By Alexander Mercouris, Russia Insider, April 12, 2016
With the Panama Papers being just the latest failed attempt to prove Putin is corrupt and a billionaire, the only sane conclusion is Putin’s billions don’t exist
The story of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fabled billions of wealth is a case study of something which people passionately believe independently of any facts. As often happens in such cases, those who believe in that thing then hunt around for facts to prove it true.
Every so often they come up with facts they claim proves it true. On careful examination, however, it turns out they do nothing of the sort. When that is pointed out to the true believers, it does not change their belief that what they believe is true. Instead, they retreat into denial and set off hunting for new facts.
In my opinion, none of the claims about Vladimir Putin’s billionaire fortune are true and some of them are demonstrably false. In this article I will try to explain why. I will also try to show how the various claims about Putin’s billions follow certain recurring patterns, which in themselves give reasons to doubt they are true.
Lastly, I will give my own opinion about how rich Putin actually is and why he is almost certainly not even a rich man.
In order to do this, I will deal with the various allegations which have been made about Putin in turn in rough chronological order ending with the so-called Panama Papers.
The first time I heard allegations that Putin was a billionaire was in 2006 when they were made by an individual called Stanislav Belkovsky. He was an associate of the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. He was one of Russia’s original “political technologists” (ie. spin-doctors) whose heyday was in the 1990s. Belkovsky was also the first person to put a figure on Putin’s billions. He said Putin was worth $40 billion and was the richest man in Europe.
Belkovsky has at various times put Putin’s wealth even higher. On occasion, he has put it as high as $70 billion and occasionally figures as high as $200 billion get quoted. The figure of $40 billion, however, appears to have stuck and this is the most commonly cited figure for Putin’s wealth amongst those who believe the allegations against him are true.
Belkovsky’s claims centred on a company called Gunvor, a major international commodities trader dealing mainly in oil products which is registered in Switzerland. Belkovsky claimed that Putin owned a large share of Gunvor and that Gennady Timchenko – a Russian businessman who was one of Gunvor’s co-founders and co-owners – was in reality Putin’s front man.
This claim is nonsense. Timchenko is a highly respected and extremely capable international businessman and Gunvor is an international company whose share structure is public and well-known. Putin not only nowhere appears in its records as a shareholder, but enough is known of Gunvor’s actual shareholders to say definitely that none of them holds their shares as Putin’s nominee or proxy.
In recent years, Gunvor has diversified its business away from Russia and most of the oil it now trades in is sourced from outside Russia. That also makes it inconceivable that Putin has any financial stake in the company.
In 2009, the allegations that Putin owned an interest in Gunvor became the subject of a libel action between Gunvor and The Economist which in an article it published in November 2008 appeared to lend weight to Belkovsky’s allegations. The libel action ending with The Economist publishing an apology and retraction in which it admitted that Putin has no interest in Gunvor. The Economist’s statement of retraction reads as follows:
In a section of our special report on Russia entitled “Grease my palm” (29 November 2008) we referred to Gunvor and its co-founder, Gennady Timchenko.
We are happy to make it clear that when we referred to the “new corruption” in today’s Russia, we did not intend to suggest that either Gunvor or Mr Timchenko obtained their Russian oil business as a result of payment by them of bribes or like corrupt inducements.
Rosneft sells only 30-40% of its oil through Gunvor rather than the “bulk” of Rosneft’s oil (as we described it).
We accept Gunvor’s assurances that neither Vladimir Putin nor other senior Russian political figures have any ownership interest in Gunvor. We regret if any contrary impression was given.
In a rational world, this statement should have brought the speculation about Putin owning an interest in Gunvor and about Timchenko being his front-man and about Putin having a fortune worth $40 billion to an end. On the subject of Putin the world – or at least its Western half – is however simply not rational.
Not only did the statement by The Economist – made as a result of legal proceedings brought by Timchenko and Gunvor in the British courts – fail to end the speculation about Putin’s stash of hidden billions, but 5 years later the claims about Timchenko and Gunvor were revived by no less an institution than the U.S. Treasury. On 20th March 2014 – during the Crimean crisis – the U.S. Treasury published a a list of individuals in Russia whom it sanctioned. The list contained explanations about why some of the individuals were on the list. Timchenko was sanctioned and here is what the U.S. Treasury had to say about him:
Gennady Timchenko is one of the founders of Gunvor, one of the world’s largest independent commodity trading companies involved in the oil and energy markets.
Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin. Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.
The U.S. Treasury has provided no evidence for these assertions. There is nothing to suggest it has any more information beyond the claims made by Belkovsky back in 2006.
