When Igor Shuvalov, Russia’s first deputy prime minister, declared that his wife had earned an income of $10.9m in 2008, he became the first official in the country publicly to disclose a family fortune.
Mr Shuvalov’s colleagues said the tax declaration in 2009 sealed his reputation as a progressive force in government, as Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, battled to enforce greater transparency as part of an anti-corruption drive.
Ever since Mr Shuvalov entered government from business he was seen by investors as a leading force for liberal reform, pushing for more privatisation and reducing the role of the state.
But the revelation that Mr Shuvalov’s family fund boosted the initial fortune, he made in business by nearly $200m by co-investing funds with several Russian tycoons, while he served in senior state positions, raises unsettling questions about the links between state officials and big business that have long worried investors.
The leaked documents – though they do not indicate any breaches of Russian law – appear to go to the heart of questions about cronyism in Vladimir Putin’s regime, where investors fear agreements may sometimes be reached behind closed doors based on understandings between friends. They also highlight the inadequacies of Russia’s still developing regulation governing investment by officials and potential conflicts of interests.
While Mr Shuvalov rose to become an economic aide to Vladimir Putin in 2003, and later first deputy prime minister, the men he co-invested with also flourished.
Alisher Usmanov, with whom Mr Shuvalov’s family fund had invested in 2004 in Corus steel to earn $70m, went on to forge a Russian metals enterprise, Metalloinvest, and this year became the country’s richest man. Suleiman Kerimov, whose investment vehicle allowed Mr Shuvalov’s fund to earn more than $100m, built a fortune of more than $20bn by 2008 by investing in Gazprom and Sberbank, Russia’s biggest state bank, with the help of huge loans from the same institution.
Mr Shuvalov insists he never allowed any conflicts of interests during his role as a government official. But fears over his position as jockeying intensifies before a new government is formed next month appear to have prompted former associates to speak in his defence.
These associates, including Alexander Voloshin, the former Kremlin chief of staff, and German Gref, the former economy minister, said Mr Shuvalov stood out from other officials as more transparent than them. Mr Voloshin said Mr Shuvalov took every effort to declare his holdings and potential conflicts to his bosses – even before Mr Medvedev’s legislative drive.
“I don’t remember any conflicts of interest,” Mr Voloshin said. “I don’t remember any case where he lobbied the interests of cases connected to Usmanov or any other businessman.”
Mr Shuvalov’s relative openness “is an exception rather than the rule,” Mr Voloshin added. “This isn’t widely practised, as experience shows you end up with bruises for this as Mr Shuvalov is getting now. But I consider he is acting absolutely correctly.”
The deputy prime minister acted fully in line with laws at the time that said government officials must hand over assets for management in a trust but did not specify by whom they should be managed and how, Mr Voloshin said.
Mr Shuvalov’s climb from a business partnership in a big law firm through the ranks of government traces Russia’s development from the darker days of the 1990s – when many laws were either unwritten or riddled with loopholes – to efforts to improve regulation today.
Unlike many other Russian officials, Mr Shuvalov built an initial fortune in private business in the 1990s. He earned money as a managing partner in a big legal firm, ALM, belonging to a Russian tycoon, Alexander Mamut, with close ties to the family of Boris Yeltsin, who was president at the time. Mr Shuvalov expanded into a business partnership with Oleg Boyko, a Russian entrepreneur, with a stake in the group’s assets, people familiar with the situation said. Close work with Roman Abramovich, the Russian tycoon, as he tried to privatise Sibneft, brought in large fees and an option for 0.5 per cent in the oil group, these people said.
By the time he entered government, Mr Shuvalov had amassed a fortune of $18m after dissolving his partnership with Mr Boyko, plus the option in Sibneft, the people said. These assets were transferred to an offshore company registered in the name of his wife, Olga, they said.
Mr Shuvalov declared these holdings to his bosses when he first entered government in 1997, taking a post in the federal property fund, these people said.
But at the same time as Mr Shuvalov was entering government, Russia’s federal property fund was organising a privatisation auction of a final 20 per cent stake in Sibneft, raising questions over whether he faced at least the appearance of a conflict of interest over both his friendship with Mr Abramovich and the 0.5 per cent option he owned himself.
People close to Mr Shuvalov said he had nothing to do with that decision. Mr Voloshin said decisions relating to the future ownership of a big oil company were “taken on a much higher level”.
