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The $40 Billion Autocrat?

How much is Vladimir Putin worth? Perhaps as much as $40 billion, according to recent reports. Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, writes in the Washington Post that the Russian president has allegedly amassed great wealth in the “velvet reprivatization” of his nation’s larger companies.

The Kremlin has essentially renationalized large industry, which has ended up in the hands of Putin’s close associates—and perhaps those of the President himself. “Putin is also a big businessman,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political observer with ties to the Moscow leadership. Belkovsky alleges that Putin owns a $20 billion stake in Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth largest oil producer; 4.5 percent of the country’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom; and half of oil-seller Gunvor, which had $8 billion in profits in 2006.

Do we care that Vlad may have become a one-man energy empire? For starters, if you are a Russian citizen, he has essentially stolen from you (if the allegations are true). Yet the rest of us are also affected by grand thievery on this scale. Putin knows that, like Marcos of the Philippines or Mobutu of Zaire, ill-gotten wealth can be taken from him once he no longer exercises power. So he will, in all likelihood, continue in the Kremlin, and this means Russia will maintain its increasingly hostile policies toward the West.

Last month Belkovsky argued that the Russian President would cede power and accept some minor role that will protect him from critics both at home and abroad. Now, however, we are seeing indications that Putin intends to stay at the pinnacle of power. On Monday, for instance, the autocrat announced his support for Dmitry Medvedev, a loyalist with no independent political base, to succeed him as President. On Tuesday, Medvedev suggested that Putin serve as prime minister in his administration. Moreover, the proposed union of Russia and Belarus, if consummated, could end up causing a change in the Russian constitution, and such change could create a position for Vladimir the Rich as the leader of the merged state.

There is one small consolation for the Russian people from this unfolding tragedy. There’s no such thing as tranquil retirement for kleptocrats. They remain in power or suffer at the hands of their enemies. For Putin, there will never be peace.



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