Is Russian President Vladimir Putin really a modest 'man of the people' or the owner of a vast but secret fortune?
As Russia's President Putin tightened his grip on power and took an increasingly hard line against dissenters, rumours began to emerge that the former KGB agent had amassed a secret fortune worth billions of dollars. However, his public image, at least is a man of model means. So is Vladimir Putin one of the richest men in the world, as his critics claim, and if that is the case, where did his money come from? Sarah Spiller has been trying to find out.
REPORTER: Sarah Spiller
Vladimir Putin, newly-elected President of Russia after 12 years in power, now set for six more, at a government victory rally in Moscow, his supporters are out in force. To them, he's a hero - the strong man who brought order after the chaos of the Yeltsin years. The carefully-cultivated image, the macho, horse-riding action man, and judo black belt. These things they say are signs of his real character - Putin is a leader who put their country back in her rightful place on the world stage.
Election night and police and troops pour on to the streets of the capital. But in the run-up to the polls, tens of thousands have braved the State Security Apparatus to protest against Putin's long dominance of Russian politics.
WOMAN (Translation): Power can't stay in one man's hands. It's elementary. It should not be hereditary.
MAN (Translation): We are protesting against Putin and his clique.
CROWD (Translation): Russia without Putin! Russia without Putin!
For these Russians, Putin stands for everything that is wrong with their country. They claim that far from restoring Russia's place in the world - his years in control has seen its reputation become synonymous with cronyism and corruption. And that with Putin at the helm, inner click have been running Russia largely for their own benefit.
PROTESTOR (Translation): Putin, thief! Putin, thief! Kremlin crooks think we will get tired of street protests, will we get tired?
CROWD (Translation): No!
PROTESTOR (Translation): Yes or no?
CROWD (Translation): No!
Abuse from domestic opponents may not matter much to Russia's new Premier. But it does reflect rumours about Vladimir Putin's personal finances and business dealings - stories that have been circulating internationally for some time. We wanted to find out more. Our investigation would take us from Moscow to St Petersburg and on to a mysterious palace on the shores of the Black Sea, and along the way, speculation about a hidden fortune.
LUKE HARDING, JOURNALIST, GUARDIAN: My personal suspicion is that certainly Mr Putin is the richest man in Europe, possibly on the planet.
Somewhat different from official information the Kremlin provided last year, about Vladimir Putin's wealth, as he stood for the Presidential elections. When he was Prime Minister Putin, his annual salary was $140,000 a year. Assets - 2 Apartments, 3 Cars, 1 Trailer, a share in a Garage and some land, rather modest for one of the world's most powerful men, but even a cursory look at the Russian leader's lifestyle does reveal some rather expensive tastes.
Like the use of this spectacular yacht. These pictures were taken before she was reportedly brought by the Office of Presidential Affairs for over $40 million. At 50 metres long she has a saloon with panoramic sea view, guest cabins, Jacuzzi and barbecue - upkeep an estimated $4 million a year. On top of this there's also access to Presidential palaces and residences, one of the official and sumptuous perks of the job.
But President Putin's critics care less about the trappings of office than the wealth they say you can't see, wealth, that if rumours are to be believe, comes from less than salubrious sources. In 2010 a quarter of a million secret memos written by American diplomats from around the world were published on the Internet. They'd been leaked to the Wikileaks website and they contained some surprising assertions.
The former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, quoted a Russian opposition leader saying that Vladimir Putin is nervously trying to secure his immunity from potential law enforcement investigations into his alleged illicit proceeds. Rumours, chatter but what is the substance for all this. Stanislav Belkovsky is a Russian political insider and founder of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow-based think-tank. His widely publicised and astonishing claim is that the Russian Premier is almost unimaginably wealthy, a billionaire several times over.
STANISLAV BELKOVSKY, POLITICAL ANALYST: The figure of $40 billion emerged in 2007. By now the figure could have changed, I believe, at the level of $60-70 billion.
If true, such gigantic sums would easily make Vladimir Putin the richest man in Europe. Belkovsky claims the money comes from shares that Putin secretly owns in three giant oil and gas companies. 4.5% of a national giant Gazprom, 37% of oil suppliers Surgutneftogaz and up to 75% of overseas oil trader Gunvor.
Belkovsky is reluctant to explain how he knows this, saying only that the information comes from confidential sources inside the Presidential administration. But he's more forthcoming about why - he claims - Vladimir Putin would need such a vast sum.
STANISLAV BELKOVSKY: I think Vladimir Putin has inner circles do firmly believe that money decides everything in the world and without controlling such amounts of money, you can never protect yourself both physically and politically. Money is the God of the Russian elite.
The three companies identified by Belkovsky refute his claims. Surgutneftegaz, Gazprom and Gunvor have all strongly denied any links to Vladimir Putin or that he benefits or owns any shares in their businesses. And the man himself has been equally forthright. In 2008, when he was asked about allegations that he may be the richest man in Europe, he said it was: "œJust rubbish, picked out of someone's nose and smeared on bits of paper. The claims are nonsense - rubbish."
But the stories about links between Vladimir Putin and the Gunvor oil trading company were loud enough to reach the ears of John Beyrle, US Ambassador to Moscow. In the secret diplomatic cables published on Wikileaks he is quoted as saying "Its secretive ownership is rumoured to include Prime Minister Putin". Luke Harding was Moscow correspondent for the UK Guardian newspaper until he was expelled in 2011 after reporting on the Wikileaks' cables.
LUKE HARDING: Nobody knows how much Vladimir Putin is worth. Also it's hard to calculate. If you go to Switzerland and say you're an investigative journalist, do you have an account of the name of Mr V V Putin, they will go, I'm terribly sorry, we have no account in that name.
Harding investigated Gunvor, the oil trading company, in which Putin is alleged to hold a 75% stake. Like us, he was unable to find any hard evidence to back Belkovsky's claims, but he says its rise to prominence is surprising.
LUKE HARDING: Gunvor has gone from being a relatively small oil trader to a company that exports a third of Russia's seaborne oil not from Russia but from Zug a sleepy little Swiss village with green pasture and cows and so on and to me that seems very strange.
Amid all these claims and counter claims, there is one undeniable fact about Vladimir Putin. While he's been in power, both as Prime Minister and President, a small circle of associates have become very wealthy indeed.
We've been told the origins of this group go back to St Petersburg and a gated community of dachas - or country homes - outside the city. We went to take a look. Vladimir Putin sold his Dacha on the shores of Lake Komsomolskoye a number of years ago. But in the mid-1990s he and others formed a co-operative to buy property in the area.
This was a dacha compound where Vladimir Putin formed some of his closest associations. It was a tight knit group and they lived along the lakeside. Some of those men have become dollar billionaires, some of the richest and most powerful men in Russia. They include Yuri Kovalculk, a former deputy director of a regional scientific institute, now a shareholder in the powerful Rossiya Bank. According to the authoritative Forbes list, he is worth 1.2 billion dollars: Another is Nicolai Shamalov, also a major shareholder in Rossiya Bank, his fortune listed by Forbes is $500 million....
The association with now wealthy business men, have been formed here at the Yaward Neva Judo Club, in St Petersburg, Putin reportedly co-founded and where youngsters now practise their moves. The CEO of the club is said to be Arkady Rotenberg, and he and his brother Boris were said to be Putin's sparring partners back in their youth. The brothers now control much of Russia's oil and gas pipe building industry, together they are said to be worth just over $1.5 billion.
Another co-founder of the St Petersburg Judo club, a man called Gennady Timchenko, in the late 80's he worked in the local oil refinery, now he is co-owner of Gunvor, Russia's biggest foreign trader, according to Forbes worth $9.1 billion.
We approached all these men for a response, only Mr Timchenko's lawyer replied. They told us: "œany suggestion that our client is a close friend of Mr Putin is false; Mr Timchenko had already established himself as a successful businessman well before Mr Putin rose to office. His success is as a result of many years of extremely hard work."
Nevertheless, if you add up the personal fortunes of Mr Putin's acquaintances from the lakeside properties and from the judo club as well as some of Mr Putin's relatives and former KGB associates, they have an estimated worth of over $180 billion. Journalist, Luke Harding, has a view on their staggering success.
LUKE HARDING: The connections that Vladimir Putin formed early on are tremendously important and those people have risen with him and really what we've seen since he came into power in 2000, is we've seen Kremlin inc. We've seen a group of his chums, who have, many with KGB backgrounds, who have taken over state corporations.
As we continued our journey around Russia, one story kept attracting our attention. It concerned a lavish Italian-style property being built on the Black Sea coast, a palace, so the rumours went, fit for a Tsar. These photographs were taken secretly by construction workers. They show richly decorated interiors, ornate grounds, gates topped by a two-headed eagle, a lift down to the beach. But who is this mysterious palace for and who is paying for it? We've seen documents that appear to link the presidential administration to building contracts for the property. They bear the signature of a man called Vladimir Kloshin, head of the Presidential Property Department. The Presidential office has insisted that currently it has no connection to the palace. So officially at least this building has nothing to do with the Kremlin or with Mr Putin.
We took a trip to see how close we could get. Curiously, the palace seemed to enjoy an unusual amount of protection. There were guarded outposts. Barbed wire and the approach road to the palace was closed.
Just over there, is the road to the palace and there's heavy security all around. In fact, we've been approached once already and told to move on. There's a barrier and it's reportedly guarded over by the Federal Protection Service, who look after high-ranking officials, so this is about as far as we can get.
So we went to the nearest village. Had people here seen Mr Putin visiting this palace? Oh yes, they said. You always know when he's around because there are helicopters overhead and yachts in the harbour. One man was willing to tell us about Mr Putin's trips on camera.
REPORTER: Have you seen Mr Putin visiting here?
MAN (Translation): Sure I've seen him, why not? What is so terrible about that? He walked in the town, strolled along the quay;.He is just a man like anyone else.
REPORTER: How often does he come?
MAN (Translation): Well, I don't know how often he comes. It does happen. I can't say how often.
The documents, the security all around the place, and the testimony of local people, all suggests that this property is indeed connected to Vladimir Putin but the exact status of the palace remains a mystery. As with the other claims we examined in this film, every question about Mr Putin's affairs throws up yet more questions.
How much all this matters is of course first and foremost for the people of this nation to decide. And they've just elected Vladimir Putin for another six years. For many, it's enough that their strong man has brought wealth and stability. Others may feel that taking to the streets is the only way to getting the change they seek. For the rest of the world, the questions about Mr Putin's friends, his business dealings, his personal probity, persist. Russia remains a global force, playing a full role in international affairs. Therefore the way this man, this enigma, wields power in this vast country, is of significance to us all.
YALDA HAKIM: Sarah Spiller reporting, and the Russian President certainly doesn't mince words. His response again to claims of a massive fortune... "Just rubbish, picked out of someone's nose and smeared on bits of paper."
Produced by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Al Jazeera People and Power
7th August 2012