Alisher Usmanov: ex-fencer who ‘solves Putin’s business problems’ | Alisher Usmanov

From a first fortune made from manufacturing plastic bags, which were in short supply in the Soviet Union, Alisher Usmanov’s business dealings saw him rise to become one of the 100 richest people in the world, buying multimillion-pound mansions and stakes in English Premier League football clubs along the way.

Now the Uzbek-born billionaire risks losing some of the trappings of his extreme wealth after he was placed on the EU sanctions list, which named him as “one of Vladmir Putin’s favourite oligarchs”.

The 68-year-old metals magnate was ranked 99th on Forbes magazine’s 2021 billionaires list with an estimated fortune of $14.1bn (£11bn).

On Thursday night Usmanov was also added to the UK and US sanctions lists, meaning he is facing asset freezes on anything he owns in Britain or the EU, including his lavish UK property portfolio, leaving him unable to sell, mortgage or rent out his homes.

The US authorities took the step of including photos of his yacht and private jet on its press release, claiming “Usmanov’s Kremlin ties enrich him and enable his luxurious lifestyle.”

His Airbus A340 jet – named Bourkhan after his father and featuring a retro brown striped livery – is registered in the Isle of Man, and believed to have cost up to $500m. When used by commercial airlines, such a plane can carry around 300 passengers.

The US authorities added that the plane’s registration, M-IABU, which is displayed on its tail, “spells out ‘I’m Alisher Burhanovich Usmanov’.” One of the largest privately-owned planes in Russia, the jet reportedly left the EU in late February.

Usmanov’s $600m superyacht Dilbar, which is named after his mother and thought to be the largest in the world by gross tonnage, was reported on Wednesday night to have been seized by German authorities from a Hamburg shipyard, according to Forbes magazine, citing three sources.

Dilbar, Alisher Usmanov’s $600m superyacht that may – or may not – have been seized in Germany. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Officials in the port city later denied the vessel had been confiscated. However, a spokesperson for Hamburg’s economic authority said there were no plans to return the boat to its owner. “No yacht is going to leave the port that is not allowed to do so,” they said.

The EU has published an eye-catching list of reasons for blacklisting Usmanov. It claims he paid millions to an influential Putin adviser, “fronted for President Putin and solved his business problems”, and offered the use of his personal residences to one of the president’s most senior political allies. In a country where key business positions depend on the will of Putin, Usmanov is “entrusted with servicing financial flows”, the EU alleges.

Vladimir Putin and Alisher Usmanov
Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Alisher Usmanov during an awarding ceremony at the Kremlin in 2018. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters

The EU also said Usmanov’s interests in media and internet companies had actively supported the Russian government’s attempts to destabilise Ukraine, including the curtailing of editorial independence after he took control of the Russian business newspaper Kommersant.

Usmanov hit back, accusing the EU of “false and defamatory allegations” that were damaging his “honour, dignity and business reputation”.

In the UK, even before he was added to the sanctions list, he had already lost some of his influence in the world of sport.

Everton football club
Everton football club has suspended a £12m-a-year sponsorship deal for the training ground with USM Holdings. Photograph: Craig Brough/Reuters

Everton football club moved on Wednesday to suspend all sponsorship deals with his USM Holdings company. These include a £12m-a-year sponsorship of the training ground, under a five-year arrangement that began in 2017.

Usmanov does not have biological children but his football interests became a family affair when his nephew Sarvar Ismailov briefly sat on Everton’s board and was the sporting and commercial director of its women’s team.

Ismailov stepped down for personal reasons in November 2021, shortly before he appeared in court charged with grievous bodily harm. He was accused of assaulting a model as part of the same incident. The case was later dismissed owing to a “lack of evidence”.

Sarvar Ismailov, centre, during the Barclays FA Women’s Super League match last year.
Sarvar Ismailov, centre, during the Barclays FA Women’s Super League match last year. Photograph: Tony McArdle – Everton FC/Everton FC/Getty Images

Sport has played a prominent role in Usmanov’s life. He was once a fencer, and met his future wife, Irina Viner, at a gym in Tashkent before she went on to become Russia’s top rhythmic gymnastics coach.

Earlier in the week, the oligarch stepped down as president of the International Fencing Federation, a position he had held since 2008, saying he would suspend his duties “until justice is restored”. He added that he would use “all legal means” to protect his “honour and reputation”.

Fencing was perhaps a fitting hobby for a businessman born in Soviet Uzbekistan who came to prominence and wealth through the cut-throat metals and mining industry.

His colourful life even saw him spend six years in jail during the late Soviet era, after a conviction he claimed was politically motivated, and which was later overturned.

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In the years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Usmanov was a director of several companies and financial firms. By the late 1990s he was the general director of the state-owned energy company Gazprom’s investment arm, which he managed for more than a decade.

Usmanov’s largest holding remains in the steel and mining company Metalloinvest, which he founded, and where he remains the main beneficiary, with a 49% stake owned through USM.

Beechwood House in Hampstead, north London.
Beechwood House in Hampstead, north London. Photograph: ANL/Shutterstock

He bought the Grade-II listed Beechwood in north London for £48m in 2008 through Hanley Ltd, a company based in the Isle of Man. He has also been reported to own Sutton Place, a 72-room Tudor mansion near Guildford in Surrey, built in the 1520s by a courtier of Henry VIII and once owned by the US oil baron John Paul Getty.

Usmanov’s spokesperson has disputed the information about his property ownership, but did not say whether he was still the beneficial owner of one or both of the properties.

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