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Who needs owners with sales like these? BBC obtains records further corroborating Alexey Navalny’s investigation into ‘Putin’s Palace’

The BBC Russian Service obtained a new trove of documents corroborating much of what Alexey Navalny reported earlier this year about the schemes used to obfuscate who really owns a massive residence and network of vineyards near Gelendzhik, known colloquially as “Putin’s Palace.” The records leaked to the BBC go up until the early 2010s, focusing mostly on early 2011, when longtime Putin ally Nikolai Shamalov sold away the rights to the properties for a pittance to the billionaire Alexander Ponomarenko. Meduza summarizes Andrey Zakharov’s report for the BBC (available in both text and video formats).

According to a source who spoke to the BBC, the real estate outside Gelendzhik was transferred only nominally, to ensure that the property’s registered owner was someone ostensibly wealthy enough to buy something so valuable. (Alexander Ponomarenko was rich enough, but Shamalov was not). Though the property was worth an estimated hundreds of millions of dollars, Shamalov reportedly sold the mansion and the wineries for just a few million dollars, but he’d financed these projects almost entirely with loans. As a result, the sale to Ponomarenko included promissory notes worth $280 million. The BBC’s records aren’t complete, but offshore receipts indicate that more than a third of this debt was repaid in 2013.

Further indicating that Ponomarenko was just a frontman, he hired Shamalov’s “Nogata” company as the project’s property manager, immediately after the sale. Nogata exercised sweeping authority in this arrangement, including the right to borrow money, make investment decisions, and allocate profits. One document obtained by the BBC even states overtly that the bizarre ownership structure was designed deliberately to “maintain [Shamalov’s] maximum control over the project.”

The pivot to Ponomarenko followed a public letter in late 2010 to then-President Dmitry Medvedev from one of Shamalov’s longtime business partners, Sergey Kolesnikov, where he described the corrupt ownership structure of “Putin’s Palace.” The documents leaked to the BBC suggest that the nominal “palace” owners considered “escalating the conflict” by pressing felony charges against Kolesnikov but decided against the idea, worried that he was now untouchable after fleeing abroad. They were also reportedly concerned that a lawsuit would attract international attention. 

Additionally, records indicate that Shamalov and others entertained the idea of contacting Kolesnikov informally, in order to understand why he’d gone public in the first place. (Apparently, nobody believed that he’d acted out of genuine disgust with the palace project itself.) In the end, neither happened, a source told the BBC.

Zakharov was unable to reach Shamalov or Ponomarenko for comment, but the BBC says it has high confidence in the authenticity of the documents it received. The news organization is also concealing its source’s identity out of safety concerns. Anastasia Napalkova and Anna Pushkarskaya contributed to Zakharov’s report.

Summary by Kevin Rothrock