Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, a close friend of Putin, allegedly invested a lot of money in famous German start-ups. Abramovich was subject to EU sanctions in March 2022 and his money invested in Europe should be frozen. A data leak of more than 400,000 documents reveals the financial labyrinth of transactions. The data leak was at the disposal of the German radio station, SWR, and is quoted by Tagesschau.de.
Roman Abramovich Photo: Ozan KOSE / AFP / Profimedia
Since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine 16 months ago, investigators around the world have sought to uncover the assets of Russian oligarchs, as they are considered part of the Russian power apparatus and are to be targeted in a targeted manner.
About the former owner of FC Chelsea
Abramovich is an oligarch with Russian, Israeli and Portuguese citizenship. From 2000 to July 2008, he was the governor of the Chukotka region of Russia. He is considered the richest Israeli and Portuguese, being also one of the richest people in the world. He built his fortune on the basis of the privatization of some Russian state enterprises, also taking advantage of the bankruptcy of the Yukos oil concern in 2006.
Abramovic bought the English football club FC Chelsea in 2003 for 150 million pounds. Last summer he sold it for £4.25 billion to an American consortium. It is considered the most expensive purchase in the history of the sport.
Roman Abramovich has waived repayment of his loans to the London club, which, according to the media, would have been £1.5 billion. According to his statements, quoted by Welt.de, the profits from the sale were to be distributed by a charitable foundation, in favor of the victims of the war in Ukraine.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Abramovich was Russia’s envoy to the 2022 negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.
Money from German startups
The data leak has been received by SWR from the US transparency organization, DDOS Secrets, and has been under assessment for months. The material includes a list of more than 2,500 customers, e-mails, notarial documents, copies of passports and bank documents. In addition, extracts from the German commercial register suggest that Abramovich may still hold shares in at least three German software companies despite the sanctions.
According to SWR, based on the confidential documents of the Cypriot asset management company, MeritServus, it appears that the money from Roman Abramovich went to a total of five German companies. The oligarch was a client of MeritServus until at least the end of 2022. Investment company MeritServus has been on the British sanctions list since April this year for working for Abramovich.
Tracing hidden assets is difficult because basic information, such as the true identity of the company’s owner, is sometimes not accessible: “The financial market is still a black box,” said money laundering expert Christoph Trautvetter of the Fiscal Justice Network (Netzwerk Steuergerechtigkeit). According to Trautvetter, many sanctions have failed.
Because of the lack of transparency, it is unclear whether Abramovich’s money is still active in Auto1, the Berlin-Kreuzberg-based start-up that claims to be Europe’s largest online platform for car dealers. Abramovic’s offshore company Ervington held shares in Auto1 in 2020. This can be found in a list of the start-up’s shareholders.
An Auto1 spokeswoman confirms the firm has been bought by “target companies”. “That was many years before the first sanctions.” In the meantime, however, there is only “limited knowledge” about shareholders, as the company is listed on the stock exchange, from February 2021. The spokeswoman also says that there is an obligation to report voting rights only for holders of more than 3% of the company’s shares .
In a list of Auto1 shareholders for 2021, seven of the 35 shareholders can be found with “Target” in their name. Abramovich’s company, Ervington Ltd., is named as a “party” in the document available to SWR, which lists the target companies. Each individual participation remains below the three percent threshold.
Leaked MeritServus documents show that Abramovic has also invested in other Berlin start-ups. The globally operating media company Showheroes, which also provides videos for Spiegel and Funke Mediengruppe, is said to have received money in the same way as Auto1, through investments from an offshore firm. In this case a company called Innes Worldwide Holdings Limited was identified.
According to a 2019 document obtained by SWR, a CEO at MeritServus allegedly told the Showheroes founder that “Mr. Roman Abramovici is the ultimate beneficiary of Innes Worldwide Holdings Limited”. Abramovic’s company also bought shares in three smaller app startups.
One company that continues to appear in connection with Abramovich’s investments is Target Global (venture capital), which was founded in Moscow ten years ago and, according to its website, is now based across the street from the Berlin Palace. Target Global is advertising investments in more than 100 German start-ups, including online insurance broker WeFox, which is also the main sponsor of Bundesliga soccer club Union Berlin.
Asked by SWR, a spokeswoman denied that Abramovic had invested in Target Global Holding Limited. However, the leaked documents show that in 2020, Abramovich gave a subsidiary of Target Global a loan of about $15 million.
In addition, the oligarch reportedly increased a loan to around 15 million euros for an investment in 2021, through a company called Target Global Advisors (TGA). According to the documents, she officially works as a financial advisor for Target Global Holding. The cash flow is detailed in a written agreement between TGA and another of Abramovic’s offshore companies.
To the attention of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office?
Experts such as Christian Trautvetter see minority shareholding as a problem for enforcement: “Sometimes minority shares, worth millions, are not even required to be reported. Therefore, it is very likely that Russian oligarchs still own shares in German companies, without being identified. And that wouldn’t even be illegal,” says Trautvetter.
Sebastian Fiedler, the SPD’s Bundestag expert on money laundering and sanctions, told SWR that “the data leak shows how important tax havens are for oligarchs to invest their money in German companies.” “These tax havens cause more damage than the guns themselves. However, we allow them,” he added.
“Many states in the EU have positioned themselves regrettably when it came to the application of sanctions,” Fiedler also said. He therefore requests the extension of the responsibilities of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.