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Private Bank Fuels Fortunes of Putin’s Inner Circle

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Weeks after President Vladimir V. Putin annexed Crimea in March, an obscure regulatory board in Moscow known as the Market Council convened inside an office tower not far from the Kremlin to discuss the country’s wholesale electricity market. It is a colossal business, worth 2 percent of Russia ’s gross domestic product, and a rich source of fees for the bank that had long held the exclusive right to service it.

With no advance notice or public debate, though, the board voted that day in April to shift that business to Bank Rossiya, a smaller institution that lacked the ability to immediately absorb the work. For Bank Rossiya, it was a tidy coup set to yield an estimated $100 million or more in annual commissions, yet it was hardly the only new business coming in. State corporations, local governments and even the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea were suddenly shifting their accounts to the bank, too.

In a matter of days, Bank Rossiya had received an enormous windfall, nearly all from different branches of the Russian state, which was delivering a pointed message. In late March, the United States had made Bank Rossiya a primary target of sanctions, effectively ostracizing it from the global financial system. Now the Kremlin was pushing back, steering lucrative accounts its way to reduce the pain.

Putin’s Way

Articles in this series are examining how President Vladimir V. Putin’s system of personalized state-sponsored capitalism allows him to wield power at home and abroad.

The reason the Kremlin rushed to prop up Bank Rossiya is the same reason that the United States, and later its European allies, placed it on the sanctions list: its privileged status as what the Obama administration calls the “personal bank” of the Putin inner circle. Built and run by some of the president’s closest friends and colleagues from his early days in St. Petersburg, Bank Rossiya is emblematic of the way Mr. Putin’s brand of crony capitalism has turned loyalists into billionaires whose influence over strategic sectors of the economy has in turn helped him maintain his iron-fisted grip on power.

Now the sanctions are testing the resilience of his economic and political system. Even as President Obama argues that the measures aimed at Mr. Putin’s inner circle are pinching Russia’s economy and squeezing the tycoons who dominate it, many of them have mocked the sanctions as a mere nuisance, the economic equivalent of a shaving cut, while the Kremlin has moved rapidly to insulate them.

Woven deeply into the Putin system is Bank Rossiya. Founded as the tiniest of banks in the twilight of the Soviet era, Bank Rossiya, through staggering, stealthy expansion backed by the largess of the state, now has nearly $11 billion in assets. It controls a vast financial empire with tentacles across the economy, including a large stake in the country’s most powerful private media conglomerate, a key instrument of the Kremlin’s power to shape public opinion. How well the bank survives in a time of sanctions may ultimately be a barometer of whether economic pressure is enough to make Mr. Putin stand down at a time when neighboring countries, especially in the Baltics, are increasingly anxious about a newly aggressive Russia.

Mr. Putin came to power vowing to eliminate “as a class” the oligarchs who had amassed fortunes — and, to the new president’s mind, a dangerous quotient of political sway — under his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, in the post-Communist chaos of the 1990s. Instead, a new class of tycoons have emerged, men of humble Soviet origins who owe their vast wealth to Mr. Putin, and offer unquestioning political fealty to him in return.

“These guys emerged from scratch and became billionaires under Putin,” Sergei Aleksashenko, a former deputy finance minister and central banker, said in a recent interview.

If the modern Russian state is Kremlin Inc. Mr. Putin is its chief executive officer, rewarding his friends with control of state-owned companies and doling out lucrative government contracts in deals that provoke accusations of corruption but have the veneer of legality under the Putin system.

“He has given and he has taken away,” said Mikhail M. Kasyanov, who served as prime minister during Mr. Putin’s first term. “They depend on him, and he depends on them.”

This inner circle coalesced around Mr. Putin as he began his unobtrusive rise, from a middling career as a K.G.B. intelligence officer to a midlevel functionary in the office of St. Petersburg’s mayor.

One of these loyalists is Bank Rossiya’s chairman and largest shareholder, Yuri V. Kovalchuk, a physicist by training, sometimes called the Rupert Murdoch of Russia for his role as architect of the bank’s media interests. Other Bank Rossiya shareholders include several of the country’s wealthiest men, the son of Mr. Putin’s cousin and even an old St. Petersburg friend of his, a cellist who was formerly first chair at the fabled Mariinsky Theater.

The Kremlin has long denied giving Mr. Putin’s friends preferential treatment. But in acquiring many of its holdings, the privately held Bank Rossiya benefited from Kremlin directives that allowed it to purchase prize state-owned assets at what critics have called cut-rate prices. Meanwhile the true extent of its holdings is obscured by shadowy corporate shell structures that nest like matryoshka dolls, one inside the next.

