Russian businessman Maxim Freidzon, who is suing Lukoil and Gazprom and their CEOs in the Southern District in New York, gave an interview to Radio Svoboda yesterday to discuss the Panama Papers leaks. Freidzon, who is now a citizen of Israel, is demanding the two firms pay him a total of $540.9 million to recompense him for being unlawfully deprived of his stake in the jet fuel distribution company SOVEX. His suit was filed in 2014.
The Panama Papers, Freidzon said, when examined in their entirety, could provide a lot of details for piecing together just how Vladimir Putin and his associates started putting together their fortunes in the 1990s. Something like the Panama Papers leak was eventually inevitable, he continued, because while it’s comparatively easy to hide small amounts of stolen money, it is nearly impossible to do so when theft becomes systemic.
But it wasn’t always systemic, Freidzon said. There was a real passion behind the enrichment schemes and shakedowns in the early days. He then proceeded to recount a story about dealing with a young Vladimir Putin in 1992.
Putin at the time was the head of Saint Petersburg’s Committee for Foreign Economic Relations. Freidzon needed to obtain certain permissions for his international business projects, and his allies recommended he make contact with the official in charge of the committee:
I arrived at Antonenko Street, and abstractly bantered about the importance of friendship and economic ties between the new Russia and the West with the official. During the conversation, a man bearing a striking resemblance to the current President of Russia Vladimir Putin, wrote down a figure on a piece of paper, and said “Alexei Miller will take care of processing”. And we parted ways. […]
Did you meet one-on-one, or was Miller present?
It was one-on-one.
How much did he write down on the piece of paper?
Alexei Miller is the CEO of Gazprom today. This payment, as well as another similar one later on, Freidzon says, was made in cash.
Svoboda asked Freidzon if he had ever heard of Sergei Roldugin, the cellist friend of Putin’s who was revealed by the Panama Papers leaks to have $2 billion stashed away in an offshore company. Friedzon said he hadn’t, but expressed no surprise. The scheme detailed in the Panama Papers was standard practice for money laundering, and here was never a shortage of “special trustees” at hand to handle the cash transfers.
Portraying Vladimir Putin as some kind of blue-chip gangster in the 1990s-era Saint Petersburg is a gross exaggeration—probably made by Putin himself, Freidzon said later on in the interview. The reality was way more prosaic. In Freidzon’s recollection, Putin certainly worked with mafia people, serving their interests and trying to be helpful where he could. But from the mafia perspective, Putin was a nonentity, a helpful and pliant bureaucrat whose signature on various documents was forthcoming when required. Putin was a bit player who managed to survive by maneuvering between warring factions. He made up for it by living as best as he could, Freidzon said.
Asked if he is was surprised that the official he had encountered early on would rise to such prominence, Freidzon says he never would have imagined that things would have played out as they did. “Colloquially speaking, Volodya huffs and puffs. But as we know, that which puffs ups also deflates,” Freidzon observed. “For example, Putin was huffing and puffing with the Turks. Then the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet, and… he ‘blew off’. Putin’s system is that his bluffing either ultimately works—or it doesn’t.”