1653229360 Putins corrupt beginnings in Olympic Barcelona

Putin’s corrupt beginnings in Olympic Barcelona

His world had collapsed and everything had to be done. The Soviet Union had crumbled and Russia was looking abroad for capitalists to rebuild the knocked out giant. Olympic Barcelona’s call to its sister city, Saint Petersburg, was unmistakable. It was February 1992 and Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of the capital of the tsars to be elected in the elections, landed in Barcelona with an intense agenda to attract investment. Acting President of Russia Vladimir Putin was part of the delegation.

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An article in La Vanguardia last March rediscovered Putin’s time in Barcelona. The City Council has published the images of a lunch at the Palacete Albéniz, presided over by the then Mayor Pasqual Maragall. Sobchak sat opposite him, and Putin next to him. Other media added details about the week the Russian delegation spent in the city. Nació Digital retrieved images of a dinner at the Cercle d’Economia. The testimonies of the time indicate that Putin was a minor figure in the St. Petersburg delegation, a kind of secretary to the charismatic Sobchak. Nothing is further from reality. “Putin was the person to meet in St. Petersburg back then,” academic Karen Dawisha wrote in 2014 in Putin’s Kleptocracy, a reference book for understanding the Russian autocrat’s beginnings.

Putin has been responsible for international relations in Russia’s second largest city since 1991. In his office, a gloomy and plain room with an ashtray and a table as the only furniture, foreign capital operations in Saint Petersburg were approved, according to journalist Masha Gessen’s research in the book The Man Without a Face. What happened in these companies in the 1990s was not exactly exemplary, as Putin admitted in an official biography from 2000: “It was a time full of shady deals, financial pyramids and the like.”

When Putin toured Barcelona in February 1992, he was already suspected of benefiting from programs to exchange raw materials for food from abroad. His scourge was the deputy of St. Petersburg Marina Salye. He led a commission of inquiry which, in May 1992, concluded that the city council’s director of external relations had approved at least 12 fraudulent contracts worth nearly $100 million.

Russia needed food for its people because the agribusiness had been blown up. The ruble was worth nothing and there was no money to buy food. The solution the authorities came up with was to exchange raw materials for food. Salye’s documents show that Putin authorized at least 12 operations to sell raw materials at bargain prices with instrumental companies that later disappeared, some for foreign exchange and the other for food. The total amount of commissions agreed in the contracts exceeded 32 million euros. The food never reached St. Petersburg. Putin admitted the fraud, but blamed it on the businessmen he dealt with. In 1991 he himself conducted the negotiations for an exchange program for German meat worth more than 90 million marks – 46 million euros. The meat also did not reach Russia.

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Putin landed in Barcelona on February 25, 1992, a month before Salye presented the commission’s conclusions to Yuri Boldirev, who later headed the Court of Auditors in President Boris Yeltsin’s government. Boldirev concluded that Putin had committed several crimes, but nothing was done about him because neither Yeltsin nor Sobchak wanted it. “That was typical at the time,” Boldirev explained in Gessen’s book, in order to downplay the issue.

Barcelona has been twinned with Saint Petersburg since 1985, when the Soviet Union still existed and it was called Leningrad. Seven years later, the delegation from Saint Petersburg was received by the city council and at the Palau de la Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government; its members have performed at the Cercle d’Economia and given a speech to the Bar Association to explain the benefits of investing in Russia. Mayor Sobchak also signed an oil-for-food agreement worth 47,000 million pesetas – 283 million euros – with Juspi, a company founded by Enric Bernat, the founder of Chupa Chups, and Lluís Prenafeta, who was the first Jordi Pujol’s right-hand man was Secretary of the Presidium of the Generalitat.

Vladimir Putin with Pasqual Maragall during his visit to Barcelona in February 1992.Vladimir Putin, together with Pasqual Maragall, during his visit to Barcelona in February 1992. Barcelona City Council

Prenafeta was also in charge of Petrocat, an oil company sponsored by the Generalitat. According to the document signed with the mayor of St. Petersburg, Petrocat would open ten gas stations in the city. “They didn’t comply because they turned off the tap. Living in a very unfavorable situation, they passed one from one official to another. We wasted time and patience,” Prenafeta said in La Vanguardia. The reality was more complex. Xavier Bernat, son of the founder of Chupa Chups, pointed out in an article in EL PAÍS in 1994 that one reason for the waste of Juspi was corruption. This article detailed that the average bribe for each official was about 20,000 pesetas and that it was necessary to hire lawyers who spent three quarters of their fees paying public employees to fulfill the agreements.

Prenafeta was scammed shortly thereafter when he attempted to trade oil for food directly with the Russian Ministry of Energy. Another deal that failed in Saint Petersburg between Bernat and Prenafeta was the concession of a city lottery game. The three partners received a forged document to contribute the money guaranteeing a concession which, according to EL PAÍS, they had not actually received in 1994.

St. Petersburg’s foreign relations, including investments, went through Putin’s office. In 1992, the person who held up to three meetings with the future president of Russia was Manuel De Forn, then the coordinator of the Barcelona Strategic Plan. Sobchak returned from the Olympic city tour with the idea of ​​building a food distribution center similar to Mercabarna. “We saw that it wasn’t feasible because there was no food production; The problem wasn’t distribution, the problem was that there was nothing to distribute,” recalls De Forn. “Putin didn’t ask us for money directly, but they informed us about the bribes. As the project didn’t go any further, there were no problems, but they wanted someone from Barcelona to support them,” summarizes the renowned urban planner.

Putin’s anger

Another company that struggled with local Russian corruption was Codorníu. The Raventós family wine and cava company stored its products in Saint Petersburg. On one occasion in the early 1990s, according to Pujol’s office sources, the warehouse appeared to have been destroyed and the products were missing. Codorníu’s representatives protested and were referred to Putin: the now-Russian autocrat had “unleashed a tremendous amount of anger on them,” these sources explain, “because they had already been warned about whom to trust for the security of their camp, and they did it not”.

Beginning in 1994, Putin revisited Spain, but under a false identity and more than thirty times. According to Dawisha’s book, this was revealed by the Spanish secret services to their counterparts in the United States. Putin’s travels, extending beyond 1996 when he went to work in the Russian government, were for work, meetings with new millionaires whom he favored. The last trips were from Gibraltar to Sotogrande (Cádiz) in 1999 to meet the oligarch Boris Berezovski.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last February, one name caught De Forn’s attention among the many members of Russia’s business and political elite sanctioned by the European Union and the United States: Igor Sechin. De Forn remembered this name because he was the secretary of the official Putin, his go-to man. Sechin was a deputy prime minister and is currently the chairman of Russia’s state oil company Rosneft.

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