Is Vladimir Putin the Richest Man Alive?

Is Vladimir Putin the Richest Man Alive?

Revered by the people of Russia, Vladimir Putin proved that short term tough decisions were worth making when he cut poverty by half and contributed to a rapid growth in Russian GDP. After taking over the Russian premiership on August 9th 1999, Putin’s popularity has rapidly grown in the Motherland. Born in 1952 in Leningrad, Putin studied law and economics before joining the KGB, where he rose to the very top of the organization before becoming head of state. He has a black belt in Judo, speaks both German and English, enjoys bareback horse-riding, and hunting  wild game. But is Putin, who won the Russian election for the 4th time on March 18th, 2018, just rich in the hearts of the Russian people, or has he amassed a personal fortune? As speculation rises about the value of the Russian prime minister, a number of billion dollar figures have been batted to and from. 

The richest people in the world have a mind-blowingly large stash of cash unimaginable to most of us simple run-of-the mill day to day earthly citizens. Bill Gates, for example, has a net worth of around 80-90 billion dollars, similar to the total GDP of Cuba. Phil Knight, who invented the Nike running shoe, runs away each year with a total net worth of $30 billion, similar to the GDP of Bolivia. Russian steel magnate and Chelsea football club owner Roman Abromavich is worth about $10 billion, similar to the gdp of Madagascar. Currently, there are around 2,200 billionaires in the world, and these generally range from tech CEOS, to heiresses, to investors, sports designers, and commodity moguls. Heads of state are also well represented on the world’s rich lists with the Sultan of Oman valued at $700 million. The president of Kazakhstan is valued at around $1 billion, and the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates is worth around $4 billion. The Sultan of Brunei is worth $20 billion, and estate of the late King of Thailand is worth approximately twice that, at $40 billion. But according to Hermitage Capital Management CEO Bill Browder, they’re individual wealth doesn’t come close to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has a  personal fortune as high as $200 billion. Browder (named Putin enemy number one in a GQ magazine article) claims to be one of the best authorities on Putin, and as co-founder of Hermitage Capital Management, an investment fund that was at one time the largest portfolio investor in Russia, he should be in a position to know. And Browder isn’t the only one to wave his finger accusingly at Putin for secretly being in the billionaire boys club. Kremlin adviser Stanislav Belkovsky estimated in 2007 that Putin’s worth was somewhere in the region of $40 billion - a figure that would place him in the top 22 of the current Forbes list. This estimate was based on holdings in the oil sector, including a 37% stake in the oil company Surgutneftegaz, and a 4.5% control of natural gas company Gazprom, along with substantial shares in a commodities trading outfit known as Gunvor. In 2012, Belkovsky upped his estimate of Putin’s worth to $70 billion which, if true, puts Putin way above the King of Thailand as numero uno richest head of state.  

Before looking at how the Russian premier possibly managed to raise such a sum, let’s look at how his reign shaped out. On December 31st 1999, a slightly shaky and defeated Russian leader, Boris Yelstin, handed over the premiership of Russia to Vladimir Putin. At this time, Russia was considered to be in a somewhat shambolic state, and Putin was unproven as a politician, somewhat of an unknown force not only at home in Russia but also on the worldwide stage. Fast forward a couple of years, and both Russia and former head of the KGB Putin have grown in the estimations of the Russian people. Both Russia and Putin have become a reckoning force on the global stage. Putin had blossomed as an elusive unknown in the dusty theater of Russian politics, and flourished in the hearts of the people, emerging as one of the most colorful and flamboyant world leaders. But did his bank account also flourish? Well, the Kremlin isn’t telling, and figuring out the Russian president’s real value has been the golden fleece of intelligence and cyber hackers across the world. It’s an enormous task to decipher who has what when monies are distributed across a complex and secret web of accounts and holding companies, real estate, and business interests worldwide. Putin certainly has some of the trappings of the mega rich, with the alleged ownership of a $1 billion palace near the Black Sea. The property features a columned façade reminiscent of a Russian Tsar’s 18th century palace, a private theatre, a landing pad with three helicopter bays, and accommodation for a small private army. The sort of holding you might see in a James Bond film. A scandalous 2012 dossier drawn up by the former deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemstov links Putin to 20 other palaces, 58 airplanes, 4 yachts, and a collection of watches worth almost half a million dollars. The report also claims that Putin has a jet which includes a bathroom with gold fittings and a $60,000 toilet, that we assume is also made of solid gold. The Russian premier has also been linked to a 2,300 acre residence on Lake Valdai in north-western Russia that has a cinema, a bowling alley, and a presidential church. Putin’s official salary in 2012 was just $70,000. But when asked about his wealth for Steven Myers’ book the New Tsar, Putin neatly side-stepped the question answering “I am the wealthiest man not just in Europe but in the whole world: I collect emotions. I am wealthy in that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with the leadership of a great nation such as Russia. I believe that is my greatest wealth.”

Indeed. And perhaps all his wealth does belong to the motherland. Exiled Russian banker Sergie Pugachev told the Guardian newspaper that “everything Putin has belongs to the Russian Federation.” So technically everything he owns will be handed back to Russia when he steps down. Putin should constitutionally have to do this once having served his fourth and final term as president, as in Russia, Prime Ministers only get to serve 4 terms. That is unless Putin changes the constitution to allow himself to serve another term. And as the most popular Russian premier in recent history, that could well happen.

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