Issue #28/83, February 10 - 17, 2000  smlogo.gif

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Alive, Just Barely:  The Informant King
On the Trail of Star Witness Felipe Turover

By Matt Taibbi

Mention the name Felipe Turover to anyone who’s met him and the first response you’ll get is a laugh. Well, not a laugh, exactly, but a chuckle. The man who may have brought down the Yeltsin regime--and may yet topple Putin--is, by all accounts, a very amusing young man.

"Quite a character," laughed Roman Berger, Moscow correspondent for the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger.

"Quite a funny fellow, this Turover," added Swiss investigative journalist Gian Trett. "A good sense of humor."

"He’s very interesting," said reporter Marlene Schneiper, who interviewed Turover for Tages Anzeiger in Zurich. "I was told to expect a sort of James Bond, but in person, he’s just a normal, nervous young man. Funny."

Who is Felipe Turover? An interesting question, certainly, but for the heavy hitters in Russian politics, the more important question these days is not who, but where is Felipe Turover? For with each passing day, particularly following the recent issuance of an arrest warrant for former Yeltsin aide Pavel Borodin, Turover--the 35 year-old Swiss-Israeli-Spanish-Russian part-time banker who was almost certainly the source of a 1998 Italian newspaper report which set the Mabetex scandal in motion--is looking more and more like the world’s leading candidate to join the Leon Trotsky pick-axe-in-the-back-of-the-head club.

His Lugano-based attorney, Sergio Servione, when asked about his client’s whereabouts, will say only that Turover is "traveling." In the course of my search for him I found no fewer than four different cell phone numbers for Turover, and when I called them, recordings in five different languages--German, Italian, French, English, and Russian--told me that my subject was not within calling range. That he is somewhere in Switzerland, most everyone agrees on. But where exactly... well, that’s a different matter.

"Travelling" Turover demands: "Why are you threatening me?"
Turover, a Sephardic Jew who was born in Russia to parents of Spanish citizenship, is in trouble for the classic reason that he knows too much. A green 25 year-old fresh from a two-year course of study in management in Mexico when he first started working for the Swiss Banca Del Gottardo, Turover was thrust into a world beyond his ken when the bank took notice of his lingual qualifications and sent him to Moscow to work with its Russian clients. Back in 1990, Russian-speaking Swiss bankers were a rarity. And Turover, a smart young kid with native Russian and solid Western qualifications, looked like a valuable human resource.

Little did anyone know at the time what kind of workload he would be handling. According to various sources, Banca Del Gottardo was the Swiss bank of choice among highly-placed Russian officials throughout most of the 1990s, performing a number of highly creative banking functions involving transfers of Russian budget funds, natural resources sales, and other matters.

Among other things, the Banca Del Gottardo worked for some time handling the accounts of the Swiss construction firm Mabetex, which is currently under investigation for its role in a kickback scandal involving former Yeltsin aide Pavel Borodin. Last week, Swiss authorities issued an arrest warrant for Borodin, the former head of the Presidential Property Administration and former boss of acting President Vladimir Putin.

One allegation that has been made in connection with the Mabetex scandal is that Kosovan Albanian Behgjet Pacolli, the head of Mabetex and a known associate of Borodin’s, underwrote prepaid credit cards for Boris Yeltsin and his family as a bribe to secure the lucrative multimillion-dollar Kremlin reconstruction contracts commissioned by Borodin. This and other aspects of Mabetex were first made public in articles published by the Milan-based newspaper Corriere Della Sera, which claimed to have both Swiss and Russian sources.

The chronology of the affair is still in dispute, but it appears as though investigations into the Mabetex matter by former Russian prosecutor Yuri Skuratov and by former Swiss General Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte were initiated around the same time as the release of the Corriere Della Sera pieces. To judge from the sudden flurry of activity around Mabetex, and the wealth of details that spilled out into public all at once, it looks as though the whole process was set in motion when someone intricately involved in the affair suddenly jumped ship and decided to talk.

