The $40bn question: how much is Putin worth?

Questions are being asked about whether Vladimir Putin has secretly amassed a multibillion-dollar fortune as turf warfare between the different clans fighting inside the Kremlin intensifies before he leaves the presidency next year.

After several episodes of mud-slinging aimed at various Kremlin figures, the latest target could well be the President himself. Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst, claims that Mr Putin, who has put friends and allies in charge of key state-controlled companies, has a secret $40bn 20bn) personal fortune, reportedly in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

If the claims are true, it would make Mr Putin the richest man in Russia. Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was unavailable to comment on the allegations which surfaced in The Guardian yesterday.

But Mr Belkovsky, who said that Mr Putin controls shares in Gazprom and other energy companies through secret European accounts, is a controversial figure. In 2003, he released a report stating that the head of the Russian oil giant Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was planning a coup. Shortly afterwards, Mr Khodorkovsky was arrested and is now in prison.

"Belkovsky is a provocateur," said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst. "I don't know why he said this or if he's working for someone, but we're likely to see more ... of this kind of claim as the elections approach."

Earlier this month, a little-known businessman, Oleg Shvartsman, claimed in an interview with Kommersant newspaper that he was controlling a multi-billion-dollar fund for people close to Mr Putin and their relatives. He said he was conducting a "velvet reprivatisation" aimed at forcibly acquiring assets that had previously been bought from the state at unfairly low prices, and that his boss was Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally. Mr Sechin served as a KGB operative in Angola and Mozambique, and is believed to head the siloviki faction of Kremlin hardliners. Despite being chairman of one of Russia's biggest oil companies and heading the Presidential Directorate for Communication and Public Feedback, he has made just two public appearances in eight years.

But analysts say that while all of Mr Shvartsman's claims are quite plausible, it is unthinkable that anyone really working for Mr Sechin would go public in this manner, and as such the interview could have been a deliberate ploy to ruin his reputation. The dispute is not limited to words. The head of Russia's drugs control body, whose deputy was arrested in October, has warned that the security services are embroiled in an "all-against-all" battle that could lead to tragedy.

Alexei Kudrin, the Finance Minister, also saw his deputy, Sergei Storchak, arrested on corruption charges this month. Mr Kudrin, seen as a leading member of the liberal clan, has insisted that his deputy is innocent, and analysts say the arrest is part of the larger turf war. The battle has "nothing to do with ideology", says Mr Makarkin, and is all about power and influence. Others, including the journalist and talk-show host Yulia Latynina, are certain that the motivating factor is money.

What's not in doubt is that the people around Mr Putin control vast sums of money. And with Russia run by former KGB agents people who are rather good at keeping secrets it is unlikely that any concrete evidence will emerge to back up Mr Belkovsky's claims.

But with uncertainty still rife over the future face of Russian politics after the presidential elections in March, more of this hidden battle is likely to spill into the public domain.

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