According to a new book, ‘Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?’ by Russia expert Karen Dawisha, Vladimir Putin took illegal boat rides to Spain from Gibraltar to meet Russian oligarchs.
The story starts in St Petersburg, where Putin was deputy mayor from 1991 to 1996, a review in the New York Review of Books reveals.
A construction company reportedly linked to Putin received money from the city budget and used it to build villas in Spain for Putin’s friends, reportedly using Russian army labour through Spanish contractors.
Reports of this kind led Spanish police to monitor Russian oligarchs active in Spain in the 1990s and, as the New York Review of Books points out: "In 1999, to their immense surprise, their recorders picked up an unexpected visitor: Putin. He had arrived in Spain illegally, by boat from Gibraltar, having eluded Spanish passport control."
Among monitored Russian oligarchs active in Spain was Boris Berezovsky, who at that time was extremely close to Putin, but would fall out of favour once Putin became President bringing with him a new favoured elite from St Petersburg, loyal only to him.
Berezovsky fled Russia in 2000 and in 2013 was found dead in his London home of a reported suicide.
Putin was head of the FSB, the Russian security service, at the time of his illegal visits to Spain and would go on to become Russian president in 2000. Spanish papers said he entered the country on forged documents on multiple occasions.
According to a Wikileaks cable published in The Guardian, Spanish National Court Prosecutor, Jose 'Pepe' Grinda González "traced the history of Russian mafia in Spain to the mid-1990s when several vor v zakone (‘Thief in Law’ – the highest echelon of Russian organized crime leadership) began to enter Spain".
The cable also quoted the prosecutor as saying that "since 2004 Spanish prosecutors have created a formal strategy to 'behead' the Russian mafia in Spain".
Speaking during a 2010 briefing to US officials in Madrid, Grinda González said it wasn't known to what extent Vladimir Putin was personally "implicated in the Russian mafia and controls the mafia´s actions".