Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Portuguese citizenship under a 2015 law that repatriates descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled during the Inquisition has reignited debate about the piece of legislation.
Abramovich, a businessman and the prominent owner of the popular Chelsea soccer club in London, applied for citizenship by claiming an affiliation with the Jewish Community of Porto, the Israeli news site Ynet reported last week.
Unconfirmed reports have claimed that some of Abramovich’s family that today live in Belarus have Sephardic roots.
Eastern Europe had formerly been the home of many thousands of Jews with Sephardic ancestry. Sephardic immigrants in 1588 founded the Jewish community of Zamosc in eastern Poland, among other places. But Abramovich’s use of the law prompted unusual scrutiny and criticism in Portugal, which is a member of the European Union and whose citizens may reside anywhere they choose within the bloc.
Portuguese radio station TSF aired and published a statement on Tuesday by the investigative journalist Daniel Oliveira, in which he accused the Jewish Community of Porto of turning “a just law into a ‘golden visa’ by hitching a ride on our crimes from the past.”
Oliveira suggested that the ties between the Jewish Community of Porto and Abramovich are “not clear,” and said he believes that the Porto communal organization is less reliable in vetting applications than the Jewish Community of Lisbon group.
AbrilAbril, a left-leaning Portuguese news site, published an editorial on Tuesday calling for the citizenship law to be revised, and suggesting that Abramovich and other recipients of the Portuguese nationality under the law are using their influence to keep it unchanged.
The Jewish Community of Porto wrote in a statement that Abramovich has donated 250,000 euros, or about $283,000, to its various projects to date but emphasized that this had no effect or connection to his application, which it confirmed it had handled. The Lisbon Jewish community has had data on Abramovich’s ancestors for years, the Porto group added. It also dismissed claims that Abramovich’s naturalization was divergent in any way from the 2015 law and its procedures.
The Porto organization told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that it is now witnessing “an antisemitic wave” on social media following the debate about Abramovich.
A spokesperson working with Abramovich did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Last year, Portugal’s ruling Socialist party withdrew plans to limit the law amid criticism by local Jewish groups that claimed that the proposed changes were partly motivated by antisemitism. The European Jewish Congress also vocally opposed the changes.
The government has entrusted the two communal organizations in Lisbon and Porto with vetting the authenticity of citizenship applications, for which they charge hundreds of dollars in processing fees. A third community in Belmonte is attempting to also gain vetting status.
Portugal’s foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, said on Wednesday that Abramovich’s naturalization “was done according to the law” and called criticism of it “unjustified.”
Data from last year shows that at least 76,000 people have applied for a Portuguese passport through the law and 23,000 of them have been approved. Spain also has passed similar legislation.
The new passport for Abramovich, who has been an ally of Russia’s authoritarian president Vladimir Putin, also drew criticism from Russia’s main opposition movement leader.
Alexey Navalny, a nationalist populist who has accused the Putin regime of corruption and who is in jail on corruption charges that are widely seen as fake, tweeted about Abramovich. He called Abramovich “Putin’s wallet” and accused Abramovich of bribing Portuguese officials with “suitcases with money” to give him a foothold in an E.U. member state.