Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Putin's Billions or Uneasy Lies the Head

Recently there has been speculation about the potential for Vladimir Putin's enrichment through his position. In particular an article in The Guardian suggested that he is now the richest man in Europe to the tune of 40 billion dollars. At the same time there is intimation of a major power struggle which has nothing to do with democracy but rather oligarchs vs. siloviki. In the words of the Guardian article:

"Putin's name doesn't appear on any shareholders' register, of course. There is a non-transparent scheme of successive ownership of offshore companies and funds. The final point is in Zug [in Switzerland] and Liechtenstein. Vladimir Putin should be the beneficiary owner."

Putin has not commented on Belkovsky's claims. The Guardian put the allegations to the Kremlin but was told Putin's chief spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was not available.

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.

The Sechin group is made up of siloviki - Kremlin officials with security/military backgrounds. It is said to include Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia's KGB successor agency, his deputy Alexander Bortnikov, and Putin's aide Viktor Ivanov.

Those associated with the liberal camp include Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea football club who is close to Putin and the Yeltsin family. Other members are Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the federal drug control service, and Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born billionaire.

Insiders say the struggle has little to do with ideology. They characterise 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.

Some analysts have said Putin would like to retire but has been forced to carry on to shield Medvedev from siloviki plotting. Others disagree and say Putin wants to stay in power. On Monday Putin confirmed he intends next year to become Russia's prime minister.

"The siloviki are not at all nice," Yulia Latynina, a Russian political commentator said. Latynina, who hosts a political talkshow on the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, was one of the first journalists to draw attention last month to Putin's reported links with Gunvor.

The company is based in Zug, a picturesque Swiss canton known as a bolthole for publicity-shy international businessmen. Gunvor has neither a website nor a Moscow office - but in 2007 posted profits of $8bn on a turnover of $43bn, an astronomic figure, according to industry experts. Like Putin, its reclusive owner, Timchenko, worked in the KGB's foreign affairs directorate. He is said to have met Russia's president in the late 1980s through KGB circles.

Gunvor, which has its head office in Geneva, failed to comment.

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.

"There's no point in having all this money if you can't travel to the Maldives or Paris and spend it," Elena Panfilova, the director of Transparency International in Russia said.

The first hints of the intra-clan warfare gripping the Kremlin emerged last month, when the FSB arrested General Alexander Bulbov, the deputy head of the federal drug agency, and part of the liberal group. His arrest saw a surreal standoff, with his bodyguards and FSB agents pointing machine guns at each other.

Earlier this month Russia's deputy finance minister, Sergei Storchak - another "liberal" - was also arrested and charged with embezzling $43.4m. He is currently in prison. His boss, Russia's finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, part of the liberal clan, says he is innocent.

But the liberal group - one of several competing factions inside the Kremlin - has struck back. Earlier this month Oleg Shvartsman, a previously obscure businessman, gave an interview to Kommersant newspaper claiming he secretly managed the finances of a group of FSB officers. Their assets were worth £1.6bn, he revealed.

The officers were involved in "velvet reprivatisations", Shvartsman, a fund manager, said - in effect forcibly acquiring private companies at below-market value and transforming them into state-owned firms. These assets were redistributed via offshore companies, he said.

According to Panfilova, the "randomised" corruption of the 1990s has given way to the "systemic and institutionalised corruption" of the Putin era. Members of Putin's cabinet personally control the most important sectors of the economy - oil, gas and defence. Medvedev is chairman of Gazprom; Sechin runs Rosneft; other ministers are chairmen of Russian railways, Aeroflot, a nuclear fuel giant and an energy transport enterprise.

Putin has created a new, more streamlined oligarchy, his critics say. "The crown jewels of the country's wealth have ended up in the hands of Putin's inner circle," Vladimir Rzyhkov - a former independent MP - wrote in Monday's Moscow Times.

Belkovsky - who published a book about Putin's finances last year, and who is the director of the National Strategic Institute, a Moscow thinktank - claims he is confident of his assessment of Putin's hidden wealth. "It's not a secret among the elites,' he said. "But please pay attention that Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] has never sued me."

Belkovsky adds that the west has misunderstood Putin and has been distracted by his "neo-Soviet" image. Putin, Belkovsky claims, is ultimately a "classic" businessman who believes money can solve any problem, and whose psychology was shaped by his experiences working in the St Petersburg mayor's office in Russia's crime-ridden early 1990s.

"He is quite sure of this. A problem that can't be resolved with $1bn can be resolved with $10bn, and if not with $10bn then $20bn, and so on," Belkovsky said."

Gunvor on the other hand has done nicely in its dealings with otherwise hard to pin down Russian energy companies, notably Surgut as per the Terhan Times:

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Swiss-based trader Gunvor has boosted its position as a top player on the Urals crude market by winning a large term tender to lift volumes from Russia's No. 4 oil firm Surgut, trading sources said on Friday.

“Gunvor has a term deal for next year,” said a source close to the deal.

“It looks like Gunvor is the only trader which has so far managed to get a term deal out of Surgut,” said a trader with a Western major.

In 2007, Surgut had term deals with Gunvor, Total and Europetroleum, while in 2006 Surgut launched the term deal business by bringing on board Statoil, Neste, Europetroleum and Total. It also continues to sell crude at spot tenders.

Gunvor has grown from a mid-sized trader to a major player in several years due to what it says are strong connections in the Russian oil industry as well as aggressive bidding strategy at tenders similar to the one by Surgut.

Founded 10 years ago, Gunvor handles about 30 percent of Russia's seaborne oil exports, one of the firm's founders Torbjorn Tornqvist said told Reuters in an interview in October.

Gunvor already has won major tenders to lift oil of Russian state champion Rosneft and No. 3 firm TNK-BP in 2008.

It also has the rights to regularly lift crude of the oil arm of gas export monopoly Gazprom, Gazprom Neft, which traders say all combined makes it a near monopolist on the Urals market on the Baltic Sea and a top player on the Mediterranean market.

“Look at Primorsk's shipping schedule in the first 10 days of January. It is Gunvor everywhere. Ten cargoes, probably even more. Impressive and scary stuff,” one trader said.

“There are rumors that Gunvor will also market Kazakh crude, small producers and (mid-sized oil firm) Bashneft BANE out of Primorsk next year. I wish I worked for them,” said a trader with a major firm.

Traders said it was not clear whether any other firm apart from Gunvor would accept term deals from Surgut for next year as the company had asked for a bigger premium.

“When people talk about a premium of half a dollar (to a formula based on monthly Brent prices), it stops being funny,” one trader said.

“If Gunvor is indeed paying these prices I'm curious to see where their margins will come from,” he added. "

All of which makes the selection of Dmitry Medvedev even more interesting as the next Russian President. As the chief of Gazprom and a so-called Russian liberal it appears that he plays a number of rolls. The Canadian Globe and Mail notes the following:

"When former president Boris Yelstin appointed Mr. Putin as prime minister in 1999, Mr. Putin lured Mr. Medvedev to Moscow to be his deputy chief of staff. The next year, Mr. Putin named him Gazprom's chairman and two years ago he became first deputy prime minister.

Earlier this month, Mr. Putin virtually sealed Mr. Medvedev's future when he picked him as the 2008 presidential candidate for the mighty United Russia party. At a party congress, deputies dutifully endorsed Mr. Medvedev.

But a wrinkle to the otherwise smooth power handover occurred when Mr. Medvedev turned around and begged Mr. Putin to stay on and become prime minister. Mr. Putin agreed.

Suddenly Mr. Medvedev looked, weak, indecisive and incapable of leading the vast nation.

"Mr. Medvedev doesn't have any decision-making skills," declared Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Institute of Globalization Problems. "If he becomes president, he will always have to ask someone for advice." Others were more scathing, noting the President has little faith in Mr. Medvedev. The father-son relationship is based on an understanding that Mr. Putin is the boss.

Mr. Medvedev's deferential plea fuelled rumours that Mr. Putin has no immediate plans to leave power and raised the daunting prospect of two leaders ruling Russia, for which there is no historical precedent.

Few believe that Mr. Putin, who ruled Russia for eight years, will have the stomach to take on the more prosaic prime minister's role, which in Russia is largely bureaucratic.

Traditionally, prime ministers in Russia get blamed for most national problems, while the president has the glamour portfolios of foreign affairs and defence.

But others say Mr. Medvedev will grow into his role as leader, much as Mr. Putin did.

"Mr. Medvedev is like Putin's kid," Mr. Delyagin said. "But sooner or later kids grow up. And Medvedev will. Power changes people. Should Medvedev be elected, he will soon stop asking Putin for advice," and distance himself from the Russian leader.

Other predict that Mr. Medvedev's liberal veneer will soon give way to a more focused ruthlessness once he inherits the president's job and responsibilities.

Mr. Berk said Mr. Medvedev has never strayed from Mr. Putin's script and plans to carry on his boss's work.

"He knows what has to be done," Mr. Berk said. "If he is the president, the course will continue."

Monday, December 24, 2007

America in Statistics

Self reflection is an often sobering process for countries as well as individuals. In the spirit of year end stocktaking I've compiled some stats from that hot bed of radical thought, The Economist.

American ranking for per capita health spending in the world: #1.
American ranking for life expectancy: #41.
American ranking for foreign aid as % of GDP: #21. Readers of Norwegianity may note
Norway is #1.
American ranking for total number of incarcerated persons: #1 (2,193,798).
American ranking for incarcerated persons per 100,000 :#1 (737).
American ranking for executions (2004) : #5 (52), between Uzbekistan and North Korea.

Feel free to share these numbers with wingnut relatives during the holidays.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Kommunists Over Florida

I was looking for something intelligent to say about the recent Russian Duma elections besides ну и что (Nu i shto) , a Russian phrase that means so what, when I came across this article on the KPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation) website noting the fact that one of their members, Yuri Yugov took part in the world's largest acrobatic parachute jump over Florida on November 22nd . Molodyets! and nice T-shirt. While taking part in the disputed Russian elections the Russian communists could not help but note that the U.S. has lost any credibility commenting about anyone's elections after the shenanigans of the last major elections in this country. With more than a little irony they cite an article by Mark Almond who comments on the "dirty games" in Florida and Ohio which discredit America's ability to teach anyone about democracy. Communists or Republicans jumping into Florida which could be worse?