U.S. embassy cables leaked by Wikileaks show the U.S. embassy in Moscow lent credence to Belkovsky’s claims in cables to Washington. In the U.S. ambassador’s words “(Gunvor’s) secretive ownership is rumoured to include prime minister Putin”. Though the claims were or should have been discredited following the case brought by Timchenko and Gunvor against The Economist it is clear the U.S. government has never stopped believing in them.
This reflects a very common pattern where allegations about Putin are concerned. As soon as an allegation is made about Putin, the true believers – who in this case include the U.S. government – buy into them regardless of how implausible or factually challenged they may be. Nothing that subsequently happens – no amount of explanation showing why the allegation is untrue and no amount of evidence proving the allegation is untrue – will make them change their mind.
This episode unfortunately also shows something else. This is the ruthless attitude the true believers have for the interests and reputations of others. As far as the true believers are concerned these are expendable as collateral damage in their campaign – as they put it – to “expose” Putin.
The result is that all the evidence showing that Timchenko and Gunvor are wholly innocent of any wrongdoing and have no financial or business connection to Putin is ignored or set aside, and on the strength of rumours spread back in 2006 by a former spin-doctor and associate of Berezovsky’s they now find themselves named in a U.S. Treasury sanctions list.
The Ozero Dacha Cooperative
Back in the 1990s, when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin bought himself some land near a lake where he built himself a dacha. This is something which is very common in Russia and which many Russians do.
Over time, various other people also bought land and built themselves dachas in the same area. In 1996, these people did something that is now also becoming increasingly common in Russia. They pooled their land and dachas into a cooperative that would be administered jointly, so that each would henceforth enjoy collectively the benefits of the whole dacha complex whilst bearing their share of the costs.
It says much about the passions Putin arouses that this banal action is reported as something sinister.
For Putin’s critics, the Ozero Dacha Cooperative (to give it its name) is not a complex of dachas in a scenic area run together for the mutual benefit by their owners. It is a lair – a sort of Russian Obersalzberg – where Putin and his henchmen (called his “cronies”) plot their dark deeds.
The complex also has to be corrupt because Putin is involved in it. In the words of Karen Dawisha, director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University:
In Russia a cooperative arrangement is another way for Putin to avoid being given money directly, while enjoying the wealth shared among co-owners.
To which all one can say is that “enjoying the wealth shared among co-owners” is the nature of cooperatives everywhere.
The difficulty with all these claims is that the individuals with dachas in the complex do not as a group seem to be politically very important. None of the members of Russia’s Security Council (for the importance of which see here) apart from Putin himself apparently owns or has owned a dacha there.
The only two members of the cooperative who have held senior official posts in Russia’s government are Andrey Fursenko, who was until 2012 Russia’s Minister of Education, and Vladimir Yakunin, who was until recently in charge of Russia’s railways. Though these are important posts, and though Yakunin has attracted some attention for his outspoken views on the national-patriotic side of Russia’s political spectrum, they are scarcely pivotal posts in Russia’s power structure.
However, repeating the pattern of Timchenko and Gunvor, merely owning a dacha in the complex is now dangerous for those who do.
On 20th March 2014, during the Crimean crisis, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on no fewer than three members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative: Andrey Fursenko, Vladimir Yakunin and the St. Petersburg banker Yury Kovalchuk (about whom more below). There is no evidence these three people played any role in the Crimean events, whilst in Kovalchuk’s case that is practically inconceivable since he is not a member of the government.
All three are, however, members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative. That this was a factor in getting them onto the sanctions list the U.S. Treasury admits in its discussion of Yakunin:
Yakunin and Putin were also neighbors in the elite dacha community on the shore of Lake Komsomolsk and they served as cofounders of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative in November 1996.
The U.S. Treasury calls Kovalchuk a member of Putin’s “inner circle” – apparently again on the strength of Kovalchuk’s membership of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative and because of allegations made against him by the whistleblower Sergey Kolesnikov (see below) – whilst Kovalchuk’s bank – Bank Rossia – was also also placed on the sanctions list and linked by the U.S. Treasury to the Ozero Dacha Cooperative with the U.S. Treasury saying this about it:
Bank Rossiya’s shareholders include members of Putin’s inner circle associated with the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, a housing community in which they live. (underlining added)
Merely owning a dacha in the same lakeside housing complex as Putin apparently now suffices for the U.S. Treasury to declare someone a member of Putin’s “inner circle”. As will become clear this can have serious implications for those involved.
Rumours of an opulent construction built on a gigantic scale began to circulate in Russia around the time the allegations against Timchenko and Gunvor were falling apart. Judging from aerial photographs the reality is astonishing enough. The scale of the complex – located on the Black Sea in Russia’s Krasnodar region and done in a pastiche Italian baroque style complete with three helipads – looks worthy of a Roman emperor.
Inevitably, rumours quickly began to spread that it was being built for Putin himself and before long – in December 2010 – a whistleblower by the name of Sergey Kolesnikov came forward to say that it was.
Kolesnikov’s story is very complicated. Probably the best summary of it in English is one that was provided in November 2011 by The Financial Times in an article with the portentous title A Realm Fit for a Tsar.
Essentially, Kolesnikov’s account is that in the early 1990s, when Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and headed the city’s foreign economic relations committee, he helped through his committee to set up a business called Petromed with two St. Petersburg businessmen – Nikolay Shamalov and Dmitry Gorelov – to buy medical equipment for St. Petersburg’s hospitals.
According to Kolesnikov (who had a role in the management of Petromed), on Putin’s instructions after he became President some of Petromed’s money from donations provided to buy the medical equipment was placed offshore and was used – again on Putin’s instructions – by Shamalov and Gorelov to buy shares in Bank Rossia, a St. Petersburg bank whose CEO was Yury Kovalchuk, a former scientist.
As a result of these share purchases, Shamalov and Gorelov each came to own 10% of Bank Rossia’s shares, with Kovalchuk owning 25% of the shares.
Bank Rossia then used – according to Kolesnikov – the same off shore funds to buy at a cut rate price Sogaz, Gazprom’s insurance arm of which Gazprom was divesting itself as part of a government supported restructuring of its business.
Bank Rossia then used Sogaz to buy Lider Asset Management, a management company that manages Gazfond (Gazprom’s pension arm) which as a result of an asset swap then acquired control of Gazprombank, Russia’s third biggest lender.
Gazfond then, in turn, transferred its shares in Gazprombank to Lider Asset Management as nominee, with Lider Asset Management managing these shares on Gazfond’s behalf. Bank Rossia thereby acquired through Lider Asset Management and Gazfond a say in the management of Gazprombank.
These transactions may appear complicated and may look suspicious but in a world of financial leverage they are not necessarily so. Shamalov and Gorelov deny they bought the shares in Bank Rossia with money donated for buying medical equipment and deny they did so on Putin’s instructions. Gorelov claims the money came from the legitimate business activities of Petromed of which he claims he is the owner.
As for the money used by Bank Rossia to buy Sogaz and Lider Asset Management, Bank Rossia denies it was money donated to buy medical equipment and says it was money raised in the normal way through market financing.
The key point, however, is that apart from Kolesnikov’s unsupported word there is nothing to link Putin to any of these transactions. As The Financial Times put it – in words which will become depressingly familiar as this article proceeds: “Mr Kolesnikov has no documentary evidence the transactions were conducted on Mr Putin’s behalf”.
The allegations are in fact so threadbare it is unlikely they would have attracted much attention were it not for the link Kolesnikov made between them and the Italianate palace being built on the Black Sea. According to Kolesnikov, the palace was built by Nikolay Shamalov (one of the two businessmen involved in Petromed who acquired shares in Bank Rossia) on Putin’s orders (Kolesnikov claims to have been physically present at the meeting when the order was given) using $1 billion worth of money donated to Petromed to buy medical equipment.
According to The Financial Times:
After the 2008 financial crisis hit, Mr Kolesnikov claims Mr Shamalov told him to stop financing investment projects he had been running in shipbuilding and other sectors with remaining Petromed funds, which he believed at least had distributed wealth back into the economy. Instead, he was to divert all funds towards completing the Black Sea palace.
There is no doubt Nikolay Shamalov was indeed the original owner or one of the original owners of the palace though it appears that more than one investor was involved in what was clearly a large project.
Shamalov does have a connection to Putin going back to the setting up of Petromed in the 1990s. In fact, it seems it was Putin who suggested to Shamalov – who was at that time the representative in Russia of the Germany company Siemens – that he become involved in Petromed.
For what it is worth, Shamalov is also a member of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative. More importantly, it seems Shamalov’s son Kirill recently married Putin’s daughter Yekaterina. It is, therefore, highly likely Shamalov and Putin don’t just know each other but are actually close friends.
However, Kolesnikov’s claim the palace was built with money originally donated to buy medical equipment and that it was built for Putin’s use and on his instructions is completely uncorroborated. As The Financial Times puts it:
The paper trail…..is relatively scanty and, though it shows various payments between the companies, they do not amount to the $1bn Mr Kolesnikov alleges was spent on the palace in total.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denies Putin has any connection to the palace and it seems he has never visited it.
The only evidence that Putin or anyone else in Russia’s government has had any connection to the palace other than Kolesnikov’s word is that a group of Russian opposition activists claim they were ejected from the palace by security guards wearing the uniforms and carrying the identification papers of the FSO – the Russian state security agency that provides bodyguard services to senior Russian officials.
The paperwork Kolesnikov showed to The Financial Times, however, suggests the FSO was providing services for the palace under a commercial contract, in which case it is unlikely it was carrying out bodyguard services at the palace as part of its official work.
As The Financial Times points out, the Kremlin’s property department – which like the British Crown Estate openly and legally engages in commercial activities – is known to have been a co-investor in another resort complex on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Lirus – one of the companies involved in the palace development – was the Kremlin property department’s partner in that other venture. That may suggest the Kremlin property department was also an investor in the palace development.
The Kremlin’s property department does not handle Putin’s money and Putin has no direct control over its activities. The profits of its investment are its property not Putin’s. However, if it was an investor in the palace venture that might explain the presence of the FSO.
The palace was sold in 2011 for $350 million to Alexander Ponomarenko, a Russian billionaire who is not close to Putin. That suggests the palace was a private commercial venture of the sort people who have become very rich very quickly are often known to indulge in (the U.S. has many examples – see here, here and here).
There is, in fact, a fundamental contradiction in the claim the palace was built for Putin or belonged to him which in a rational world ought to have made it obvious that it couldn’t have been.
Believers in the story of Putin’s gigantic wealth explain the lack of documentary evidence for its existence by the secrecy with which Putin supposedly shrouds his affairs. The U.S. Treasury says Putin conceals his wealth by holding it through proxies.
Yet this same Putin who is supposed to be so secretive about his financial affairs and who is said to go to such extraordinary lengths to conceal the extent of his wealth is simultaneously supposed to have built a gigantic palace for himself that would flaunt his wealth in the most spectacular way imaginable. That hardly makes sense. In fact, it makes so little sense that together with the absence of any evidence other than Kolesnikov’s uncorroborated word to link Putin to the project it almost certainly means Putin had nothing to do with it.
However – repeating the pattern with Timchenko and Gunvor – the lack of evidence and the sheer implausibility of Putin’s involvement in the project has never deterred the true believers. They continue to believe Putin was involved.
Worse still, repeating another pattern we saw previously with Timchenko and Gunvor, the allegations against Shamalov, Gorelov, Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia, like those previously against Timchenko and Gunvor, have put them in the frame despite the lack of any evidence against them.
Shamalov and Kovalchuk both own dachas and are members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, which as discussed previously (see above) is in itself enough for the U.S. Treasury to believe they are members of Putin’s “inner circle”.
Shamalov and Gorelov had business dealings with Putin in the 1990s when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, and Shamalov appears to be Putin’s friend and his son has now married Putin’s daughter. That suffices for the true believers to say they are all Putin’s proxies and for Putin’s involvement to be assumed in any activity they engage in.
The result is that on the strength of Kolesnikov’s unsubstantiated allegations, Shamalov and Gorelov are believed to hold their shares in Bank Rossia on Putin’s behalf, and the true believers have now taken to calling Bank Rossia “Putin’s bank”.
The result was that on 20th March 2014, the U.S. Treasury included Bank Rossia and its CEO Yury Kovalchuk on its sanctions list. Here is what it said about Bank Rossia:
The following entity is being designated because it is controlled by, has acted for or on behalf of, or has provided material or other support to, senior Russian government officials.
Bank Rossiya (ОАО АБ РОССИЯ) is the personal bank for senior officials of the Russian Federation.
Bank Rossiya’s shareholders include members of Putin’s inner circle associated with the Ozero Dacha Cooperative, a housing community in which they live.
“Senior government officials” is of course a euphemism for Putin himself. As for Kovalchuk, this is what the U.S. Treasury says about him:
Yuri Kovalchuk is the largest single shareholder of Bank Rossiya and is also the personal banker for senior officials of the Russian Federation including Putin. Kovalchuk is a close advisor to President Putin and has been referred to as one of his “cashiers”.
