It’s not hard to see why the UK capital has frequently been dubbed “Londongrad”—one just has to look at the country’s courts, which are packed with oligarchs’ disputes. In the latest example, billionaire Arkady Rotenberg is back in London’s High Court squabbling with his ex-wife Natalia, who lives in Surrey, over his sizeable fortune.
Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s close friend since adolescence who picked up lucrative Kremlin-awarded contracts, already spent years battling his ex-wife in British courts. He insisted that he was unable to pay Natalia since his EU assets had been frozen after he was included on a sanctions list—an argument which seems particularly dubious after a US Congressional report published this summer accused Rotenberg of buying millions of dollars’ worth of high-value art through shell companies in order to evade sanctions.
In 2017, the Rotenbergs apparently reached an agreement over their divorce—a détente that’s now collapsed as the pair has again begun private hearings at the High Court in London. If the renewed dispute will undoubtedly be dramatic—during the previous court battle, Rotenberg tried and failed to keep British journalists from reporting on his case, sparking free speech lawsuits in both the High Court and the Court of Appeal—it’s far from the most sensational Russian divorce currently playing itself out in British courtrooms.
The divorce of the century
That honour indubitably goes to the bitter dispute between Azeri-Russian oligarch Farkhad Akhmedov and his ex-wife Tatiana, a British citizen who has lived in the UK since 1994. In 2016, the London High Court ordered Akhmedov to pay his former spouse a staggering £453 million—the largest divorce payout ever ordered by a British courtroom.
Akhmedov, unsurprisingly, has balked at the notion of handing over 41.5 per cent of his fortune. British courts have repeatedly upheld the judgment, finding Akhmedov in contempt of court in 2018 and, earlier this summer, determining that Liechtenstein-based trusts in which the oligarch stashed some of his assets needed to hand them over to Tatiana. In response, Akhmedov has tried increasingly creative ways of skirting the British divorce order, which he dubbed “worth as much as toilet paper”.
The tycoon’s £350 million superyacht Luna has quickly taken centre stage in the international legal dispute. In 2018, the UK High Court ordered the oligarch to hand the yacht over to Tatiana in partial fulfilment of the divorce payout she was owed—a ruling which Akhmedov evaded by taking the matter to sharia-based courts in Dubai, which rejected the principle of English law that a husband and wife share their fortune.
It’s all in the family
The most stunning element of the case, however, is the fact that the couple’s son Temur, a London-based trader, has been dragged into the fray. Tatiana Akhmedova brought legal action against her son earlier this year, accusing him of helping his father carry out an elaborate scheme to shift assets out of her reach and obtaining a worldwide freezing order on his assets to the tune of £94 million.
Temur has denied all the allegations against him, including his mother’s claim that he was his father’s “lieutenant” who played a “central role” in attempting to shield the elder Akhmedov’s assets. Questions have continued to mount, however, over Temur’s financial transactions with his father, and further details seem likely to come out after a June ruling, from Justice Gwynneth Knowles at the UK High Court’s Family Division, that the young trader could not block reporters from covering the “general details” of his finances.
According to Justice Knowles’ ruling, Temur and his mother agree that he received more than $106 million, in several different transfers, from Farkhad Akhmedov. Tatiana Akhmedova has pointed to the timing of these transfers to argue that they were part of a plot to keep her from getting her hands on the £453 million which the UK High Court had awarded her. Temur, in contrast, has claimed that his father gave him this substantial sum to invest in financial markets.
These investments seem to have gone disastrously, since in August Temur Akhmedov asked Justice Knowles to relax the order freezing his assets to that he could borrow £2.2 million against his home in order to pay his legal fees. Temur argued that he had “sustained substantial losses as a trader” and was down to his last £10,000 aside from his house. The judge found this claim “surprising” given evidence that he had received £13 million from his father since January 2019 alone, and ordered him to explain what had become of the money transferred by his father before he was allowed to borrow anything against his home.
The Akhmedov family feud has not only kept barristers busy, but has provided ample fodder to gossip columns. Yet it should not be dismissed as mere tabloid drama—the case raises troubling questions about the UK’s ability to enforce its court rulings against the über-wealthy Russians which have flocked to its shores. Farkhad Akhmedov, who limited his time living with his wife in the UK to 90 days a year for tax reasons, has repeatedly maintained that he is able to ignore the UK High Court decisions since he and his ex-wife were not married in Britain—an argument somewhat undermined by his willingness to use the Dubai courts to obtain a more favourable judgment.
Temur Akhmedov, meanwhile—dissatisfied with the recent rulings against him—has opted to directly attack British courts’ credibility, claiming that “from the outset, the Family Court’s behaviour has smacked of 21st century imperialism in passing judgments in cases from faraway lands which have nothing to do with these islands”.
The high-profile legal battles which many Russian émigrés have fought in British courtrooms, in particular the Akhmedov case, have laid bare the difficulties which UK courts have in enforcing verdicts against these individuals, many of whom have networks of assets spanning around the globe. This is a shortcoming that London should work to overcome, because its free press, financial transparency, rule of law and fair justice system mean that the UK is often the only jurisdiction capable of fairly adjudicating these tycoons’ affairs.