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An investigation published Monday by a group of investigative journalists managed for the first time to link Vladimir Putin to a secretive cooperative of 86 companies that owns luxury real estate properties, yachts and numerous bank accounts. Explanations.
On the face side, he is this president who knew how to keep it simple: a salary of 11,000 euros per month and an estate that boils down to a piece of land, an apartment in Saint Petersburg, luxury watches and three cars. On the flip side, Vladimir Putin is actually one of the richest men in the world with yachts, private jets and lots of real estate.
But unlike Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, the Russian president does not personally own these assets. Their official owners are wealthy oligarchs suspected of acting as front men to hide the fortune of the master of the Kremlin. Thus, in 2021, when anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny revealed the existence of “Putin’s palace” on the shores of the Black Sea, billionaire Arkadi Rotenberg, a longtime friend and judo partner of the Russian president , claimed to be the owner of this sumptuous complex of 17,000 square meters estimated at 1 billion dollars.
>> To read on France 24: Arkadi Rotenberg, loyal oligarch and happy owner of “Putin’s palace”
But in an investigation published Monday, June 20, a consortium of investigative journalists “Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project” (OCCRP) associated with the independent Russian media Meduza, succeeded for the first time to make the link between President Putin and a secret cooperative of 86 companies and foundations which holds 4.5 billion in luxury real estate and financial assets.
“All I do is sign papers”
It was a data leak hosted by Moskomsvyaz, a Russian IT company, that put investigators on the trail of Putin’s billions. The journalists analyzed the metadata of the emails exchanged between the entities of this cooperative which, a priori, operate in different sectors and have nothing to do with each other. First surprise: they use the same private email domain name, LLCInvest.ru.
Another disturbing element, the leaders, executives and employees of these companies communicate regularly with each other via this messaging system, discussing common affairs, as if they were part of the same group. OCCRP cites the Volna company as an example, owned by Sergei Rudnov, the son of Oleg Rudnov, a friend of Vladimir Putin who died in 2015. Leaked emails show the co-founder of a company belonging to this secret cartel discussing of Volna’s finances with another man, neither of whom has any public connection to Rudnov’s business.
>> To read also on France 24: Champagne, luxury cars… the lifestyle of the Russian elite in the crosshairs of Westerners
Reached by phone [par les auteurs de l’enquête], the director of several cooperative companies confirmed to journalists using LLCInvest.ru messaging. “I’m just a humble employee minding my own business. All I do is sign papers. You know sometimes you register a homeless person as running a business. Me, I’m not homeless, but I sign the papers without paying attention to the details,” he confessed.
Finally, a good part of these 86 companies and foundations manage assets attributed to Vladimir Putin for a long time. This is the case of the vineyards owned by the oligarch Gennadi Timtchenko and by the son of a childhood friend of Putin or even the ski resort of Igora, near Saint-Petersburg, linked to Svetlana Krivonoguikh, the alleged mistress of the Russian president.
This network of companies also owns several luxury yachts, the largest of which is the “Shellest”, a 46-meter-long vessel, worth $23 million who regularly travels between Gelendzhik, where the “Black Sea Palace” is located, and the port of Sochi. This giant of the seas belongs to Revival of Marine Traditions, a foundation linked to Vladimir Putin according to the US Treasury
A nebula at the service of the Putin clan
To top it off, the “LLCInvest” circle maintains close ties with the Rossia bank, nicknamed the “bank of Vladimir Putin’s friends” and implicated in the Panama Papers. “The only explanation I see is that these companies have a common management system,” said OCCRP, a Russian corruption expert, on condition of anonymity. “LLCInvest acts as a cooperative or association in which members can exchange benefits and goods”.
This informal, but well-established pattern of corruption is reminiscent of the system described by Sergei Kolesnikov in 2010. At the time, this businessman who fled Russia claimed to have designed an opaque financial arrangement allowing a group of oligarchs to collect billions of rubles in an “investment fund” for the benefit of Vladimir Putin.
According to Sergei Kolesnikov, this money was siphoned off from a charity project intended to buy medical equipment to be transferred to the Rosinvest company. The latter was to invest in Russian companies, but Vladimir Putin would have finally decided to use the funds for the construction of his palace on the Black Sea. After Kolesnikov’s revelations, Rosinvest was dissolved.
According to the anti-corruption expert interviewed by OCCRP, LLCInvest has points in common with Rosinvest, but is less centralized and therefore less vulnerable to whistleblowers. “[Ce système] reduces the chances of revelations of a new Kolesnikov”, analyzes the Russian specialist. Asked by journalists, the Kremlin affirms that “the President of the Russian Federation is not linked or associated with the organizations mentioned”.
If Vladimir Putin’s fortune remains an enigma, some experts estimate it at several tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars, recalls Forbes magazine. In 2015, the Anglo-British businessman Bill Browder, who was the most important Western investor in Russia at the end of the 1990s, assured in a book entitled “Red Notice” that Vladimir Putin had granted himself half of the wealth of all the oligarchs. According to his calculations, the Russian president would have a fortune of around 200 billion dollars.