As was the case with Timchenko and Gunvor the U.S. Treasury has not provided any evidence to support these allegations against Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia. It seems the whole case against them rests on the fact Kovalchuk happens to be a member of the Ozero Dacha Complex and on Kolesnikov’s unsupported allegations.
Nor has the U.S. Treasury said who apart from itself has called Kovalchuk one of Putin’s “cashiers”.
The term “cashier” seems intended to degrade Kovalchuk – the bank’s CEO and its biggest shareholder – to the status of its most lowly employee, at one and the same time hinting that he is nothing more than Putin’s bagman and that he doesn’t really run his own bank.
Very unusually, Putin has acted to refute these allegations. At a meeting of Russia’s Security Council on 21st March 2014 – the day after the U.S. Treasury published its list – Putin, referred to Bank Rossia, making these comments:
Vladimir Putin: We ought to keep our distance from them (ie. the persons on the sanctions list – AM) or they might compromise us. (Laughter)
As for the financial institution concerned, as far as I recall, this is a medium-sized bank. Personally, I did not have an account there, but I will definitely open one on Monday. (underlining added)
By saying that he did not have an account with Bank Rossia before the sanctions were imposed, Putin denied in one brief sentence the entire elaborate construction of his ownership and control of Bank Rossia alleged by the U.S. Treasury and Kolesnikov. By joking about the importance of keeping a distance from those on the sanctions list because “they might compromise us” Putin was hinting at the truth, which is that people like Timchenko, Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia are being targeted and sanctioned simply because they happen to have had contacts with him.
The Panama Papers
The most recent attempt to prove the existence of Putin’s billions is unusual because for the first time it did not originally come from Russia. Here I will state my view – which is the same as Pepe Escobar’s – that whoever accessed Mossack Fonseca’s records was not a conventional whistleblower pulling files at random but was someone who was specifically looking for evidence to embarrass those the neocons in the West have labelled the West’s enemies – first and foremost Putin himself.
The evidence for this is circumstantial but in my opinion conclusive.
Not only were the Panama Papers provided to Western establishment media organisations that are known to be hostile to Putin – even if they are mainly on the liberal-left side of the Western political establishment spectrum – but the entire lead up to the breaking of the story on 3rd April 2016 clearly shows it was Putin who was the target.
About a week before the story broke, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that aggressive and coordinated questions were being fired off by the Western media organisations in charge of the papers at Putin’s Press Office and at his associates and friends.
Nothing similar seems to have happened to anyone else named in or connected to the Panama Papers. There are no reports of any questions being addressed before disclosure of the papers to the Prime Ministers of Britain, Pakistan or Iceland or to the President of Ukraine or to their relatives, associates or friends despite the fact that their names actually appear in the Panama Papers whilst Putin’s does not.
Then a strange story appeared about how certain women connected to Putin had bought properties in Russia through the same agent – as if there is anything remotely suspicious or sinister about that.
Then there was a truly bizarre and obviously absurd story linking Putin to Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng.
These stories or rather non-stories look like they were deliberately floated to tarnish Putin’s reputation in preparation for the big revelations that were to come when the Panama Papers leak was finally disclosed.
In the event, the Panama Papers proved a complete anti-climax. In words that have now become famous, The Guardian – one of the Western media agencies to publish the disclosures – grudgingly admitted that, “… the president’s name does not appear in any of the records..”
This, of course, is what The Financial Times previously said about the papers produced by Kolesnikov to support his allegations against Putin arising from the activities of Kovalchuk, Shamalov, Gorelov and Bank Rossia (see above). The fact Putin’s name appears nowhere in the Panama Papers caused the whole story to collapse before it even began.
The result – to the obvious embarrassment of those behind the leak – is that the focus of the story has shifted from Putin – whose name appears nowhere in the papers – to those like the Prime Ministers of Iceland and Britain and to the President Ukraine – whose do.
Worse still, questions are now being asked about the whole offshore industry with many pointing out that it is entirely the creation of the West.
Meanwhile, the tight control the Western media agencies in possession of the Panama Papers have exercised over release of information from the papers has made the whole story look too manipulated, damaging the credibility of the whole process.
The debacle is so great that in what looks like a desperate exercise at damage limitation, the Brookings Institution and Newsweek have published an article by Clifford G. Gaddy – a well known and highly regarded anti-Putin commentator – which is now actually alleging that Putin may have been behind the leak in order to discredit the West and its friends.
I would add in passing that the Gaddy article is interesting not least for this most interesting statement buried inside it:
Early last year, circles in the West sought to use the media to respond to what they described as Russia’s “hybrid warfare,” especially information war, in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea and related activities. They identified corruption as an issue where Putin was quite vulnerable.
