While tourists in Antigua last week gazed at some of the world’s oldest sailing ships at the island’s classic yacht regatta, local authorities were obsessed with two thoroughly modern vessels.
Antiguan officials were working to establish whether the ships, Garçon and Halo, belonged to Roman Abramovich, after the Financial Times revealed that both yachts appeared to be linked to the sanctioned oligarch.
After asking British diplomats for help, the Antiguan government received a definitive answer on Thursday: British Virgin Islands authorities confirmed that Abramovich was the owner.
The next day, however, law firm Ince Germany sent letters to Antiguan customs officials stating that “Roman Abramovich is not part of the ownership structure or a beneficiary” of the two boats docked at Falmouth Harbor in Antigua. .
While Antigua has said it is still willing to seize the vessels if requested by the UK government under its Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, conflicting accounts of yacht ownership point to Byzantine offshore structures that complicate the authorities’ efforts to enforce sanctions against the Russians. President Vladimir Putin’s alleged enablers.
Boy and Halo’s presence on the shores of Antigua also shows how much these sunny island getaways have benefited from the massive superyachts of Russian oligarchs, especially after the pandemic strangled tourism and hit their local economies hard.
The FT was able to identify six other yachts linked to prominent businessmen born in Russia or former Soviet republics – including an oligarch also under sanctions – moored in the same port as Abramovich’s alleged ships over the weekend. end last.
Antiguans have become accustomed to the presence of these huge boats over the years, which provide work for local maintenance crews and also for beach restaurants when ship staff take their days off.
But locals do not recall seeing the oligarchs themselves or their guests disembarking to explore the island.
“These are multi-million dollar yachts with million dollar heads,” said a local restaurateur. “They never leave the world of their yacht – that’s their goal.”
If BVI records are to be believed, Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club who now criss-crosses the world as Putin’s envoy in peace talks with Ukraine, lives in the ‘Great Gatsby Building’. in Swiss.
This building, whose existence could not be confirmed, was listed as the oligarch’s address in a letter from the BVI financial investigation agency to his British counterparts, seen by the FT, which confirmed that Abramovich is the owner of the company that owned the two yachts. in Antigua.
Law firm Ince’s statement to the contrary is based on the argument that BVI’s records did not follow a change in ownership, according to a person familiar with the ownership structure of the boats.
On at least one occasion, Abramovich appears to have transferred assets to trusted associates in the weeks before his UK and EU sanction, with UK company documents showing that one of his main investment was transferred to Israeli partner David Davidovich on February 24. .
Tom Keatinge, director of the Center for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, described the tangle of candidates and front companies that mask the ownership of oligarchs’ assets as the “financial metaverse”.
A lawyer who represents wealthy individuals buying private jets and superyachts says oligarchs and billionaires never directly own their planes or ships.
“They are usually owned by a special purpose vehicle, with the shares in that vehicle usually being owned by the very wealthy person themselves,” he said. “But if someone like me is involved, those shares will instead be held by a trust.”
Last Friday, a small armada of Russian-linked superyachts was moored in the Antigua Yacht Club marina, just across from the historic harbor that once housed Admiral Nelson’s fleet.
The ships included the towering black-hulled Alfa Nero, which is more than 80 meters long and is valued between $85 million and $95 million, according to VesselsValue. The Maritime Data Service identified the boat as belonging to Andrey Guryev, the chief executive of Russian fertilizer group PhosAgro, which was added to the EU sanctions list last month against businessmen close to the Kremlin.
Three people familiar with the superyacht industry also said the superyacht was owned by Guryev. The owner of the boat is listed as a BVI company called Flying Dutchman Overseas Limited in the Equasis maritime database, with a search of BVI records offering few clues to the ultimate owner of the entity.
In 2015, a spokesperson for Guryev told the New Yorker that the oligarch did not own the boat, but “regularly charters the Alfa Nero”. Guryev declined to comment on the FT.
Alfa Nero has since left the shores of Antigua, and VesselsValue followed it to nearby Anguilla on Monday.
Ghost ships and skeleton crews
Collectively valued at less than $60 million, Garçon and Halo are a rounding error in the billion-dollar fleet of five yachts that the FT identified last week as linked to Abramovich.
But a person who has been on board several sanctioned oligarch yachts said the two boats docked in Antigua both served as support vessels for the much larger Eclipse superyacht Boy containing extensive medical facilities if guests from the oligarch needed treatment.
“I know the people running Abramovich’s boats and they’re all upside down, just a skeleton crew left, enough to move them,” he said. “Even the guys who are not sanctioned, their boats are effectively frozen too, because they are also struggling to pay the crews – the correspondent banks reject any payment from Russia.”
Crew members of one of the Russian yachts in Antigua told the FT they had been stuck on the island for weeks and did not know when they would leave.
“Our guy still has access to the money, but the money has been cut for these other boats,” a crew member said. “No one could or wanted to send money. Whole crews have gone unpaid and now these huge boats are run by a few management guys trying to keep things running.
It’s a far cry from the years when few oligarchs were sanctioned, when Antigua residents say superyacht crews often emptied entire supermarkets to restock huge onboard pantries, along with the ‘out of stock’ signs. left behind indicating that a new yacht had docked.
More sinister were sightings of automatic weapons carried by security guards and even shots being fired at approaching local boats. Now locals are instead talking about unpaid fuel bills from some boats running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
“Listen, the world is crazy right now, people are dying right now,” said one of the Russian yacht’s crew, who had gathered to watch the sunset from the pier last Friday. . “For a long time, these oligarchs had everything they wanted. But all that has changed now.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya