Childhood Friend Of Putin's Strikes It Rich, Report Says
By Tom Balmforth September 27, 2016
MOSCOW -- The independent Russian station Dozhd (TV Rain) has aired a report alleging that a childhood friend of President Vladimir Putin's is worth an estimated $550 million and owned a substantial stake in the Gunvor oil-trading company between 2005 and 2010.
Kremlin critics claim the investigative report aired on September 26 establishes a connection between Putin and Gunvor, a company some have alleged to be a source of undeclared income for the president. Putin's declared assets are modest, and he has repeatedly denied allegations of ties to Gunvor and secret personal wealth.
In March 2014, as the United States imposed sanctions on allies of Putin's, whom it accused of involvement in Russia's interference in Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department said that "Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds."
The Dozhd report focused on Pyotr Kolbin, a former shareholder in Gunvor -- a company that was co-founded by Gennady Timchenko, one of the Putin allies hit with U.S. sanctions -- and grew its business largely out of Russian oil but divested itself of all its Russian assets since Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv's control.
The report said Putin's father met Kolbin's father, Viktor, in 1954 in the village of Imenitsy, near the Estonian border in Leningrad Oblast, where the latter was principal of the local school and the Putins rented a summer cottage. Putin was not yet two years old then, but in later years the boys became friends, it said, sometimes getting into scraps with other children there.
In the report, Dozhd said that it had seen a letter that Putin personally wrote to Viktor Kolbin in 2000, the year he was first elected president. The television station alleges that Pyotr Kolbin went into business the following year. He is now worth $550 million, according to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.
Dozhd said Kolbin bought shares in the Yamal SPG company for $90 million in 2010 and sold them about 18 months later for $526 million. The sale was approved by a government commission headed by Putin, who was prime minister at the time.
By 2010, Kolbin was said by Dozhd to own at least a 10 percent stake in Gunvor, which it said had an annual turnover of $70 billion that year. He sold the shares in 2012, Vedomosti reported -- the year Putin returned to the Kremlin for his third presidential term.
It has long been known that Kolbin was a shareholder in Gunvor, but his name is not widely known in Russia and Dodzh appears to be the first media outlet to have alleged a connection between him and Putin. In the past, he was thought by some to have been a friend of Timchenko's.
Speaking to Russian news agencies on September 27, Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, declined to comment on the Dozhd report, saying that he does not know a Kolbin among Putin's acquaintances and that he has never seen concrete information connecting Putin to business.
"To be honest, I have never seen any allegations," Peskov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. "Some kind of speculation -- yes. There are arguments, bordering on speculation all over the place, but I've never seen, never read any information backed up with real facts."
Aleksei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anticorruption activist, wrote that the report "proves" that "Gunvor belongs to Putin."
Opposition activist Leonid Volkov compared Kolbin to Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and close friend of Putin's who was named in the Panama Papers leak in May. Media reports based on the leaked documents alleged that Roldugin established a business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to Putin.
"In short, this is another Roldugin," Volkov wrote on Twitter. "Putin cannot think up anything beyond hanging his assets on his childhood friends."
Other Russian social-network users were taken with a different detail. Dozhd alleged that Kolbin and Timchenko in 2015 sold two apartments in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg to Anna Zatsepilina, a woman with the same name as the grandmother of rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who is rumored to be Putin's partner. She and the Kremlin have dismissed the rumors as speculation and declined to comment.
"Babushka [Grandma] Kabayeva" was soon trending on Twitter with an assortment of quips.
"Alina Kabayeva's grandmother on her monthly pension bought two apartments on Arbat Street and with the remainder bought a controlling stake in Gazprom and Chelsea," one user tweeted, referring to a prestigious Moscow address, the state-controlled Russian natural-gas giant, and a British soccer club owned by the Kremlin-connected Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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