Who are these “circles in the West” who “identified corruption as an issue where Putin was quite vulnerable”? How do these “circles” “seek to use” the supposedly independent media of the West in a “hybrid information war” with Russia?
Putting aside these interesting questions, do the Panama Papers actually shed any light on the question of Putin’s fabled billions even though his name appears nowhere in them? The short answer is that they do though in the opposite way to the one the leakers imagined. They all but prove that Putin’s billions are a myth.
Whilst it is notoriously difficult to prove a negative, there comes a point where a reasonable person would say that if repeated attempts to prove the existence of something have been unsuccessful then that all but proves that that something does not exist.
The Panama Papers is the latest and most ambitious attempt to prove the existence of Putin’s billions. Its failure to do so coming after repeatedly unsuccessful previous attempts to prove their existence almost certainly means they don’t exist. As will become clear, I am not the only person to have come to that conclusion (see below).
The saga of the Panama Papers, however, also provides further examples of some of the patterns I discussed previously.
Firstly, there is the fact that it suffices merely for someone to be called a proxy of Putin’s for that person to be treated as one regardless of how insubstantial or implausible that claim may be. Sergey Kolesnikov’s allegations about “Putin’s Palace” brought Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia into the frame even though there is no evidence Bank Rossia is “Putin’s bank” and even though Kolesnikov’s claim the palace on the Black Sea is “Putin’s Palace” is obviously wrong (see above).
As we have seen, mere absence of evidence is not something that ever deters the true believers and it doesn’t help in Kovalchuk’s case that he also happens to own a dacha in the Ozero complex (about which see also above). The mere fact Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia had been named in connection with Putin was sufficient for the Western media agencies in possession of the Panama Papers to trawl through the papers in a hunt for details of any transactions which they might have been involved in.
Needless to say, as soon as details of such transactions did turn up it was taken for granted that they were carried out on Putin’s behalf.
Sure enough, Kovalchuk’s and Bank Rossia’s names did turn up. That is completely unsurprising given that Kovalchuk is a banker and that Bank Rossia is a bank which before sanctions were imposed on it provided private international banking services for its customers, which by definition require it to carry out work offshore.
The fact that there is nothing at all surprising about the fact that Kovalchuk and Bank Rossia have undertaken offshore transactions, and that there is nothing about these transactions that points to Putin being involved in them, does not however concern the true believers. Rather they simply take it as proof of the lengths to which Putin is prepared to go in order to conceal his billions, which they continue to insist exist.
The trawl through the papers also brought up the name of one other person – in this case a most unlikely one, the cellist Sergey Roldugin. The reason for the interest in Roldugin is twofold.
Firstly, unlike Kovalchuk, the extent of whose connections to Putin is actually debatable, there is no doubt Roldugin is Putin’s friend.
Secondly, he happens to be a shareholder in Bank Rossia – which the true believers say is “Putin’s bank” – which is almost certainly what drew attention to him in the first place.
Taken together, these two facts are enough to make Roldugin for the true believers a doubly suspicious person and obviously a proxy of Putin’s.
Roldugin is an accomplished classical musician, a People’s Artist of Russia, a former senior cellist in the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, a former rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and since 2006 the Artistic Director of St. Petersburg’s House of Music, which he founded. He regularly conducts top orchestras in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
The fact Roldugin owns 3% of the shares of Bank Rossia has long been a matter of public knowledge. Confirmation that he also owns 12.5% of the shares of Russia’s biggest advertising company and has a 15% stake in a company in Cyprus is new but there is nothing to connect Putin to these holdings or to suggest that Roldugin holds these assets on Putin’s behalf.
The claim that Roldugin controls assets worth $100 million as Putin’s proxy and that he is – in the words of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – “the secret caretaker” of Putin’s wealth is completely uncorroborated.
I do not propose to discuss the various offshore transactions Kovalchuk, Roldugin and Bank Rossia have been involved in which have been revealed by the Panama Papers leak. Some of the claims made about these transactions, for example by The Guardian – e.g. that they involved unsecured loans on non-commercial terms – have been vigorously disputed by those involved.
Regardless of that, in every case it is impossible to say any wrongdoing has been committed. The Financial Times slipped that fact out in a comment made the day after information about the papers was published:
None of the Mossack Fonseca files mention Mr Putin by name, or implicate him or his associates in any financial wrongdoing.