Records show that the ownership of one powerful television advertising company linked to Bank Rossiya, for example, is buried in offshore companies in Panama, in the British Virgin Islands and even at a simple concrete house on Karpathou Street in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, whose owner had no idea of the company registered there.

In the early days of the conflict over Ukraine, several European leaders expressed deep ambivalence about alienating a Russia that under Mr. Putin’s rule has become immeasurably wealthier than it ever was under the Soviet system. Russia has been a sought-after partner in the globalized economy, a source of cheap natural gas for Europe, where wealthy Russians have also purchased billions of dollars in real estate in places like the Cote d’Azur and the Belgravia district of London.

But that resistance has to some extent eroded, especially since the downing of a commercial airliner over eastern Ukraine in July that killed 298 people. This month, despite an edgy truce between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in Ukraine, the West announced a new round of sanctions aimed not just at Mr. Putin’s powerful cronies but at the Russian economy more broadly. Some argue, however, that this punitive strategy fundamentally misunderstands the way the Putin system works.

Gennady N. Timchenko, an oil trader and Bank Rossiya investor whose own holding company is also under sanctions, admitted in a recent interview with Itar-Tass to a measure of annoyance. He was unhappy that his Learjet had been grounded because of sanctions, and that he could not vacation in France with his family and dog, Romi, which happens to be the offspring of Mr. Putin’s beloved black Labrador, Koni.

And yet, he said, he would never presume to question the Russian president’s policies in Ukraine, whatever the cost to companies like his. “That would be impossible,” he said, going on to refer to Mr. Putin formally by his first name and patronymic. “Vladimir Vladimirovich acts in the interest of Russia in any situation, period. No compromises. It would not even enter our minds to discuss that.”

Photo

THE POWER Vladimir V. Putin preparing to take the oath for a third term as Russia’s president in Moscow in 2012. His brand of crony capitalism has turned loyalists into billionaires. Credit Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service, via Associated Press

‘A Bouquet of Friends’

In the Kolomna district of St. Petersburg, near the shipyards, is a 19th-century palace that belonged to Grand Duke Aleksei Aleksandrovich, a son of Czar Aleksandr II. Lately its elegant halls — this one in Baroque style, this one English, this one Chinese — have been repurposed as the House of Music, a training academy for classical musicians.

The academy’s artistic director, Sergei P. Roldugin, has his own singular back story.

He is an accomplished cellist and musical director. He is certainly not a businessman, he explained at the palace the other day. “I don’t have millions,” he said. And yet, on paper at least, he has a fortune that could be worth $350 million. That is because, years ago, he said, he acquired shares in a small bank run by men close to his old friend Mr. Putin.

He had met Mr. Putin in the 1970s, and is godfather to his eldest daughter, Maria. He opened the House of Music with Mr. Putin’s patronage. Last year, he recalled, the president asked him for a favor: would he organize a private concert?

So Mr. Roldugin traveled to the president’s official residence west of Moscow, Novo-Ogaryovo, with three young musicians: a violinist, a pianist and a clarinetist. They played Mozart, Weber and Tchaikovsky — so well, he said, that Mr. Putin invited them to play again the next night for the same small group of friends who had gathered there.

They were “of course, very famous people,” Mr. Roldugin said, without revealing any names. “Quite all,” he said, “are under sanctions.”

The concerts are a glimpse into the small, remarkably cohesive group of men who came together around Mr. Putin as the old order was crumbling and a new, post-Soviet Russia was taking form.

When the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, began to allow the first experiments in private enterprise in the 1980s, St. Petersburg was still Leningrad, an impoverished shadow of the czarist capital it had been.

An early adapter was Mr. Kovalchuk, a physicist at the Ioffe Physical Technical Institute. who founded an enterprise to turn its scientific work into commercially viable products. Another was Mr. Timchenko, a former Soviet trade official, who formed a cooperative to export products from an oil refinery on the Baltic Sea.

What brought Mr. Putin into their orbit was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. After five years as a K.G.B. officer in East Germany, Mr. Putin was part of a wave of embittered military and intelligence officers who withdrew from the Soviet satellites and returned with few prospects to a changing homeland.

Still with the K.G.B. Mr. Putin came into contact with one of his former law professors: Anatoly A. Sobchak. a reformer who had just become chairman of the Leningrad legislature (and would later become mayor of the renamed St. Petersburg). He asked Mr. Putin to become an adviser, to smooth relations with the still-powerful security services. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Putin joined Mr. Sobchak full time, overseeing a new committee on foreign economic relations.

The committee worked closely with Russia’s emerging entrepreneurs, regulating imports and exports and distributing city contracts. Some of the deals became controversial, notably one during the hungry winter of 1991-92, of a deal to barter oil, metal and other products for food. Virtually none of the food ever materialized, and a City Council committee unsuccessfully sought to have Mr. Putin fired for incompetence.

For all that, Mr. Putin was considered an efficient, unprepossessing administrator, helping businessmen cut through the bureaucracy. His fluency in German was useful with the many Germans seeking a foothold in the city. Among them was Matthias Warnig, formerly of the East German secret police, the Stasi, who opened one of the city’s first foreign banks, Dresdner.

Mr. Putin was, in short, both collecting new friends and laying the foundation for what would evolve into the system of personalized, state-sponsored capitalism now at the heart of his power.

“It was a favorable environment for such a bouquet of friends to appear,” explained Mikhail I. Amosov, who served on the City Council at the time.

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THE ARTS Sergei P. Roldugin, left, a music academy director, has profited from connections. Credit Dmitry Astakhov, via Associated Press

In many cases, contracts and property were distributed through insider deals, often without open or transparent bidding. “Everything was decided through personal connections,” Mr. Amosov said. “We didn’t like it.”

One enterprise that received an infusion of municipal aid was Bank Rossiya.

The bank had been founded in 1990 at the initiative of the city’s branch of the Communist Party, with party funds as capital. It was also believed to handle the banking needs of the K.G.B. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was all but bust.

Mr. Kovalchuk stepped in. In December 1991, he and a group of friends secured a small loan from a local shoe manufacturer and bought the foundering bank. The investors included three other alumni of the Ioffe Technical Institute — the physicists Victor Y. Myachin and Andrei A. Fursenko, and Vladimir I. Yakunin, the institute’s former head of international relations.

The reconstituted Bank Rossiya quickly became a favored city institution. At the mayor’s instruction, according to news reports, the city opened several large accounts there, fattening the bank’s coffers and setting it on its way.

Business connections became deeply personal connections.

In 1996, Mr. Putin joined seven businessmen, most of them Bank Rossiya shareholders, in forming a cooperative of summer homes, or dachas, called Ozero, or “lake,” in the northeast of St. Petersburg. The group has come to have an outsize influence on Russia’s political and economic life. The cooperative included the homes of Mr. Putin, Mr. Yakunin, Mr. Kovalchuk, Mr. Fursenko and his brother Sergei, Mr. Myachin, and Nikolai T. Shamalov, who headed the St. Petersburg office of the German manufacturer Siemens and would also acquire a major stake in Bank Rossiya. Vladimir A. Smirnov, a St. Petersburg businessman with an exclusive contract to supply the city’s gasoline retailers, served as Ozero’s director.

Mr. Timchenko, the oil trader, entered the Bank Rossiya circle as an investor; according to the bank, his stake is owned by a company he controls. Mr. Warnig, the German banker, would later join Bank Rossiya’s board. (When Mr. Putin’s wife was badly injured in a car accident, Mr. Warnig’s bank arranged to pay for her medical care in Germany.)

And there was Mr. Roldugin, the cellist. “The issue was that I needed to have some money,” he said, adding, “There was no money for art anywhere.” His investment, he said, involved “a lot of manipulations” and required him to take out a loan. Today the bank lists him as owner of 3.2 percent of its shares.

Mr. Putin’s stint in St. Petersburg ended in 1996, when his boss lost his bid for re-election. Soon Mr. Putin had a new boss, President Yeltsin. And after Mr. Yeltsin unexpectedly elevated him to prime minister and then acting president on New Year’s Eve in 1999, the fortunes of many of his friends — and their little bank — began to be transformed.

‘Bank Rossiya, That’s It’

He had arrived in Moscow as a midlevel apparatchik in ill-fitting suits, had ascended to power as a thoroughly unexpected president and won his first presidential election in 2000 on the crest of war to suppress separatists in Chechnya. By 2004, Mr. Putin had become the paramount figure in Russia, winning a second term with 72 percent of the vote, in a race tainted by allegations of strong-arm tactics and vote rigging. Yet Mr. Putin probably would have won a fair election easily, too. The Russian economy, buoyed by high oil prices, was booming, creating huge fortunes and also lifting the middle class. The long era of post-Soviet gloom seemed done.

Not many people yet understood that in the middle of Russia’s prosperity, the men in the tight circle close to Mr. Putin were becoming fabulously wealthy, and increasingly powerful, in what critics now consider a case study in legalized kleptocracy.

Bank Rossiya, which reported less than $1 million in profits the year before Mr. Putin became president, had grown steadily, but figures like Mr. Kovalchuk and Mr. Timchenko remained in the shadows.

“I didn’t even know such names — Timchenko, Kovalchuk,” said Mr. Kasyanov, whom Mr. Putin dismissed as prime minister shortly before the elections.

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