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Fugitive Ex-Kremlin 'Cashier': Putin 'Did Not Want To Be President'

Sergei Pugachyov (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000
Sergei Pugachyov (right) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2000

When a group of Kremlin insiders searched for a successor to the erratic Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1999, they settled on a little-known bureaucrat named Vladimir Putin, who took power the following year and rules the country with an autocratic fist to this day.

But as the backstage grooming got under way, says a former confidant, a key player in the intrigue opposed the anointment: Vladimir Putin himself.

"He did not want to be president and wanted to leave government authority," Sergei Pugachyov, a Russian tycoon and former campaign adviser to both Yeltsin and Putin, told RFE/RL.

Pugachyov, 52, spoke to RFE/RL from France, where he lives in self-imposed exile due to what he portrays as a Russian government campaign -- including death threats -- to plunder his business empire.

He has discussed the behind-the-scenes circumstances of Putin's rise to power in interviews with several Western media outlets in recent months amid a civil and criminal legal onslaught from Russia, which accuses him of looting a bank he controlled. Pugachyov denies the allegations.

Pugachyov's account of how Putin came to rule from the Kremlin, which could not be immediately corroborated, portrays the Russian president as initially unsure of his leadership abilities and more interested in pursuing business opportunities -- and possibly moving abroad.

'Just A Joke'

Pugachyov, who was once one of Russia's richest men and dubbed the Kremlin's "cashier," claims to have been the first to propose that Putin succeed Yeltsin in office. He said the move was aimed at heading off Yeltsin's possible ouster by hard-liners from Russia's security agencies.

At the time, Putin, a former KGB officer, had risen from a mid-level position under his political mentor, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, to lead the KGB's main successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

"Yeltsin had practically lost power, because the people from the security agencies were challenging the liberals that the president had surrounded himself with," Pugachyov said. "… Considering that Putin was director of the FSB at the time, his appointment was seen as a kind of shield against a possible coup."

Pugachyov had known Putin since the future Russian leader's time in the 1990s under Sobchak, who was revered among Russian liberals as a democratic reformer. He said Putin seemed to be an "ideal" candidate to become prime minister, the post he occupied until Yeltsin stepped down and named him acting president on the last day of 1999.

"He combined two very important elements: a democratic and liberal origin, considering his previous place of employment [under Sobchak], and a foothold in the [FSB]," he told RFE/RL.

Pugachyov added that Putin's work under Sobchak as the head of St. Petersburg's international relations office "created the illusion that Putin was not only liberal-minded, but also looking toward the West."

Sobchak, he said, was less sanguine about the prospects of Putin in the Kremlin. Pugachyov said that he met one-on-one with the former St. Petersburg mayor shortly before his death in February 2000 and asked whether Sobchak would be interested in working for the new acting president.

"There's no way Putin can be the president of Russia," he quoted Sobchak as saying. "That's just a joke."

'All Kinds Of Fantasies'

If Sobchak was indeed incredulous about Putin's political future, Putin himself was skeptical as well, according to Pugachyov.

Prior to Putin's appointment as prime minister in August 1999 -- his stepping stone to the Kremlin -- "he did not want to lead the government and wanted to avoid this," Pugachyov told RFE/RL.

"To a large degree I think he didn't believe it was possible," he said. "It seemed to him to be a real gamble. I think that at the time he simply couldn't imagine himself as the Russian president."

Putin's purported hesitance is partially corroborated by an account from the bombastic Russian television and radio journalist Sergei Dorenko, who was close to Boris Berezovsky -- an erstwhile Kremlin power broker who became a fierce Putin opponent and died in 2013.

"[Putin] resisted for a long time and expressed his unwillingness to go along with this gamble. They convinced him," Dorenko said in a 2001 lecture to Moscow university students.

Pugachyov, who claims that he and Putin "spoke nearly every day" and would celebrate birthdays and major holidays together, said Putin told him prior to assuming the presidency that "he wanted to go into business, move abroad."

"He had all kinds of fantasies," Pugachyov said.

'I'll Figure It Out'

Russia has issued an Interpol notice for Pugachyov's arrest on Russian charges of "misappropriation or embezzlement."

London's High Court, meanwhile, has issued a worldwide asset freeze against Pugachyov targeting some $2 billion in assets based on a request from Russia's Deposit Insurance Agency. The agency has alleged his involvement in pilfering $1 billion in funds from the bank he founded, Mezhprombank, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

The court ordered Pugachyov, who had lived primarily in London since fleeing Russia in 2011, not to leave the country and confiscated his Russian and French passports. He nonetheless left Britain earlier this year, saying he feared for the safety of himself and his family, and now lives in southern France.

"I left absolutely legally," he told RFE/RL.

Some skeptics – Kremlin critics among them -- say Pugachyov and other wealthy exiles accused of crimes in Russia merely claim to be victims of a corrupt Russian government only after benefiting from a merciless system that eventually turned on them.

Pugachyov, however, insists that his $15 billion business empire was ransacked and expropriated by Russian government officials.

Putin has long been seen as an arbiter between competing clans of powerful officials -- primarily from the security services -- vying for access to the Russian state's riches and resources. "These are people who are using their proximity to Putin to extract profits," Pugachyov said.

Pugachyov, who called Putin "very susceptible to the influence of those around him," said his relationship with the Russian leader transformed steadily "over the course of many years, beginning in 1996, and resulted in what is happening now."

Asked to characterize this relationship, he said: "There is no particular animosity between us. I'm not a dissident, a critic of the regime, a political opposition activist. One can judge [the relationship] by looking at what is happening to me in Russia."

Pugachyov said that he last met Putin in Amsterdam in 2013, and that the Russian president appeared pleasantly "surprised" at the encounter and "spoke openly with me."

"It seemed very strange to me, because after the total plunder of all of my property in Russia, he told me: 'Yes, I heard that something was going on there. I don't understand who is against you. Call me please, and I'll figure it out.'"

Pugachyov claimed that he heard through friends that Putin indeed attempted to do something on his behalf.

"But nothing changed," he said.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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