Russia’s Abramovich seeks election in Arctic region

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has decided to run for election to the local council of a desolate Arctic region just weeks after resigning as governor.

Abramovich, the 41-year-old owner of Britain’s Chelsea soccer club, quit as governor of Far Eastern region of Chukotka earlier this month after lavishing millions on the impoverished province, where reindeer herding is the main source of income.

But locals in the icy expanses near to Alaska have implored Abramovich not to abandon them with the current council speaker even stepping aside to make way for him.

Abramovich told council members on Thursday he had accepted their proposal to run, Chukotka’s local administration said in a statement.

“He has accepted a request by the people of Chukotka to run for the regional Duma,” said Abramovich’s spokesman, John Mann.

“The fact that many of the region’s public organizations requested that he should run indicates he has broad support,” Mann said. The election will take place in October.

Why Abramovich, a jet-setting Russian with a penchant for luxury yachts, is so interested in a region 15-hours flight from Moscow has been the source of constant speculation since he was elected governor in 2000.

Some analysts have said it was part of a deal with former President Vladimir Putin to give some of his billions back to society.

Others hint Abramovich, who was orphaned as a young child and brought up by an uncle, found an affinity with the forgotten region, which is bigger than France and thought to hold large reserves of oil, gas, gold and coal.

The local administration says billions of dollars will be needed over the next decade to search for natural resources and build infrastructure in an area where winter temperatures frequently fall to minus 60 degrees Celsius.

FABULOUS FORTUNE

Abramovich made a fabulous fortune in the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union by trading commodities and leveraging Kremlin connections to buy the assets of a former super power on the cheap.

Until the mid-1990s, Abramovich kept a very low public profile and only a few photographs even circulated of the secretive oil and metals baron.

But the billionaire, who has a designer beard and seems to prefer jeans to suits, came to world prominence after buying Chelsea soccer club and settling in London, where he owns a sumptuous mansion and is known for his sometimes ostentatious stunts.

Abramovich moored his grand $300 million yacht in Russia’s second city of St Petersburg while he attended an economic forum there last month, causing traffic jams as locals stopped stare.

British singer Amy Winehouse last month played a Moscow concert at the opening of an art gallery to be managed by the billionaire’s girlfriend. He divorced Irina, the mother of his five children, in 2007 after a 16 year marriage.

Abramovich has sold some of his biggest Russian assets, such as a controlling stake in oil company Sibneft in 2005, but still holds major stakes in industrial assets such as Russian steelmaker Evraz and stakes in gold miners.

He is ranked by Forbes magazine as Russia’s third wealthiest businessman with a reputed wealth of $24.3 billion. The magazine lists metals magnate Oleg Deripaska as the country’s richest man with steel baron Alexei Mordashov as number two.

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