Turover denies that he was the source of the Corriere Della Sera reports, but in retrospect, it looks as though that "someone" had to have been Turover. One source told the eXile that he knew Turover to be a longstanding acquaintance with Vittorio Malaguti, the Corriere Della Sera reporter who broke the story. Turover also has roots in Bologna, not far from Milan where the paper is published. Furthermore, both the Russian and Swiss prosecutors have since identified Turover as their chief witness in the Mabetex affair, and Skuratov has even since confirmed the existence of the so-called "Turover list"--a compilation of some 49 sets of documents, encompassing over 4,000 pages of material, linking everyone from Borodin and Yeltsin to Viktor Chernomyrdin and Viktor Geraschenko in a range of simply unbelievable banking transactions.

It turns out that Turover, who was first interviewed by Del Ponte and Skuratov in September, 1998, had been unwittingly preparing himself since the very start of his banking career to someday become the greatest informant of all time. He meticulously copied every document that passed through his hands throughout his tenure and locked them in a private safe. By 1998, his safe was so hot (more on what was in it later) it could have melted through the earth’s crust. eXile readers may recall Yuri Skuratov at the end of 1998 announcing that he had come upon a treasure trove of compromising material, enough to sink the entire Russian government a dozen times over. In retrospect, it looks as though Skuratov--who has since called Turover a "master archivist" and a "well-informed person"--was talking about Turover’s list.

No one in Turover’s position could possibly have collected such documents in the hope of using them. After all, no low-level banker like Turover could ever hope to blackmail the sort of people he was dealing with and hope to get away with his life. No, Turover was keeping those documents as a last resort, as a way of protecting his own skin--so that he could make it plain that if anything ever happened to him, his archives would be delivered to the public.

But his archives did go public. So what happened?

A key to that mystery (even Yuri Skuratov has expressed some confusion as to why Turover came forward) may lie in a recent lawsuit filed in Lugano by Turover against his former co-worker from the Banco Del Gottardo, Franco Fenini. Turover is charging Fenini with extortion, claiming that Fenini used knowledge of Turover’s complicity in sidestepping Swiss taxation laws to blackmail him to the tune of 3 million Swiss francs.

In 1995, some three years after Turover says Fenini started blackmailing him, Turover claims (as reported in Tages Anzeiger) that he complained to the management at Banco Del Gottardo about Fenini. Shortly afterward, Fenini was fired by Banco Del Gottardo, only to be hired immediately by...guess who... Mabetex.

Turover has variously claimed that the Fenini blackmailing incident had nothing to do with Mabetex, but that doesn’t seem likely. Instead, it looks as though Fenini conspired to keep his own paper trail clean in his dealings with Mabetex, making the subordinate Turover put his signature on key documents, and then blackmailed Turover--the lowest link in the corruption food chain--to add to the profits he was already making working with the Russians.

When Turover wouldn’t budge and Fenini was fired as a result, Fenini’s new employers--closely linked to the Russians--probably used more persuasive methods to lean on Turover. And it was around this time, chronologically, that the Mabetex stories started to surface.

A year and a half or so later, it looks as though the toppling of the Russian State Prosecutor, the criminal case against Pavel Borodin, even the peculiar resignation of a Boris Yeltsin insistent in his departure upon amnesty from prosecution, might all have their roots here-- in the spinning out of control of a tawdry little blackmail dispute between two low-level Swiss bankers.

I reached Turover by phone purely by accident. I’m sure he would never have returned my call had his attorney and I not had a lingual misunderstanding.

I’d called Servione to ask what the status of Turover’s lawsuit was, and whether or not his client was still being questioned by Swiss authorities. Near the end of our mostly uneventful conversation I asked if Turover feared for his life. "Does he think he’s in danger right now?" I asked.

"No, of course not," Servione answer. "Felipe is traveling. He is perfectly comfortable." Then he hung up.

Ten minutes later my phone rang. "Hello?" I answered.

"This is Felipe Turover," the voice said. "Why are you threatening me?"

"What? I’m not threatening you," I said.

"Who says my life is in danger?" he demanded. It wasn’t an angry voice, just a nervous one. You could almost hear his eyes darting back and forth over the line.

"Well," I said, clicking open a copy of a Novaya Gazeta interview with Turover I’d saved. "you did. In this interview with Novaya Gazeta, you said that you’d be assassinated at the airport if you ever came to Russia. You also said that they could find you even there, in Switzerland..."

