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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
Russia Update: September 27, 2016

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
TV Rain Finds Past Gunvor Investor Pyotr Kolbin Was Childhood Friend of Vladimir Putin

UPDATE BELOW 

TV Rain, the last independent TV station in Russia, has found that businessman Pyotr Kolbin, a former co-owner of the Gunvor Group Ltd, the fourth largest crude oil trading company in the world, was a childhood friend of President Vladimir Putin.

The close connection has confirmed for some Russia-watchers that Putin indirectly controlled Gunvor, a global commodity trading company which has long been rumored to be the source of Putin's own wealth.

In 2014, Gennady Timchenko, a major Russian businessman from Putin’s inner circle and a co-founder of the Cyprus-registered Gunvor Group Ltd., was suspected by US officials of hosting Putin’s own investments. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, the US sanctioned Timchenko but shortly before this he managed to sell his shares in Gunvor to the company’s Swedish co-founder Torbjörn Törnqvist

As the Wall Street Journal reported, US federal prosecutors investigating Timchenko's financial transactions found ties to Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Timchenko’s activities in the energy sector have been directly linked to Putin,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement. “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
Timchenko denied the claim.

Now TV Rain says its researchers have turned up the fact that Putin was a family friend of Kolbin, a little-known figure whose net work is valued at $550 million according to Russian-language Forbes.  Kolbin's father, Viktor, and Putin met in 1954 in the village of Imenitsy in Leningrad Region, where Viktor Kolbin was principal of a school and Putin's family rented a dacha for the summer. As they grew up, Putin and Kolbin, Jr. would often meet, going to village discotheques together and even getting into fights with the local hooligans.

In 2000, Kolbin, Sr. received a personal letter from the recently-elected Putin (TV Rain has obtained a copy). Kolbin, Jr. had by that time made a substantial amount of money in business. 


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2016-09-26 23:04:36

Commenting on the TV Rain findings, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny said that TV Rain had "proved" that Gunvor "belongs to Putin". He said he would have more comments tomorrow.

For five years before 2010, Kolbin, Jr. owned at least a 10% share in Gunvor. Sales of Gunvor reached $70 billion in 2008, Reuters reported. The turnover of Gunvor reached $65 billion in 2010, Reuters reported. The US Treasury Department said Gunvor shares could be indirectly controlled by Putin.

In 2009, Novaya Gazea investigated Kolbin, as the BBC reported. They found that Kolbin was the sole founder of a company called Raznoeksport and 49% owner of Surguteks, another oil trader which sold substantial amounts of Surgutneftegaz's oil and petroleum products abroad.

In 2010, Kolbin made a successful deal in buying shares in the Yamal LNG company for $90 million and then selling it 18 months later for $526 million. The deal was approved by a government commission headed by Putin, who at that time held the post of prime minister.

According to Jamestown Foundation, Novatek, Russia's largest independent gas producer, bought the initial 51% stake in Yamal LNG as well as the 23.9% option in that project from Timchenko himself, who was a major stakeholder in Novatek. Before that, the seller of a 25.1% stock option remained anonymous and it was last known to have been sold by Gazprombank in 2009 to an undisclosed buyer.

In his book First Person, Putin says "My former father-in-law had a dacha near Vyborg," but that is 246 kilometers from Imenitsy, the town where the Putins were said to have met the Kolbins. Putin apparently only went to that dacha after he married Lyudmila Shkrebneva in 1983, whom he divorced in 2013.

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told TV Rain that he had not encountered the name "Kolbin" among Putin's acquaintances. Timchenko refused to comment and Kolbin himself could not be reached, said TV Rain. 

TV Rain has a broadcast with more details on Kolbin and Putin behind a pay wall, but in the teaser, the letter to Viktor Kolbin is shown, which was also published in a local newspaper at the time, and a school teacher recalls Kolbin saying he had "held Vovka [Vladimir Putin] on his knees, and had taught him German." Kolbin is a German name and indicates Viktor may have had German ancestors.

UPDATE:

Gunvor has published a statement on its corporate website challenging some of the claims in the TV Rain report and other reporting on Gunvor.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

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