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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Is Roman running away?

By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Roman Abramovich
Is Mr Abramovich fleeing Kremlin interference?
If the disparate worlds of football punditry and Kremlinology have one thing in common, it's an addiction to gossip.

So the news that Roman Abramovich, the stubble-faced Russian billionaire who now owns Chelsea football club, is selling a great chunk of his industrial empire has produced an understandable twitter of speculation.

Selling his half of Russian Aluminium (RusAl) takes Mr Abramovich almost entirely out of Russia, and leaves him 1.8bn ($3bn) to the good - which buys a lot of footballers, even in today's market.

But what exactly is his strategy? Does he even have a strategy?

And just what is he going to do with all that cash?

Tactical retreat

Mr Abramovich may not have entirely escaped Russia yet, but he certainly seems to be packing his bags.

He does not plan to stand again as governor of Chukotka, the wretched Arctic region he has represented since 2000.

Chelsea players
Chump change for a plutocrat like Roman
And the reported sale of RusAl - to fellow tycoon Oleg Deripaska - is the latest in a series of commercial withdrawals.

In March, his UK-registered company, Millhouse Capital, sold its minority stake in Aeroflot; a month later Sibneft, his oil firm, announced plans to sell out to rival Yukos.

Mr Abramovich still has a 37.5% stake in RosPromAvto, a holding company whose main asset is Russia's second-biggest car company, Gaz.

And he has interests in agricultural businesses, notably a stake in the Omsk bacon factory.

But according to Russian press reports, these too are up for sale.

In search of a strategy

A little of the money realised is being publicly employed overseas.

He has famously bought Chelsea football club, and is believed to be circling the Vancouver Canucks, a Canadian ice hockey team.

But for a man with a personal fortune of more than $8bn, picking up the occasional sports club doesn't exactly count as a strategy.

And no one seems to have a convincing explanation for what his long-term game plan may be.

If you believe many Russian commentators, Mr Abramovich is simply indulging in the billionaire version of downshifting, taking his money out of nasty, scary Russian businesses in order to enjoy himself a bit.

"Roman Arkadyevich is quite a lad," one Moscow radio commentator said.

"To buy a football club and jump up and down like a child when goals are scored is unquestionably the behaviour of a romantic."

On the run

Downshifting or not, the most convincing explanation is that Mr Abramovich is getting out while the getting is good.

Boris Berezovsky
Mr Berezovsky was the first to exit
In recent months, President Vladimir Putin has turned up the heat under Russia's oligarchs, the half-dozen tycoons who control most of the country's choicest assets.

The richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been questioned by police, and one of his main associates is languishing in a Moscow prison.

Boris Berezovsky, a once-mighty fixer who nurtured Mr Abramovich during the 1990s, has been granted political asylum in Britain after a bitter row with the Kremlin.

Vladimir Gusinsky, like Mr Berezovsky a thorn in the Russian government's side, has also fled overseas, and is currently the subject of extradition hearings in Greece.

Even Mr Abramovich and Mr Deripaska, among the Kremlin's favourite businessmen, have been slapped down from time to time.

Hotting up

And things may be about to get tougher, as Russia gears up for elections in early December.

Vladimir Putin
For Mr Putin, tycoon-bashing brings in the votes
Bashing oligarchs is wildly popular in Russia: a poll run this week by Ekho Moskvy - a radio station listened to by the more intelligent element - showed 58% of people in favour of confiscating all the tycoons' wealth and reducing them to subsistence level.

In the past few weeks, there have been a few nasty bouts of anti-oligarch drum-beating.

Over the summer, a spread of politicians and commentators have "spontaneously" called for privatisation to be reversed, a policy previously considered unthinkable.

The National Strategy Council, a group of influential political analysts, has even discussed the threat of an oligarch-led coup.

Join the exodus

Mr Abramovich is not the only Russian looking overseas.

The Reuben brothers, Indian-born traders who built a huge metals empire in Russia during the 1990s, have transferred almost all of that wealth into the London property market, and are reported to be running the slide-rule over a few big-name UK corporations.

Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group encompasses oil-trading operations in Switzerland and Gibraltar, and his firm recently locked itself into an alliance with Britain's BP.

Even the patriotic Mr Deripaska has sniffed around deals - with mixed success - as far afield as Sierra Leone, Australia, Guinea, Romania and China.

There has even been talk that an as-yet anonymous Russian billionaire has been stalking Manchester United, a far bigger catch than the relatively modest Chelsea.

Now that would be a deal worth gossiping about.

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