The Telegraph reports:
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has been likened to an African plutocrat after a controversial political scientist claimed that he had acquired control of £20 billion in energy assets - enough to make him Europe's richest man. Stanislav Belkovsky, a colourful figure on the political scene, claimed that Mr Putin had made a multi-billion pound fortune by controlling stakes in three Russian energy companies. The allegations – if true – would suggest that Mr Putin is one of the wealthiest men ever to hold public office. Mr Belkovsky alleged that Mr Putin had acquired $40 billion during his eight years in power, through a network of front-men. He compared the president to Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who plundered Congo, and Ferdinand Marcos, the former ruler of the Philippines. "Russia under Putin is not a version of modern democracy but a typical third world kleptocracy," said Mr Belkovsky. But Mr Putin's spokesman denounced the claims. "It's nothing but trash," said Dmitry Peskov. "Certainly it has nothing to do with seriousness; it has nothing to do with professionalism. It's just trash."
According to Mr Belkovsky, Mr Putin controls a 37 per cent stake in Surgutneftegaz, an oil exploration company, as well as 4.5 per cent of Gazprom, the state energy giant, and at least 50 per cent of Gunvor, a Swiss-based oil trading company that has won a series of state contracts. Mr Belkovsky claimed his information had come from credible sources in the Kremlin - but admitted he had no documentary evidence. "European and U.S. special services have access to these documents but I don't," he said.
Observers were sceptical. "In a system of state capitalism and total corruption, it would be strange if Putin was not rich," said Leonid Radzikhovsky, a political analyst. "But the information about this treasure island seems a little exaggerated. Most Russians do not think about corruption at presidential level or do not want to think about it." Mr Radzikhovsky added: "It is difficult to understand Belkovsky. He is known as a source of confusing information and it is hard to treat it seriously. "He is an adventurer. He may be driven by his own morbid ambitions. He really knows a lot of people in high places but who is he to know the secrets of the person who has all the possible and impossible ways to hide his secrets?"
The endgame of Mr Putin's presidency, and his plans for the succession, have been thrown off balance by infighting between rival Kremlin clans. At least three groups, two led by ex-KGB officials, have been in open warfare since October. On Oct 3, General Alexander Bulbov, deputy head of the federal drug agency, and a member of a hardline clan of "Siloviki" - former KGB and security officials - was arrested by a rival Siloviki faction. The "liberal" faction was damaged when Sergei Storchak, the deputy finance minister, was arrested last month. Far from being watertight, Mr Putin's Kremlin now leaks like a sieve. The President is theoretically above the clans and tries to balance their clashes. If he does have a faction, it consists of businessmen who have become very wealthy under his rule. Mr Belkovsky named at least three of them as front-men for the president's alleged fortune. He also cited Igor Sechin, a deputy chief of Kremlin staff, leader of the most hardline "Siloviki" faction and one of the country's most powerful men. Mr Putin appeared to have sidelined Mr Sechin's clan when he announced that Dmitry Medvedev, a relative liberal, would be his successor as president.
Mr Sechin and other ex-KGB figures would never rally around Mr Medvedev. Mr Putin may calculate that he can keep their loyalty, leaving the new president isolated. Mr Putin may calculate that he can keep their loyalty, leaving the new president isolated. What game Mr Belkovsky is playing - and on whose behalf - is unclear. He has been accused of starting a smear campaign against the oligarch, Mikhail Khodorokovsky, a fierce critic of Mr Putin who was jailed in 2005. Mr Belkovsky's allegations about the president's money first emerged in a book he published last year.
Yes, quite possibly the story is exaggerated. Putin probably stole just a few billion from the treasury of a country whose men on average don't live to see their 60th year. No big deal.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
The Telegraph reports: