Pop star? Premiership footballer? Not even close. City fund manager?
Not even close. The world’s best-paying job is that of Putin’s friend. Anyone who qualifies instantly makes billions – irrespective of any other qualifications.
The cynic in me feels it’s unlikely that an assortment of thugs, most of them lacking any business credentials, would suddenly undergo a catharsis turning them into entrepreneurial geniuses. And the historian in me remembers that proximity to the throne is both a necessary and sufficient requirement for enrichment in criminal dictatorships.
That Putin presides over a unique state formed by a fusion of secret police and organised crime is a truth as universally acknowledged as anything Jane Austen ever thought up. That Putin himself sits at the centre of a global web through which he and his cronies launder their purloined wealth isn’t exactly a secret either.
Yet for some reasons, most of them one suspects political, Western governments, intelligence services and media have been sitting on this rather explosive information.
One can understand them: how can one deal with a state whose head isn’t only a murderer, nuclear terrorist and a tyrant, but also a gangster? And yet, as Putin and his henchmen keep reminding us, we must deal with them because they have the big bombs.
It’s only when the political situation began to change, with Putin’s theft of the Crimea and an attack on the Ukraine, that bits and pieces began to seep into the public domain. And then a few days ago someone gave a green light to blow the whole lot, or at least some of it.
Putin was kindly given a couple of days’ advance notice that compromising data was about to be published. His mouthpiece Peskov warned the world that a mass of information would be ‘dumped’, all of it needless to say concocted by the CIA, MI6, and personally by Angela Merkel.
If the intention was to soften the coming blow, it hasn’t worked. A leak of 11 million documents from the Panamanian money laundry Mossack Fonseca points at the biggest corruption scam so far revealed in history.
What interests me is the thoroughly dishonest coverage of the scandal in our media. For example, this morning’s Sky News report didn’t as much as mention Russia, concentrating instead on the offshore accounts held by assorted party donors, all of them coincidentally Tories.
The impression the report gives is the same one that the government tries to convey: that using offshore accounts to avoid tax is ipso facto immoral and possibly illegal. It’s neither. But then offshore accounts are a bugbear of all modern governments, who hate to see any money lining pockets out of the state’s reach.
What makes Putin and his cronies criminal isn’t that they keep billions in offshore accounts, but the ways in which they acquire those billions – and route the money into the offshore accounts. It’s not so much businessmen handling their finance as gangsters covering their tracks.
Tory party donors may have offshore accounts, but they don’t use cutouts like the concert cellist Sergei Roldugin, Putin’s friend and his daughter’s godfather.
Roldugin ostensibly owns, but in fact merely reshuffles, $2 billion in assets. Somehow the modest musician acquired a 3.2 per cent share in Bank Rossiya, run by another Putin crony Yuri Kovalchuk. The bank, described by US authorities as the ‘personal bank’ of Putin’s inner gang, was among the first to fall under the post-Crimea sanctions.
Bank Rossiya has spun a web of money-laundering offshore firms, such as Sandalwood Continental, International Media Overseas, Sonnette Overseas and Sunbarn, all nominally owned by the unusually enterprising musician.
Sandalwood has purchased some assets for $1 and then re-sold them for $133 million three months later – a healthy return if I ever saw one. At the same time Sandalwood received an $800-million loan from a Russian state bank, with no evidence of either collateral put up or repayments made.
Sandalwood has also received $600 million worth of credits from the Russian Commercial Bank of Cyprus. The money was then transferred to other offshore firms, one of which is owned by Putin’s personal banker Kovalchuk.
Sonnette Overseas was one of the privileged companies that were in 2008 given the option to buy 10 per cent of the Russian lorry maker KamAZ for $100,000. The same 10 per cent of the company cost Daimler $250 million, but then the Germans obviously didn’t have the right friends.
In 2009 Sunbarn, along with four others laundries, paid $50,000 for a 20 per cent option on the shares of AvtoVAZ, another lorry manufacturer. Renault paid a billion dollars for 25 per cent, but again the French aren’t Putin’s cronies.
Sunbarn received $231 million in credits from firms linked to Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s boyhood playmate. He and his brother started a construction company that made billions on government contracts overnight – and so on, Putin’s web keeps spinning.
The Russians are making a big deal of the fact that Putin’s name doesn’t appear in any of the documents just published. But then Stalin’s name doesn’t appear on mass execution orders either. Stalin had cronies for his dirty work, as does his heir and admirer Putin.
The KGB colonel’s personal wealth is variously estimated at between $40 and 200 billion. The boy done well, for a self-described ‘common street thug’. So have his friends.