A point that is missed about about these transactions is that what has been provided is in nearly all cases merely a record of a transfer of money. There is almost no information about why the transfers were made – whether for example they were made in performance of some larger commercial contract or for some other reason – and in the absence of this information it is next to impossible to say anything meaningful about them.
What it is possible to say is that there is nothing in the record of these transactions to connect Putin to any of them.
The suggestion that some of these transactions could not have occurred without Putin’s knowledge or approval is simply unwarranted given how little we know about most of these transactions. For the record, in my opinion, based on what information we actually have about these transactions, that is very unlikely to be the case. This is important because it is only the alleged connection to Putin that makes these transactions at all interesting.
If the connection to Putin had not been mad,e none of these transactions would have attracted anyone’s interest and no-one would have said there was anything remotely suspicious about them. After all it is hardly news that banks keep and transfer money offshore or that rich people use money from offshore accounts to buy yachts.
Just as I will not discuss the details of the transactions, so I do not intend to offer guesses about the supposed “mystery” of how Roldugin came by his money. It is not unheard of for successful classical musicians to make money and to invest it cleverly or to hold money on trust for others – generally the musicians, orchestras and classical music institutions they work with. Again, it is purely the alleged connection to Putin that makes Roldugin’s financial affairs interesting.
Putin and Roldugin say Roldugin is a trustee of funds donated to buy musical instruments. There is nothing remotely implausible about that claim, and it is surely far more plausible than that Roldugin – a cellist in St. Petersburg with a blameless reputation – is the “secret caretaker” of Putin’s hidden billions.
Here at this point I must say something about an extraordinary comment made about this affair by Natalie Nougayrède in The Guardian. In an article discussing the Panama Papers she says this:
The fact that Putin’s name does not appear in the Panama Papers will not calm the paranoia and conspiracy theories that his regime thrives upon. Indeed, these revelations will be seen in Moscow’s ruling circles as part of a CIA-led operation involving the manipulation of the “Anglo-Saxon” media.
In the fevered world of the true believers, it is not “paranoia and conspiracy theories” to allege a gigantic conspiracy by Putin to conceal a multi-billion dollar fortune offshore through proxies one of whom is a cellist. It is to question the evidence that such a conspiracy exists.
As for “Moscow’s ruling circles” seeing “a CIA-led operation involving the manipulation of the “Anglo-Saxon” media”, it is not just “Moscow’s ruling circles” who see this. It is what Clifford G. Gaddy writing for the Brookings Institution and Newsweek says is true (see above).
No ‘Putin billions’ anywhere?
The absence of any remotely convincing evidence implicating Putin in the Panama Papers has in fact had the effect of persuading even some of Putin’s most trenchant Russian liberal critics to doubt that he possesses the multi-billion dollar fortune he is alleged to have.
Thus, Leonid Bershidsky in article in Bloomberg otherwise highly critical of Putin says this:
What has always been missing is the final link to Putin the man. And, given the nature of the data used in the ICIJ investigation, perhaps it’s time to admit that no such link exists. Putin doesn’t own yachts or palaces; he has no $200 billion fortune, as sometimes speculated. He is not “secretly the world’s richest man”.
Alexander Lebedev, ex-KGB man, Russian oligarch, Russian liberal and part owner of the strongly liberal and anti-Putin Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta says essentially the same thing in an article in The London Evening Standard:
The way the leaks have been sewn together and presented make it look obvious that Putin must be spiriting billions of dollars out of the country. Look closer at the documented evidence and you see the case is actually nowhere near made… having spent years funding journalistic investigations into Russian corruption myself, I very much doubt that Putin is behind the looting, or that it is his money that’s moving around Panama, Cyprus and other offshore locales with the help of Mossack Fonseca and its peers.
What is most troubling about sensationally (and wrongly) placing Putin at the heart of a corrupt web is that we lose sight of the main issue these wonderful leaks expose so well: that the money-laundering and theft that is now so rife in countries such as Russia, China and Nigeria is only made possible by a huge machine operated by highly paid bankers, lawyers and accountants from the West.
What of Putin himself? Is there anything we actually know about Putin that suggests that he is corrupt and has squirrelled away billions of dollars of the Russian people’s money?
Putin undoubtedly does take pleasure in some of the good things of life. He is always immaculately dressed – as the President of Russia should be – in suits made for him by the top Italian tailors Brioni and Kiton.
He has an extensive collection of Swiss watches. Some allege that he has as many as 11 and that their total value is in excess of $700,000 and that it is impossible for Putin to have bought them himself on his salary, which peaked in 2014 at around $150,000 a year.
