Viktor Vekselberg: a discreet Russian oligarch in Switzerland

Vekselberg has repeatedly denied being influenced by the Kremlin Keystone

Publicity-shy Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg is again attracting the type of headlines he could do without. Vekselberg and his investment group Renova have been named on a list of United States sanctions targets, which is bad news for the Swiss firms he owns.

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Renova has been forced to reduce its holding in Sulzer to below 50% to shield the Swiss industrial pumps manufacturer from US sanctions. Sulzer’s association with Vekselberg caused its shares to tumble, along with Oerlikon and Schmolz + Bickenbach, which are also part-owned by Renova.

So who is Viktor Vekselberg and what is his connection to Switzerland?

The Russian is currently worth more than $13 billion (CHF12.4 billion), making him the ninth wealthiest person in Russia according to Forbes. He has risen from selling scrap metal in Russia to owning the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs. He nominally resides in Switzerland for tax purposes, but travels the world extensively, and calls himself a world citizen.

Vekselberg has a long association with Switzerland through his commodities trading enterprises, but first caused a stir in 2007 when he started buying large stakes in traditional Swiss industrial firms such as Sulzer, Oerlikon and Schmolz + Bickenbach.

At around the same time he bought a property in Zurich, but later moved to Zug to take advantage of preferential tax rates for rich foreigners. He is also said to own, or to have owned, personal properties in Russia and the US.

Sulzer move

Renova’s hostile takeover of pumps manufacturer Sulzer was a particularly stormy affair, as the company unsuccessfully tried to resist a double-pronged attack from Renova and the Austrian Victory group. Then, in 2010, Vekselberg was fined CHF40 million ($42 million) for alleged stock market manipulation involving the buyout of Oerlikon, but he had the fine overturned on appeal.

Media stories have frequently linked the Ukranian-born businessman to the Kremlin and to Russian President Vladimir Putin, connections he has denied.

"We are confronted in Switzerland with comments that Renova is in the hands of the Kremlin. My meetings with the president have been understood as me receiving instructions," Vekselberg told the Swiss Economic Forum in 2008. "This is just total nonsense. Our investments in Swiss products have nothing to do with the Russian government or Russian state capital."

In the last few years, Vekselberg has enjoyed more peace and quiet, managing his global business empire that includes property, retail, energy, commodities, industrial and communications interests. He also regularly appears at the World Economic Forum’s showcase gala in Davos, indicating acceptance in such rarified circles.

News of US sanctions put to an end this period of relative obscurity, linking Vekselberg once again to the Kremlin and shining a negative spotlight in his direction.

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