A mysterious palatial complex that has appeared on Russia’s southern Black Sea has sparked controversy after several documents linked it with a government body that had previously denied any involvement.
The complex of several buildings is dominated by a large Italianate palace on an extensive seaside plot near the village of Praskoveyevka in the Krasnodar region.
In December whistle-blower businessman Sergei Kolesnikov described the palace and its buildings in a public letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
He alleged that it was being built “for private use” by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The Office of Presidential Affairs (OPA), which manages government property used by senior officials, including existing residences used by the president and prime minister in Moscow region and Sochi, denied any involvement.
The head of the OPA, Vladimir Kozhin, categorically told Interfax earlier this month that his office “did not, does not, and is not planning to oversee any construction there”.
But a decree by the Ministry of Economic Development sanctioned a transfer of a 10-per-cent stake in the project to a state enterprise called Tuapse Resort, which belongs to the OPA.
The 2008 decree, available through a public database of official documents, lists various properties in the project.
These include a section of a publicly built road, a helicopter pad, a “service building” for 56 people and a “main building” with an area of 14,598 square meters.
The opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper on Monday made public another document which showed the OPA was behind the original investment agreement to build the massive residence.
The 2005 agreement, now posted on the Internet, stated that the OPA was to have a 30-per-cent stake in the project and that the Tuapse State Resort had the rights to use the land.
The state resort’s director, Bolat Zakaryanov, is also director of an obscure firm called Indokopas, which Sergey Kolesnikov said owns the entire complex.
Indokopas, according to the public register, is controlled by Nikolay Shamalov, a friend of Putin, who Kolesnikov said invited him to join the original project.
Kolesnikov, who left Russia last September and communicated with AFP via Skype, said he is hoping that more government documents will be unearthed to prove his claims.
“Unlike a sale of shares, building a palace is a process involving hundreds of people,” he said.
“You can be a tsar, but even a tsarist decree for such a project has to be substantiated by documents from local officials.”
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov earlier told journalists that Putin “did not and does not have anything to do with this building”.
But a regional environmental group that made a daring visit to the property last week said the project appears to involve very high officials, who have sway over such secretive security structures as the federal protection service.
A car with activists from the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC) managed to drive right up to the palace, which Kolesnikov has confirmed was the one described in his public letter.
Having passed two checkpoints, where the security bar was up, activists took pictures and videos on the property before they were held up by Federal Protection Service (FPS) employees, the group said.
“The presence of FPS officers on property belonging to private individual Nikolay Shamalov only serves as additional proof that Vladimir Putin is planning to use it,” said EWNC activist Suren Gazaryan.
Gazaryan spent six hours near the residence after federal officers blocked his car and demanded that the group hands over all video and photo material.
“Officers told us that we were trespassing on private property, and that they were told to be there by their authorities,” he said.
Meanwhile security guards employed by a private firm told the activists that the residence was a secret government building.
“But that would make the presence of many foreign nationals quite strange,” Gazaryan said.
The video shows a pony-tailed Italian called Guiseppe approaching the camera to demand why the visitors are filming the palace.
At the end of the clip, a security guard attacks Gazaryan, taking his stills camera, while another grabs the video camera. The group also lost their documents, three other cameras, a mobile phone, a GPS navigator, a modem, and several bank cards, Gazaryan said.
“Later, we received our documents from the police, who told us they found them in the forest,” he said.
– Maria Antonova, AFP