovich is acquiring passports. That should act as an alarm signal when he applies for a Portuguese passport.
First Abramovich tried it in the UK. That went wrong when British-Russian relations deteriorated after the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury, in March 2018. To maintain his visa-free entry into the UK, Abramovich immediately turned to Israel, where he is allowed to apply for a passport on the basis of his Jewish ethnicity. A month after the British rejection, he, now an Israeli citizen, was again allowed to travel visa-free.
As a result, Abramovich’s appetite for nationalities had not yet been satisfied: the Portuguese newspaper Interracblico announced at the end of last year that Abramovich has also been a Portuguese citizen since April 2021. In 2015, a law came into force in Portugal that issued passports to descendants of the Sephardic Jews who in 1497 were faced with the choice to convert to Christianity or leave Portugal. At least 76,000 people applied for a Portuguese passport through this law in 2020, of whom 23,000 also received it. Spain has adopted similar legislation.
It is not officially known whether Abramovich has Sephardic (Mediterranean Jewish) ancestors; his family is Ashkenazi (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe), but there are also Sephardic Jews who fled to Eastern Europe after the expulsion in 1497. Whether the connection of the passport applicant with the Sephardic culture is strong enough, determines the Jewish communities of Lisbon and Porto.
According to critics, the Jewish community in Portugal has turned it into a passport business. The idea behind the law, Batalha says, was noble: satisfaction for displaced (500 years ago!) families. It is not for nothing that the law was passed unanimously by Parliament.
“But now it turns out that nine out of ten new citizens come through Porto. Lisbon apparently assesses the applications much stricter. There is a huge conflict of interest in Porto: they receive donations from those whose passport applications they have to decide on.”
Abramovich is known to contribute financially to Jewish culture. At an event at the Holocaust Museum in Porto, in June 2021, he was hailed as a benefactor for the Portuguese Jewish community.
Gabriel Senderowicz, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Porto, said the rabbinate checked the applications on the basis of numerous elements, including “names in the family, the communities and synagogues to which they belonged, cemeteries, preserved objects, the religious or food rites and customs, and the applicant’s connection with the Jewish world in the present”.
Did Abramovich buy his EU passport? Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny said in a Twitter thread about the oligarch in December: “he has finally managed to find a country where you can give bribes and make semi-official and official payments to end up in the EU and NATO – on the other side of Putin’s front line, so to speak.” The tweets come from Navalny’s official Twitter account; the politician himself is serving a prison sentence in a Russian penal colony.
Portuguese Foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva called this criticism of his country at the end of December “very unjustified”.
“The idea that Portuguese officials carry suitcases of money is offensive and based on nothing.”
The Jewish community in Porto reported an anti-Semitic wave on social media following the Abramovich debate.
Chief Rabbi Daniel Litvak of Porto also reacts fiercely.
“The researchers will not find suitcases with money, “he says in the Portuguese media,” but a nationality procedure that meets the legal requirements and two payments of 250 euros: the registration fee and the rate charged by the certifying community. Unfortunately for the detractors: 250 euros is our answer.”
Batalha insists that Abramovich “pays for his origin”. Accusations of anti-Semitism he throws far from himself: “that reproach is toxic, unfair, useless and stifles the debate.”
Russian billionaires have more than one passport. EU documents are particularly in demand. For example, Igor Kesayev bought a Finnish island in 2020, bypassing a security investigation with his Cypriot passport. Another EU member state, Malta, granted citizenship to billionaire Sergei Kolesnikov in 2019. He stated that the EU passport “saved time” and increased his ability to travel visa-free.
Portugal also provides ‘golden visas’, with the prospect of a passport, for anyone who invests a minimum amount of half a million euros in the Portuguese housing market or puts a million euros in a Portuguese bank account. Since 1 January, Lisbon, Porto and the Algarve have been excluded from this scheme: The lured foreign investors caused house prices to rise too fast.
Batalha said: “it is a huge incentive for shadowy, criminal or even terrorist organizations and individuals to buy into the Schengen zone, the EU and indirectly also in the US. Thus, well-intentioned laws and regulations turn into a mass intrigue to sell passports.”