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New Book Poses Question of Putin's Links with Underworld

Published: October 7, 2003 (Issue # 908)


How involved was President Vladimir Putin in the activities of a decade-old German company now at the center of a pan-European probe into St. Petersburg mobsters, Colombian cocaine and transcontinental money laundering?

The question has intrigued investigators and journalists since a German foreign intelligence report was leaked to the press during Putin's rise to power. The report alleged that SPAG, a company set up ostensibly to invest in St. Petersburg real estate, was actually laundering funds for Russian criminal gangs and Colombian drug lords.

The French daily Le Monde was first out of the gate with the story, raising some uncomfortable questions about Putin's tenure on SPAG's supervisory board, which lasted from when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s until he entered the Kremlin. Newsweek magazine followed a year later with a report that raised even more questions, but despite contradictory denials and clarifications from Putin's press service, the story quietly went away. Until this May, that is, when German police launched a nationwide raid on the homes and offices of more than 200 people connected with the company.

Now, as prosecutors in Germany and Liechtenstein tighten the noose and move closer to the courts, a new book has hit German bookstores offering the most in-depth look yet at SPAG, its ties with Putin, and into Rudolf Ritter, a co-founder of the company who is now awaiting trial in Liechtenstein for allegedly laundering cocaine cash for the Cali cartel.

Thumbing its nose at attempts by Vladimir Kumarin, the reputed head of the St. Petersburg-based Tambov mafia ring, to quash the book, called "Die Gangster aus dem Osten" or "Gangsters From the East," the publisher, Europa Verlag, is actually touting it to other international publishers at the ongoing Frankfurt book fair, the world's largest.

In his 305-page work, Juergen Roth details how German investigators - with little or no help from their Russian counterparts - uncovered a complex web of relationships and transactions that link SPAG to St. Petersburg's criminal underworld and beyond. The book fails to tie Putin directly to any criminal activity, but does paint a convincing argument that he was more involved with SPAG's activities than previously acknowledged.

Like the Le Monde and Newsweek articles, "Gangsters From the East" links Putin to alleged mobster Kumarin (who has since changed his name to Barsukov) through Vladimir Smirnov, the former head of SPAG's St. Petersburg operations and an old associate of the president.

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Tuesday, Sept. 2


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