London, May 23 : Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich is known worldwide for his wealth and his ownership of the football team Chelsea, but few would be surprised to know that he played a significant role in facilitating Vladimir Putin's selection as the President of Russia after Boris Yeltsin.
According to The Times, the late Alexander Litvinenko, the spy poisoned in Britain in a suspected Russian plot, made the astonishing suggestion that Abramovich effectively vetted Putin on behalf of Russia's powerful oligarchs to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President.
Litvinenko also told The Times that the football-loving billionaire controlled so much of Russia's economy that he was in danger of being killed by the Kremlin's special services.
Litvinenko said in his broken English: "Mr Abramovich have good contact with Putin before Putin was President. Russia oligarch select people who will be President. In 1997-98 Mr Abramovich was the best person who is check these candidates to be President. Now Mr Abramovich has good relationship with Putin."
Putin took over as acting president in 1999 and won the post in an election the following year. Litvinenko added that Abramovich helped to fund his campaign.
Litvinenko, an outspoken critic of Putin, died of radiation poisoning in London in 2006 after being contaminated with polonium-210.
His words are given an intriguing new significance by a legal battle in London between Abramovich and the exiled Boris Berezovsky over four billion dollars of Russia's oil and aluminium riches.
Litvinenko says he met Abramovich at a business club run by Berezovsky. Putin was summoned to the Kremlin in 1996 to serve in high office under President Yeltsin at a time when Berezovsky was the President's close aide and Abramovich, in turn, was an ally of Berezovsky.
According to a biography, Abramovich: the Billionaire from Nowhere, Abramovich interviewed the candidates for Putin's first Cabinet in 1999. But the claim that he effectively vetted Putin too goes farther than any previous account.
Litvinenko made his remarks in a telephone interview with The Times, which at the time was investigating the sources of Abramovich's 12 billion pound fortune.