How rich is Vladimir Putin? It is an easy question to answer formally by looking at Mr Putin’s declaration of assets as a candidate in this month’s parliamentary elections.
This showed that he earned £40,000 last year and had £74,000 in savings as well as two vintage Volga cars, an apartment in St Petersburg inherited from his parents and 230 shares in a local bank, worth about £400.
Informally, however, some staggering numbers are circulating as gossip among political analysts in Russia.
Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute of National Strategy, a Moscow think-tank, claims that Mr Putin has at least $41 billion tucked away in shares and offshore trusts based in Switzerland and Lichtenstein.
That would make Mr Putin not only Russia’s, but Europe’s richest man, far eclipsing the wealth of oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, and Boris Berezovsky, one of the President’s strongest critics.
Mr Belkovsky is a former Kremlin insider and one-time supporter of Mr Putin who has now turned strongly against the President. In an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper last month he named companies in which he alleges the Russian President holds a secret stake.
He claims Mr Putin holds 37 per cent of Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth largest oil company, 4.5 per cent in the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom, and 50 per cent of a mysterious oil trading company Gunvor. He raised the stake in Gunvor to 75 per cent in an interview with The Guardian today.
Gunvor’s headquarters are in Switzerland and run by Gennady Timchenko, a former judo partner and KGB colleague of Mr Putin. It is estimated to have made $8 billion profit last year on a turnover of $40 billion by handling up to a quarter of Russia’s oil exports.
It must be said that Mr Belkovsky, who initiated the Kremlin’s war on the Yukos oil company owned by Mikhail Khordorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, produces no evidence to support his allegations.
However, a former presidential candidate and state Duma deputy, Ivan Rybkin, also claimed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta in 2004 that Mr Putin was Russia’s biggest oligarch and that Mr Timchenko was one of three businessmen responsible for managing his affairs.
Anders Aslund, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, repeated Mr Belkovsky’s claims in the Moscow Times last month and concluded: “If these numbers contain any truth, Putin would be the most corrupt political leader in world history, easily surpassing Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Zaire’s Mobutu.”
In another article in the Washington Post last week, Mr Aslund raised further questions about the extent of Mr Putin’s wealth and the private fortunes amassed by public officials linked to the Kremlin.
The Kremlin has not reacted to any of the accusations. Mr Putin himself slapped down claims of corruption in his inner circle during an interview he gave to Time magazine for naming him its Person of the Year on Wednesday .
Questioned whether “some of the people closest to you are getting rich”, Mr Putin replied: “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.”
The question mark over Mr Putin’s wealth is matched by another over why this is suddenly emerging into the public glare. His decision to back Dmitri Medvedev as his presidential successor has not gone down well with the “siloviki”, the security service and military wing in the Kremlin whose favoured candidate was the hardline former Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov.
A struggle between rival clans in the siloviki is already under way as they battle to mark out their territory ahead of the transfer of power in the presidential election next March. Some analysts regard Mr Putin’s decision to stay on as prime minister as a sign of his concern that the siloviki may seek to undermine Mr Medvedev, a lawyer with no background in either the secret services or the military.
Winston Churchill once compared Kremlin politics to watching “dogs fighting under a carpet” because it was only clear who had won once the growling had died away. It may be that details about Mr Putin’s alleged fortune are being leaked out to discredit him in the power struggle over the succession. Whether more emerges or the whole issue gets swept back under the carpet depends on Mr Putin’s ability to control the in-fighting raging in the Kremlin.