More Russian oligarchs are seeking Portuguese citizenship

Two billionaires with Kremlin ties want to change nationalities under a rule designed for descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled centuries ago from the Iberian Peninsula

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Russian oligarch God Nisanov on July 31, 2014 in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Russian oligarch God Nisanov on July 31, 2014 in Moscow.Sasha Mordovets (Getty Images)

The list of Portuguese billionaires keeps growing. Portugal’s Público news outlet recently revealed that a Russian oligarch quietly obtained Portuguese citizenship over a year before the more notorious case of Roman Abramovich. Andrei Rappoport, who has a US$1.2 billion fortune according to Forbes magazine, became a Portuguese citizen on December 30, 2019 by taking advantage of legislation designed for descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in the 15th century from the Iberian Peninsula.

Rappoport, who was born in 1963 in the former Soviet state of Ukraine, is a close ally of other Russian oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now exiled in London, and Mikhail Fridman, the Dia supermarket chain owner who had to resign after being included in the list of Russian businessmen sanctioned by the EU after the invasion of Ukraine. Andrei Rappoport chaired one of Russia’s largest private banks before moving into the energy sector as chairman of the state-owned Federal Grid Company. In 2006, he took control of Russia’s largest power grid construction company, which had lucrative contracts with the same government entity that he used to lead. In a mystifying transaction, Rappoport sold the US$2 billion company to a partner of Abramovich for US$216 million.

According to the Portuguese press, Rappoport became the first Russian oligarch to obtain Portuguese citizenship based on a certificate of ancestry he received from the Jewish Community of Porto, which has been implicated in a legal investigation into anomalies in numerous nationalization processes. The second Russian billionaire to obtain Portuguese citizenship was Roman Abramovich, who apparently jumped the queue ahead of the long line of applicants for access to the European Union. The former owner of England’s Chelsea Football Club never got a British passport, but his new Portuguese passport issued on April 30, 2021 granted him all the privileges of EU citizenship – the ability to move freely around the EU and no visa requirements for entering 116 countries, according to 2021 Passport Index data.

Kremlin connections

According to Público, two other Russian oligarchs are in line for Portuguese passports – God Nisanov, who applied for citizenship on June 26, 2020, and Lev Leviev, who applied on November 6, 2020. Both obtained ancestry certificates from the Jewish Community of Porto, which endorsed almost 90% of the 137,087 applications submitted to Portugal’s Ministry of Justice from 2015-2021. Both Nisanov and Leviev have strong ties with the Kremlin. Nisanov, who was decorated by President Vladimir Putin with the Order of Friendship in 2014, is a real estate developer with an immense fortune (US$4.3 billion, according to Forbes). He is also on the list of businessmen sanctioned by the US, and “a close associate of several Russian officials,” according to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

Leviev’s wealth isn’t lacking either. Known as the “King of Diamonds,” he was a partner of Angolan Isabel dos Santos, the richest businesswoman in Africa and daughter of Angola’s former president, José Eduardo dos Santos. Leviev is friends with Abramovich and Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia, and is also close to Putin. The Judaic Community of Porto certified Leviev as a descendant of Iberian Sephardim in 2020, according to Portuguese weekly, Expresso. His connections with the powerful dos Santos family helped him to take over numerous African mines and challenge the dominant De Beers company in the gem market.

The controversy over irregularities in granting citizenship under the Nationality Law for Sephardic ancestors of Portuguese origin is making it difficult for the Ministry of Justice to approve the applications by Leviev and Nisanov. The circumstances around Abramovich’s Portuguese citizenship have been under investigation for months, and Portugal’s Judicial Police recently executed new search warrants in lawyers’ offices and private homes related to Operation Open Door, as the investigation into irregularities in processing passport applications is called.

The decree that allowed granting Portuguese nationality to descendants of Jews expelled from the country more than five centuries ago took effect on March 2, 2015, and was amended in 2020. The driving force behind the law was Socialist Party legislator Maria de Belém Roseira. She is the aunt of Francisco de Almeida Garrett, a lawyer and director of the Judaic Community of Porto, and one of those currently under investigation. After the Abramovich case and the trafficking in Portuguese passports came to light, the Portuguese government tightened the conditions for obtaining citizenship based on Sephardic ancestry, such as the requirement to demonstrate real and current ties with the country.

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