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Is 'tsar' Putin the richest man in Europe?

Last updated on: December 21, 2007 17:41 IST

If emerging reports are to be believed, Russia's outgoing President Vladimir Putin is the richest man in Europe. And that, too, by alleged embezzlement. 

A report in Guardian says the Time magazine's Person of the Year presides over a secret multi-billion dollar fortune in Kremlin.

Rivals clans in Kremlin, the report says, are entangled in a tug-of-war to control the assets days before the departure of Putin, who is widely described as the new tsar of Russia.

Putin's abs-olutely hot

What is at stake, the reports say, are billions of dollars in assets belonging to Russian state-run corporations. Besides, more secrets are tumbling out of Putin's closely guarded personal fortunes.

Moscow is agog with reports of  Putin's hidden wealth in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, a landlocked principality in central Europe located in the Alps between Austria and Switzerland.

The claims over the booty surfaced last month when the Russian political expert,  Stanislav Belkovsky, told a German newspaper the details of the financial dealings. The reports have since been repeated in the Washington Post and the Moscow Times, with speculation over the fortune appearing on the Internet.

Quoting sources at the President's office, Belkovsky claimed after eight years in power Putin had secretly accumulated more than $40bn -- a sum would make him Russia's - and Europe's - richest man.

In an interview to the Guardian, Belkovsky said Putin owns vast holdings in three Russian oil and gas companies, concealed behind a "non-transparent network of offshore trusts".

Putin, the interview says, effectively controls 37 percent of the shares of Surgutneftegaz, an oil exploration company and Russia's third-biggest oil producer, worth $20bn.

He also owns 4.5 percent of Gazprom, and "at least 75%" of Gunvor, a mysterious Swiss-based oil trader, founded by Gennady Timchenko, a friend of the president's, Belkovsky alleges.

Asked how much Putin was worth, Belkovsky said: "At least $40bn. Maximum we cannot know. I suspect there are some businesses I know nothing about."

He added: "It may be more. It may be much more."

"Putin's name doesn't appear on any shareholders' register, of course. There is a non-transparent scheme of successive ownership of offshore companies and funds. The final point is in Zug in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Vladimir Putin should be the beneficiary owner."

Putin, expectedly, has not commented on Belkovsky's claims. 

Reports say the news of the alleged financial dealings at Kremlin has leaked out after a fight between a group led by Igor Sechin, Putin's influential deputy chief of staff, and a "liberal" clan, that includes Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor.

The Sechin group is made up of siloviki - Kremlin officials with security/military backgrounds. It is said to include Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's KGB successor agency, his deputy Alexander Bortnikov, and Putin's aide Viktor Ivanov, the report says.

Those associated with the liberal camp, include Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea football club who is close to Putin and the Yeltsin family.

Other members are Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the federal drug control service, and Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born billionaire.

The power struggle has little to do with ideology, and full of politics and money.   Some describe it as a war between business competitors. Putin's decision to endorse as president Medvedev - who has no links with the secret services - dealt a severe blow to the hardline Sechin clan, reports say.

Some analysts say Putin wanted to retire but was forced to carry on to shield Medvedev from siloviki plotting. Others disagree and say Putin wants to stay in power. On Monday Putin confirmed he intends next year to become Russia's prime minister.

Critics say the wave of renationalisations under Putin has transformed Putin's associates into multi-millionaires.

The dilemma now facing the Kremlin's elite is how to hang on to its wealth if Putin leaves power, experts say. Most of its money is located in the west, they add. The pressing problem is how to protect these funds from any future administration that may seek to reclaim them.

In an interview on Wednesday with Time, Putin denied the corruption charges against Kremlin.

Asked if some of the people closest to you are getting rich, Putin said: "Then you know who and how. Write to us, to the foreign ministry, if you are so confident. I presume you know the names, you know the systems and the tools."

"I can assure you and everyone who would listen to us, watch us and read us, that the reaction would be swift, immediate, and within the prevailing law."