When the offshore fund holding much of Mr Shuvalov’s family assets, the Bahamas-registered Sevenkey, agreed to buy $17.7m in Gazprom’s ordinary shares in June-July 2004 via Mr Kerimov’s Nafta Moskva investment vehicle, as documents show, Mr Shuvalov had been promoted to become Mr Putin’s economic aide in the Kremlin.
German Gref, the Sberbank chief executive who served then as economy minister, in charge of the Gazprom liberalisation, said Mr Shuvalov was not an “insider” on the reform and did not take part in a single discussion on it. But another senior official at that time said Mr Shuvalov would have been involved in a small circle of Russian officials with knowledge of the process. People close to Mr Shuvalov insist he was not.
Sevenkey raised funding for the purchase of Gazprom shares via a “back-to-back” loan from Amsterdam Trade Bank NV, a Dutch affiliate of Alfa-Bank, the group belonging to another big Russian oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, documents seen by the Financial Times show. The much touted liberalisation helped spur a surge in Gazprom’s share price which saw it rise more than sevenfold by the time Sevenkey cashed in all of its shares in early 2008.
Bankers working with Mr Kerimov have long questioned the nature of the links that the tycoon has with the Kremlin or other officials. Mr Kerimov was a little-known “minigarch” until he bet big on Gazprom, winning huge loans from state banks, VEB and Sberbank, to build up a significant stake in the gas company from the end of 2003, and then later building a stake in Sberbank with the help of the same bank. By mid-2008 he had made more than $20bn on these shares.
But people close to Nafta Moskva denied that the tycoon’s investment vehicle ever invested funds for any other officials and said Mr Kerimov did not derive any benefit from his friendship with Mr Shuvalov.
Many bankers have questioned whether Kremlin links could have helped Mr Kerimov to gain state bank funding. But Mr Gref, who became Sberbank chief executive in early 2008, said Mr Shuvalov did not play any role in helping win loans for Mr Kerimov, who still has a big credit line with the bank. Mr Gref said he had found no confirmation that Mr Shuvalov had ever tried to influence the credit decisions of the bank while his predecessor was in charge. Sberbank’s former management could not be reached for comment.
Sevenkey had directly agreed the $49.5m investment in Corus after Mr Usmanov had come to Mr Shuvalov requesting financial backing, people familiar with the situation said and the deal was funded via the sale of part of his option in Sibneft. The deal had originally been structured via a loan agreement with a 5 per cent annual interest rate but Sevenkey won a far greater return of $119m, 2007 bank records show. This was pro-rata compensation for the investment in Mr Usmanov’s purchase of the 13 per cent stake in Corus, people familiar with the situation say.
A spokesman said Mr Shuvalov had always acted within the framework of Russian and international law and declared his and his family’s income to Russian tax authorities. “Such openness went ahead of the demands of laws,” the spokesperson said.
Russian prosecutors began investigating the Corus deal after a report in Barrons’ magazine late last year stoked interest from opposition groups. But a preliminary finding, seen by the FT, finds no wrongdoing in the investment and notes that Mr Shuvalov and his family made a declarative tax payment of Rbs260m at the end of 2007 under an amnesty for income earned over Rbs2bn before 2006. All tax requirements were met by Sevenkey after these deals, people familiar with the situation said.
Associates say they fear that any backlash over the fresh leak of Mr Shuvalov’s investments could cause other officials to withdraw information about their holdings back into the shadows.
Mr Shuvalov “was the first person to declare anything,” said one associate. “Any word about Shuvalov being corrupt is a signal to others not to declare their incomes. It will be a signal for all to go back under the carpet.”
Others say they fear the information could be used in a battle between conservative and liberal forces as positioning intensifies before a new government is formed. Mr Shuvalov “is a person with fairly progressive views,” Mr Voloshin said. “He is against monopolisation … and for privatisation and for local self government. He is backing moves in the right direction for decentralisation …This may be connected to the positioning of people who don’t wish him well.”
But another former associate, speaking on condition of anonymity, said even though information about Mr Shuvalov’s financial holdings was more accessible than most because he was more transparent, this did not erase questions about why he co-invested with oligarchs in the first place.
“He may be more liberal than others but he is part of a government under which there is no real fair court system,” the former associate said.
Get alerts on Russian politics when a new story is published