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By John Helmer, Moscow

What is more alluring than a Swiss smile – and I don’t mean the ones displayed by the girls around Cornavin railway station in Geneva.  

The question which Russian visitors, residents, and hopeful residents are asking is whether the Swiss have decided to abjure the smile and impose an informal sanction on Russians of wealth, and notable Ukrainians as well.

Sources who have been in social contact with Russians in January at the well-known ski resorts, as well as at elite boarding schools like Le Rosey, say large inter-bank transfers are being delayed or halted abruptly; longstanding bank accounts summarily closed; and applications to open new ones rejected.

The Swiss case of Roman Abramovich became a matter of public record on February 4, when Le Matin of Geneva reported  that the oligarch with residences in the UK, US, and the Caribbean had his application for Swiss residency rejected in the Swiss manner – with an invitation to withdraw and to re-apply later. The case has become notorious because a  judge in Zurich accepted an application from Abramovich to suppress publication in the Swiss media of the details of Abramovich’s case.

Le Matin reported on February 4 that over the past decade the Swiss federal and cantonal authorities have admitted a total of 578 applications for residency from the super-rich. Three years ago, the total confirmed by the Swiss authorities was 320, so the number of applicants has been accelerating.

The official Swiss classification is residency approved for reason of “important public interests”. In the regulations there are several categories of these public interests; they include recognized artists, state-endorsed figures (politicians in exile, ex-prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky); and finally, individuals with enough wealth to enrich the cantonal treasury. The last category is referred to in the regulations as “erhebliche fiskalische interessen” (significant financial interests). 

For applicants in this last category, a tariff is decided case by case, according to the applicant’s worth; this requires a negotiation between the applicant and a combination of federal and cantonal authorities until the sum is agreed. The Swiss administrative practice is to require the foreign residents to renegotiate their applications either every year or biannually.  Rejections are very rare; that is until  recently.

Russian comprise the largest national group of these super-rich residents; about 200 in all, or one-third of the super-rich permits awarded. Most of them live in the city and canton of French-speaking Geneva; followed by German-speaking Zurich and Zug. A third of the children boarding at Le Rosey,  the most expensive school in the world (in Vaud canton),  are reported to be Russian.


The case of the negotiation for residency between Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky and the federal authorities was reported in 2014; read the full story.  

At the time, the Russian prosecutor-general had issued a warrant for Kolomoisky’s arrest for war crimes, but Swiss officials, who have taken the US-European Union side against Russia in the Ukraine civil war, ignored it.

The Swiss found it more difficult to overlook Kolomoisky’s political appointment as governor of the Ukrainian region of Dniepropetrovsk, but after several months of investigation, Kolomoisky’s old permit was allowed to continue in effect, while renewals were granted to his family.   With an additional  home on the French side of the border, Kolomoisky and his family appear to have benefited also from continuing French visa authorizations.

Speculation that this may be about to change stems from Ukrainian Government actions in local and foreign courts to pursue Kolomoisky and his partner, Gennady Bogolyubov, for recovery of the assets they are alleged to have stolen from Privat Bank, the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The story of these billion-dollar larcenies, and the supporting part played by IMF officials, can be followed in this archive

On application from Privat Bank,  High Court orders were issued in London in December; they have frozen about $2.5 billion in assets belonging to Kolomoisky and Bogolyubov.   Kolomoisky’s and Bogolyubov’s real estate in London has been partially identified here. Kolomoisky’s US real estate holdings were the subject of this report

Kolomoisky has moved his legal residency from Ukraine to Israel and then to Geneva. Reportedly,  he has not been permitted to live in the US. The Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) does not comment on individual cases, and Swiss sources can neither confirm nor deny Kolomoisky’s current status in Geneva. He continues to hold meetings in the city, such as this one last September  with the runaway Georgian-Ukrainian, Mikheil Saakashvili.

The 12-month process of refusal by the Swiss authorities to allow Abramovich began in July 2016, according to Le Matin. Abramovich proposed living in the commune of Bagnes (right)  near Verbier in the southern canton of Valais. Despite the court injunction from Zurich, local officials from the commune and the canton told Le Matin they had approved Abramovich’s application. By June 2017, however,  this was reversed to the  surprise and financial loss of the locals. At the end of last year, Le Matin has reported, Abramovich was told he could lodge a new application.

Abramovich’s spokesman, John Mann, has  responded to requests for clarification by saying he has no comment on the Le Matin report. Asked if Abramovich continues to seek a Swiss residency permit, Mann did not reply.

The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Swiss residency is unclear. In March 2014, following Khodorkovsky’s release from Russian imprisonment the previous December,  Khodorkovsky decided to apply for Swiss residency at Rapperswil-Jona, in the northeastern canton of St. Gallen. He was granted residency with a tariff and the purchase of a house estimated at 100 million Swiss francs ($110 million).

But there was local opposition to his remaining, and in October 2015 the local press reported  that Khodorkovsky had left. “Personal reasons” were announced. Khodorkovsky moved to London, where he remains today.

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