There is a lack of information about how Putin came by his watches but it is by no means impossible that he bought some or even most of them himself. What is often overlooked is that with all Putin’s needs catered for by the Kremlin’s property department his disposable income is very high. He is known to be a watch enthusiast and his disposable income is certainly large enough to indulge a fancy for Swiss watches if that is where his tastes lie.
Many of the watches Putin owns are, however, probably gifts – either from well-wishers or in some cases possibly from the makers themselves who like having their watches worn by well-known personalities.
That probably includes what is by far the single most valuable watch in Putin’s collection, his A. Lange & Sohne tourbillon watch, which is said to be worth as much as $500,000.
In all other respects, Putin gives no visible sign of the gigantic wealth attributed to him. There is no sign of the yachts, expensive cars, opulent villas or other accoutrements of the billionaire lifestyle one would expect of someone who was as rich and as corrupt as his critics say.
His residence at Novo Ogaryovo is a state owned dacha originally built during the Stalin era and the very detailed record of his movements provided by his website shows that he spends most of his time there when he is not at his office in the Kremlin or on his travels.
Similarly, the detailed record of his holidays shows that these are also spent at various state dachas around the country.
His two daughters have led quiet and discreet lives – far removed from the antics of the children of the super-rich – and have caused their father no embarrassment.
According to Putin’s own declaration, his assets are two apartments, a garage, two GAZ Volga cars, a caravan, and a piece of land. It is not clear whether the piece of land includes the dacha in the Ozero complex – assuming Putin still owns it.
Though this list has come in for some mockery, there is simply no sign of anything remotely resembling the large portfolio of valuable properties Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family have built up.
Leonid Bershidsky in the Bloomberg piece says Putin does not need to amass great wealth because he has surrounded himself with people whom he has made rich and whose wealth is at his disposal. Bershidsky admits that this is only true for so long as Putin is able to coerce these people and insinuates that this is a reason why Putin will never voluntarily give up power.
Putin is indeed friends with some very rich people – as discussed, one of his daughters is reported to have married Nikolay Shamalov’s son. But the fundamental difficulty with Bershidsky’s claim is that there is simply no evidence – other than possibly the Swiss watches – to support it. Specifically, there is nothing to suggest Putin disposes of his friends’ wealth in the way Bershidsky says he does.
There is no evidence that Putin’s friends regularly host him in their houses, villas or yachts, or that he goes on holiday at their expense, or that they buy him valuable works of art.
Many world leaders have wealthy friends and there is nothing unusual about Putin having them.
Nor is there anything to suggest that Putin is or expects to be financially dependent on his friends either now or when he retires. Reportedly he has negotiated the use of Novo Ogaryovo as his retirement home – a sign, by the way, that he does intend to retire one day.
Compare that with Margaret Thatcher’s £30 million retirement home in London at 73 Chester Square – provided by unknown wealthy benefactors on terms which have never been publicly disclosed.
What is known about Putin does not point to a vast fortune cunningly and wickedly stashed away. It points to Putin being no richer – or poorer – than he claims to be. In this, as in much else, the impression is of a man protective of his privacy and fiercely protective of his friends but essentially straightforward about himself.
As it was once put to me, with Putin what you see is what you get.
Conclusion – An end to the affair?
As of the time of writing, the Panama Papers are backfiring badly. Instead of Putin being damaged, he has emerged unscathed. It is Western leaders and the West’s friends, people like Cameron and Poroshenko, who are suffering.
Notwithstanding the scale of the debacle, it is most unlikely that this will be the last attempt to prove that Putin is corrupt and a billionaire. As I discussed at the start of this piece, belief in Putin’s billions has become for some people an article of faith and nothing will ever persuade them that they are wrong to believe in them and that they don’t exist. Despite repeated failures they will go on looking for what isn’t there: Putin’s billions which don’t exist.
In the process, the reputations of innocent people will continue to be damaged. The saddest case to date is Roldugin’s who, unlike Timchenko, Kovalchuk or Shamalov, is not even a businessman. Not only will he now have problems getting invitations to do recitals in the West, but he must now worry that any further deterioration in relations between the West and Russia will result in him being placed on a sanctions list. Appallingly, even his reputation as a musician is now being questioned.
This is the cruel result of an obsession that still has far to go and which will surely persist for as long as Putin is Russia’s President or is even alive.
For those of us who do not share this obsession the facts – or rather the lack of them – however speak for themselves. As even Bershidsky and Lebedev now acknowledge, Putin is not a billionaire. On the facts, by the standards of today’s rich, he is not even a rich man.
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