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Childhood Friend Of Putin's Strikes It Rich, Report Says

  • Tom Balmforth

Pyotr Kolbin (pictured) reportedly became friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the two boys' fathers met in the 1950s. (file photo)

Pyotr Kolbin (pictured) reportedly became friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the two boys' fathers met in the 1950s. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- The independent Russian station Dozhd (TV Rain) has aired a report alleging that a childhood friend of President Vladimir Putin's is worth an estimated $550 million and owned a substantial stake in the Gunvor oil-trading company between 2005 and 2010.

Gunvor said that some aspects of the report were inaccurate, including the time frame of Pyotr Kolbin’s involvement with the company. Gunvor said that Kolbin -- who, according to Dozhd, became friends with Putin after their fathers met in the 1950s -- was a "minority investor" for "about a year" in 2007.

Kremlin critics claim the investigative report aired on September 26 establishes a connection between Putin and Gunvor, a company some have alleged to be a source of undeclared income for the president. Putin's declared assets are modest, and he has denied allegations of ties to Gunvor.

In March 2014, as the United States imposed sanctions on allies of Putin's, whom it accused of involvement in Russia's interference in Ukraine, the U.S. Treasury Department said that "Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds."

In an e-mail to RFE/RL on September 28, a Gunvor representative said that Putin “does not and never has had any ownership, beneficial or otherwise” in Gunvor and “is not a beneficiary of Gunvor or its activities.”

The Dozhd report focused on on Kolbin and Gunvor -- a company that was co-founded by Gennady Timchenko, one of the Putin allies hit with U.S. sanctions -- and grew its business largely out of Russian oil but has divested itself of all its Russian assets since Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Kyiv's control.

The report said Putin's father met Kolbin's father, Viktor, in 1954 in the village of Imenitsy, near the Estonian border in Leningrad Oblast, where the latter was principal of the local school and the Putins rented a summer cottage. Putin was not yet two years old then, but in later years the boys became friends, it said, sometimes getting into scraps with other children there.

Personal Letter

In the report, Dozhd said that it had seen a letter that Putin personally wrote to Viktor Kolbin in 2000, the year he was first elected president. The television station alleges that Pyotr Kolbin went into business the following year. He is now worth $550 million, according to the Russian edition of Forbes magazine.

Dozhd said Kolbin bought shares in the Yamal SPG company for $90 million in 2010 and sold them about 18 months later for $526 million. The sale was approved by a government commission headed by Putin, who was prime minister at the time.

Dozhd said that, by 2010, Kolbin owned at least a 10 percent stake in Gunvor, which it said had an annual turnover of $70 billion that year. Gunvor said that was false.

Turnover in 2010 was not $70 billion and Kolbin "had no involvement in the company" that year, it said.

"In 2007, for about a year, Mr. [Pyotr] Kolbin was a minority investor in Gunvor at a time when the company was looking to diversify its funding base as it grew. His participation did not ultimately make strategic sense and ended completely," the company said in the e-mailed statement. "He has not had any involvement in the company in almost a decade."

It has long been reported that Kolbin was a shareholder in Gunvor, but his name is not widely known in Russia and Dozhd appears to be the first media outlet to have alleged a connection between him and Putin. In the past, he was thought by some to have been a friend of Timchenko's.

Gunvor did not comment on the report's account of a relationship between Putin and Kolbin.

Speaking to Russian news agencies on September 27, Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, declined to comment on the Dozhd report, saying that he does not know a Kolbin among Putin's acquaintances and that he has never seen concrete information connecting Putin to business.

"To be honest, I have never seen any allegations," Peskov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. "Some kind of speculation -- yes. There are arguments, bordering on speculation all over the place, but I've never seen, never read any information backed up with real facts."

'Another Roldugin'

Aleksei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader and anticorruption activist, wrote that the report "proves" that "Gunvor belongs to Putin."

Opposition activist Leonid Volkov compared Kolbin to Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and close friend of Putin's who was named in the Panama Papers leak in May. Media reports based on the leaked documents alleged that Roldugin established a business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to Putin.

"In short, this is another Roldugin," Volkov wrote on Twitter. "Putin cannot think up anything beyond hanging his assets on his childhood friends."

Other Russian social-network users were taken with a different detail. Dozhd alleged that Kolbin and Timchenko in 2015 sold two apartments in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg to Anna Zatsepilina, a woman with the same name as the grandmother of rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who is rumored to be Putin's partner. She and the Kremlin have dismissed the rumors as speculation and declined to comment.

"Babushka [Grandma] Kabayeva" was soon trending on Twitter with an assortment of quips.

"Alina Kabayeva's grandmother on her monthly pension bought two apartments on Arbat Street and with the remainder bought a controlling stake in Gazprom and Chelsea," one user tweeted, referring to a prestigious Moscow address, the state-controlled Russian natural-gas giant, and a British soccer club owned by the Kremlin-connected Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich.

This article has been amended to include comments from Gunvor who sent RFE/RL their response after the article was published
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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at balmfortht@rferl.org

     

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