ST. PETERSBURG -- Suspicions of connections with organized crime have dogged Vladimir Putin since his stint in the St. Petersburg mayor's office in the early 1990s.
The accusations have gained new momentum in recent weeks with two important developments. On December 1, opposition politician and anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny released a film expose on Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika and his sons, outlining circumstantial evidence of ties to organized crime and abuse of the prosecutor's office for financial gain.
The film has garnered more than 3.5 million views and it is becoming increasingly hard for the Kremlin to ignore, despite the fact that Chaika is part of Putin's closest inner circle.
In November, the journal New Times published a summary of the findings of a Spanish probe into Russian organized crime that includes claims reaching all the way to Putin himself. The nongovernmental Open Russia organization later published the entire, more than 400-page Spanish prosecutor's report in Russian. The report was submitted in May and a copy reached the media in June.
The Spanish report centers on Gennady Petrov, who is believed to be the head of a prominent ring known as the Tambov organized-crime group, and illuminates his alleged ties to Putin and members of Putin's inner circle that stretch back to their days in St. Petersburg. Petrov got his start as a co-owner of the Bank Rossia in 1998-99, together with close Putin friends Nikolai Shamalov, Viktor Myachin, and Yury Kovalchuk. All three were founding members of the Ozero collective, which was formed in 1996 and included Putin.
"The criminal organization headed by Petrov managed to achieve a clear penetration of the state structures of his country, not only with the lawmaker [Vladislav] Reznik but with several ministers," the report says.
The Spanish report includes transcripts of alleged telephone calls between Petrov and other organized-crime suspects in Spain and officials and businesspeople in Russia.
"From this report, it emerges that it was not Vladimir Putin who placed many people in leading [government] positions, but bandits who were directly connected to the Tambov criminal group," said Andrei Zykov, a retired law-enforcement lieutenant colonel and a former senior investigator for the Northwest Federal District branch of the Investigative Committee who specialized in corruption and serious economic crimes. The district includes St. Petersburg.
"For example, in 2007 Aleksandr Bastrykin was named head of the Investigative Committee. Gennady Petrov and other members of the gang just call him Sasha," Zykov told RFE/RL -- referring to a short name for Aleksandr that implies a close relationship . "They are constantly on the phone with him. 'Sasha' himself calls Gennady Petrov and thanks not President Putin, but Gennady Petrov for the fact that he was appointed chairman of the Investigative Committee."
"If such important posts are occupied by people appointed by a criminal group and not President Putin, then it is definitely not clear what is the 'tail' and what is the 'dog' in this situation," Zykov concluded. "Who is really running our government?"
Zykov said the Spanish prosecutors documented 78 telephone conversations between Petrov and Nikolai Aulov, a senior Russian law-enforcement official who is now the head of the Interior Ministry branch in the Central Federal District. Of those, 74 were initiated by Aulov himself.
"Gennady Petrov gives orders to General Nikolai Aulov, and he reports back to Gennady Petrov," Zykov said.
Petrov was arrested during a raid on his villa in Majorca in 2008 in a sweep that also netted 20 other suspected members of the Spanish branch of the Tambov gang. However, he was later allowed to travel to Russia and has been living peacefully in St. Petersburg ever since.
"Today the main figures in the Spanish report are living in Russia without any problems," Zykov said. "And they are doing fine.”
Network Of Companies
He said that Petrov lives in a building in which apartments are also owned by presidential aide Vladimir Kozhin and a pair of brothers who were both members of the Ozero collective -- former Russian Education Minister Andrei Fursenko and his brother Sergei Fursenko, a businessman and official at state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.
“His son, Anton, is a businessman," Zykov said of Petrov.
Spanish prosecutors allege that Petrov and 26 other suspects, including some Spanish citizens, created a network of companies and other structures in Spain beginning in the mid-1990s through which hundreds of millions of dollars were allegedly laundered and other criminal activities -- including drugs and arms smuggling -- were carried out.
One of the suspects named in the report is Vladislav Reznik, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party and deputy chairman of the Finance Committee in the lower parliament house. He is from St. Petersburg as well, and in 1989-90 he served as deputy chairman of Bank Rossia. He is also the head of the Rus insurance company, which was a founding partner of the bank, together with the Leningrad Oblast branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev worked for Reznik at Rus in the mid-1990s.
Zykov said the Spanish report makes a strong case that Bank Rossia was largely a mechanism for funneling money from the Soviet Communist Party to criminals and figures connected with the Ozero collective.
"Mr. Reznik is tied to this bank," Zykov said. "Not long before the events of 1991 [the collapse of the Soviet Union], large sums of money were poured into that bank -- about 500 million rubles. The Spanish investigators draw attention to the idea that it is completely possible that Gennady Petrov is living on the money of the Soviet Communist Party. It turns out that all these years we've been looking for the Communist Party's money and we didn't notice Bank Rossia right in front of our noses. And those people who privatized that bank took loans from that very bank in order to buy the shares in that bank. That bank was de facto stolen from the state. Its money ended up in the hands of a criminal organization."
The Ozero group included eight people: seven businessmen with scientific or engineering backgrounds and Putin, a political figure with a legal education and a background in the KGB.
"The dawn of the activity of the so-called Tambov group came with the administration of [St. Petersburg Mayor] Anatoly Sochak and his deputy, Vladimir Putin," Zykov said.
"[St. Petersburg journalist] Nikolai Andrushchenko remembered how at the beginning of perestroika, Anatoly Sobchak was considered an irreproachable liberal professor," Zykov said. "But after he got close to Vladimir Putin and Viktor Zolotov [a former Sobchak bodyguard who is now head of the Interior Ministry's internal forces], Anatoly Sobchak changed. He developed a taste for the luxurious life. He began to make bargains with his conscience."