Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 155

Fresh details of President Vladimir Putin’s alleged criminal links dating back to his period of service in St. Petersburg’s city administration have come to light in the most recent issue of Newsweek. The charges involve a German company called the St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company, also known as SPAG, its German acronym (St. Petersburg Immobilien und Beteiligungs AG). SPAG was set up in collaboration with the St. Petersburg administration, in 1992, when Anatoly Sobchak was St. Petersburg’s mayor and Putin was among his deputies. According to Newsweek, U.S. and European intelligence officials suspect that SPAG is linked to money laundering operations of “Russian mobsters and Colombian drug dealers.” While the company itself has not been charged with any crimes, six weeks ago prosecutors in Liechtenstein and Austria indicted SPAG’s co-founder, Rudolf Ritter, on money laundering charges. The indictment, Newsweek reports, includes, among other things, charges that Ritter and a group of associates laundered more than US$1 million for Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel. Ritter was arrested in May 2000 in Liechtenstein on charges of money laundering and ties to organized crime. Newsweek cites a German intelligence report suggesting that Russian criminals used SPAG to buy property in Russia.

The magazine also repeats allegations first made last year that Putin sat on SPAG’s advisory board. Last year, after this allegation first surfaced, the Kremlin denied that Putin had ever advised or received a salary from SPAG. It is reported that Putin not only sat on SPAG’s advisory board, but that while serving in the St. Petersburg administration he was in regular contact with some of SPAG’s Russian and foreign directors. These included Klaus-Peter Sauer, who told Newsweek that he met with Putin some six times, both in Russia and Germany. Putin is also said to have maintained a “close relationship” with the head of SPAG’s Russian operation, Vladimir Smirnov. According to Newsweek, the future Russian president signed an affidavit in December 1994 giving Smirnov the authority to vote with 200 SPAG shares were owned by the St. Petersburg city government. The close relationship between Putin and Smirnov has reportedly continued: Putin late last year is said to have appointed Smirnov to a position in the Kremlin property department, where Putin himself once worked as a deputy to Pavel Borodin, the one-time Kremlin property manager who was the central figure in the Mabetex money laundering scandal.

In addition, it is claimed that Putin in 1996, when he was still in the St. Petersburg administration, signed a decree granting the Petersburg Fuel Company (PTK), a company controlled by the city administration in which Smirnov was first a vice president and later president, “a virtual monopoly over retail gasoline sales in the city, including lucrative supply contracts for St. Petersburg’s huge fleet of ambulances, cop cars, buses and taxis.” Among PTK’s current vice presidents is Vladimir Kumarin-Barsukov, who has been identified by Russian media as head of the powerful Tambov organized crime group. Kumarin-Barsukov was reportedly still listed as the director of a key Russian subsidiary of SPAG as of November 1999. Putin’s Interior Minister, Boris Gryzlov, said earlier this month that the Tambov group controls up to 100 industrial enterprises in St. Petersburg, including a number in the fuel-energy sector. According to a Russian press report, Gryzlov specifically mentioned the PTK as being under Tambov control. In October 1998, Dmitry Filipov, PRK’s then president, was killed in a bomb blast (Newsweek, September 3; Moscow Times, May 30, 2000; see also the Monitor, November 23, 1998, August 9, 2001).