Putin cronies exposed in new list of Russia's rich

RUSSIA'S POLITICAL class has amassed as much wealth as power under President Vladimir Putin, according to a new "rich list" published yesterday.

In revelations which will outrage many pensioners, who have recently campaigned against welfare cuts, Finance magazine reported that three regional presidents, 20 MPs, 11 senators, a regional governor and a deputy regional governor were among the country's 468 wealthiest individuals.

Five of the men were classed as dollar billionaires. With a cool $11.5bn (pounds 6.2bn) to his name, Roman Abramovich (who is also governor of Russia's Chukotka region) was crowned the country's wealthiest political mover and shaker.

Though he was the only household name on the list - at least outside Russia - his political role turns out to be far from uncommon. Valery Oif, much of whose money is derived from Mr Abramovich's oil firm Sibneft, was listed as the 24th richest person and was said to be worth $1.68bn. He is a senator in the country's Federation Council.

Farkhad Akhmedov, another senator, was said to be worth $1.27bn; much of his money is from a firm called Nortgaz.

Leonard Simanovsky, an ordinary MP, was estimated to be worth $1.1bn (his money was from the same source), while the MP Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent in Britain, was reckoned to be worth one billion dollars exactly.

Most parliamentary deputies have backed Mr Putin's proposals to savagely cut Communist-era benefits for a quarter of the population, including pensioners. A series of concessions were obtained after street demonstrations gained international publicity. But the new list has redoubled popular suspicions that Russia under Mr Putin is growing steadily more unequal.

Up to now it had been imagined that Russia's uber-rich were drawn exclusively from the ranks of businessmen who made their fortunes by cashing in on the country's treasure trove of raw materials - whether oil and gas or metals.

Having witnessed the fate of the jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose anti-Kremlin stance cost him dear, it was expected that aspiring millionaires would steer well clear of politics.

Oleg Anisimov, Finance's chief editor, told The Independent that most businessmen who entered politics allied themselves with Mr Putin. "For businessmen it's dangerous to belong to another party ... therefore they tend to join United Russia [Mr Putin's party]."

He conceded that many had grown wealthy because of their political activities. "If you have a senior position and you help someone in the business world it is widely understood that you are owed a favour and that you will be repaid," he said.

Publication of the list comes before a vote of no-confidence in the government over the social benefits issue today (which is expected to be close but fail) and as Mr Putin's popularity rating languishes at an all-time low.

Data shows that the gap between Russia's haves and have-nots is wider now than it has been since the demise of the USSR in 1991. "The problem is that the gap is growing," Igor Nikolayev, a strategic analyst, told the daily Gazeta. "This poses a clear danger. Increasing income differentiation could lead to a social explosion."

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