Putin’s Wealth: The Next Episode?

I first learned from Andy over at Siberian Light about the press brouhaha over Putin’s alleged $40 billion tucked away in banks in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. Intrigued, I set my sights on said press accounts for the story.

Claims of Putin’s hidden money bags comes from an interview Stanislav Belkovsky recently gave to Die Welt. There Belkovsky perhaps spells out the true nature of “Putinism,” a nature that harks back to Andrei Pointkovsky’s claim that Putinism is “the highest stage of robber capitalism.” Indeed, except Russian capitalism is more like collective thievery. Under Putin’s tenure, says Belkovsky, “all the interest groups are represented in the Kremlin. The people who sit there are the direct advocates and co-owners of large enterprises.” Nothing new here. What is new is the claim that Putin himself has reaped the spoils of Russia’s economic might. “Putin is a big businessman. He control 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz stock, which has a market value of $20 billion. In addition, he contols 4.5 percent of Grazprom stock. In the oil firm Gunvor Putin holds 50 percent more than its founder Gennady Timchenko.” In an interview with the Guardian, Belkovsky claims that Putin’s stake in Gunvor is as high as 75 percent. However, the numbers are mostly speculation since the paper trail confirming Putin’s stash has yet to be found.

If the estimates of Putin’s wealth are believed, the $40 billion he has tucked away would instantly make him Europe’s wealthiest man. Moreover, if true, then the comparisons between Mexico under the PRI and Russia under United Russia might gain whole new resonance. Putin’s fortune simply makes him a Slavic caudillo equipped with all the benefits the office bestows. As Robin Leach used to say in his signature accent, “With champagne wishes and caviar dreams, these are the lifestyles of the rich and famous!”

The real question is why now? Why is Putin’s wealth not only being revealed, but also discussed? For this we have to turn to Luke Harding’s take on the matter. According to him, the reason for why what was once taboo is now suddenly out in the open has to do with the machinations of those damn siloviki. Harding explains,

Discussion of Putin’s wealth has previously been taboo. But the claims have leaked out against the backdrop of a fight inside the Kremlin between a group led by Igor Sechin, Putin’s influential deputy chief of staff, and a “liberal” clan that includes Medvedev.

. . .

Insiders say the struggle has little to do with ideology. They characterize 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, they add.

. . .

Critics say the wave of renationalisations under Putin has transformed Putin’s associates into multimillionaires. 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.

True. Multimillionaires they be. Sechin, as Chairman of Rosneft, might be the next carcass for the Kremlin vultures to feast from. He’s been hit, and hit hard over the past several weeks. So does this mean that a battered and beleaguered Sechin is going to the mattresses? Is the leak of Putin’s alleged wealth simply a black PR hit against the Don? Stay tuned, dear reader. Stay tuned. Because the siloviki war might have just been ratcheted up a notch.