A number of compelling but unsubstantiated reports over recent years have suggested that Russian president Vladimir Putin has secretly amassed a personal fortune of as much as $200 billion, far greater than the personal wealth of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) co-founder Bill Gates who currently sits at the top of the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires with a net worth of $77 billion. In this article we’ll review some of the sources supporting the notion that Putin could unofficially be the richest man in the world.
Shares in Oil and Gas Companies
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky has claimed that Putin could be worth as much as $70 billion, with shares in major oil and gas companies including a 4.5% stake of national gas giant Gazprom and 37% of oil supplier Surgutneftegas. Belkovsky alleges that while Putin's name does not appear as a shareholder, his holdings are concealed behind a non-transparent chain of offshore companies and funds. Putin defenders point out that there is no clear evidence that Putin actually owns stakes in Surgutneftegaz or Gazprom and that many reports of Putin’s wealth hang on the single unproven assertions of Belkovsky.
Palace, Yacht and Watches
Often painted in the press as a modern day Tsar, Vladimir Putin is rumoured to own a $35 million yacht named Olympia, a billion dollar palace on Russia's Black Sea coast and an extravagant watch collection including a Tourbograph watch made by A Lange & Sohne worth over a half million dollars. The 57-metre Olympia yacht was reportedly a gift from the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Dmitry Skarga is a former Kremlin employee living in the UK who claims to have managed the yacht. In a BBC Panorama documentary called Putin’s Secret Riches, Skarga said that while the yacht had been given to an offshore company, the real owner was Putin and that it was maintained using state funds. The Kremlin strenuously denies the allegations and press secretary Dmitry Peskov stated: “the contents of this BBC film, this is a pure fiction and libel, which has no grounds whatsoever.”
Sergei Pugachev is a former politician and financier, once dubbed as "Putin’s banker" for his close connection to the Russian president. After his relationship with Putin soured he fled from Russia and he is currently living in exile in the south of France. In an interview with the Guardian Pugachev explained his view, saying: “Putin considers everything on Russian territory as his own...any attempts to find some foreign account, they are doomed to fail, because currently Putin considers as his own everything owned by Gazprom, Rosneft, private companies. Therefore, it is quite possible that he is the richest person in the world, until the moment that he loses power.” Pugachev claims that he was stripped of his business assets, while the Kremlin has accused him of owing hundreds of millions of dollars to the liquidator of Mezhprombank, a bank which he co-founded.
When asked by the the BBC whether Putin is corrupt, Adam Szubin of the U.S. Treasury did not mince his words - replying “in our view, yes”. Szubin stated: “He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year...that is not an accurate statement of the man’s wealth and he has longtime training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth.” Szubin also said that the United States had been aware of Putin’s corruption for “many, many years”.
Bill Browder is the co-founder of the investment fund Hermitage Capital Management, formerly Russia's largest foreign investor. Referring to Putin’s net worth in a 2015 interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, he said: “I believe that it's $200 billion. After 14 years in power of Russia, and the amount of money that the country has made, and the amount of money that hasn't been spent on schools and roads and hospitals and so on, all that money is in property, bank - Swiss bank accounts, shares, hedge funds, managed for Putin and his cronies.”
The Bottom Line
The documents recently leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) known as the Panama Papers revealed how public officials from a number of countries conceal their wealth and have again raised the issue of corruption among world leaders. Although Putin is not directly named in the papers, the documents show that a number of his associates moved as much as $2 billion through banks and offshore firms. The Kremlin has called the ICIJ revelations "a series of fibs", but the papers raise renewed questions over Putin’s alleged wealth and kleptocratic regime. (For more, see: Panama Papers Reveal The Secrets Of Dirty Money)