"Ridiculous," Turover snorted. "I never said that. I never spoke to Novaya Gazaeta. I don’t even know that newspaper. Versiya I’ve talked to, but not Novaya Gazeta. And my life isn’t in danger. That’s absurd."

Never heard of Novaya Gazeta? I wasn’t ready for that. But less than a minute later Turover was admitting that he had spoken to Oleg Luriye, the Novaya Gazeta reporter, and joking about the prospect of coming to visit Russia.

"You have any plans to come back to Moscow in the near future?" I asked.

"Uh-huh," he laughed. "What do you think?"

"Why not?" I said. "You can stay at my place."

"Sure," he said. "Will you guarantee my security?"

"Absolutely," I said.

"I thought so," he laughed.

No interviewee could possibly be more difficult than Turover. In his hysterical split-second denials and in his steady stream of verbal inconsistencies one could detect an almost supernatural level of stress. He denied everything-- from the existence, already confirmed by Yuri Skuratov, of his secret archive ("Secret archive? It’s the first I’ve heard of it. What secret archive?"), to having been the source in the Corriere Della Sera story ("I knew nothing about that"), and, in contrast with his statements in Novaya Gazeta, to having material knowledge about corrupt dealings surrounding various Russian officials ranging from Viktor Chernomyrdin to Vladimir Putin. "I never said anything about Putin," he said. To me he claimed he’d been misquoted by Novaya Gazeta; to Tages Anzeiger, he claimed he’d been misquoted by the New York Times. His story about what he claims to know about Mabetex changes from report to report; the latest published version, from Tages Anzeiger, asserts that he never saw any documentation about the credit cards for the Yeltsin family, a reversal of his earlier published positions.

Nevertheless, this man for whom every second on this earth is a gift still had time to make jokes. When I asked him how he first got started working with Banca Del Gottardo, he quipped: "Look it up in the newspapers, the published reports. More has been written about this than about the death of Lady Diana."

Turover seemed convinced by my accent of my Americanness, but refused to believe I was who I said I was. "I have never heard of your newspaper. Who funds you? Berezovsky?"

"No," I said. "We’re a small, self-sufficient, independent newspaper."

"Oh, so he’s funding small independent newspapers now? Amazing," he said.

The fact that Turover was concerned that I worked for Berezovsky was telling. Later on in the interview, he claimed to me that the only Russian press outlets he had spoken to were Versiya, Sovershenno Sekretno, and NTV--all members of the Vladimir Gusinsky media family.

This is significant because just last week, on January 28, both Berezovsky and Borodin, in separate statements, claimed that the Mabetex corruption scandal and the issuing of a warrant for Borodin’s arrest were provocations instigated by Gusinsky. Berezovsky said the investigations were a "politically motivated" smear campaign and noted that Gusinsky and Carla Del Ponte had planned to give a joint presentation at the Davos conference in Switzerland.

News coverage on NTV has lately emphasized the links between Borodin and acting president Putin. The station has noted that Putin left St. Petersburg to move to Moscow apparently at Borodin’s instigation, that he worked as Borodin’s deputy during the Mabetex period, and that Putin has yet to make a statement about Borodin’s arrest. Logically, there is every reason to suspect that Gusinsky and other Kremlin enemies are pushing the Swiss investigation as a means of undermining the Putin government.

Other facts bear out the assertion that the Putin regime has reason to consider the Mabetex business, and whatever else might be in Turover’s files, as a legitimate threat to their authority. One is that in issuing the arrest warrant for Borodin, Swiss officials indicated that two more arrest warrants for Russian officials would be issued in the upcoming days. They have not been forthcoming, but Putin’s actions suggest that the acting president is working hard to isolate himself from further investigations by the Swiss authorities.

For one thing, Putin, who as a former FSB chief would surely have found a way to hear ahead of time about the upcoming warrant for Borodin, had shown uncanny timing in quietly dismissing Borodin from his Kremlin property post weeks before. The same can be said for the manner in which he dismissed Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko (who is among the members of the Yeltsin clan to have allegedly received credit cards), from her official post as presidential media advisor.

But the most important reason Putin has to fear Turover is because Turover almost certainly has something on Putin himself. As to what that might be, one need only look at Turover’s own remarks in the Novaya Gazeta piece published on December 27, just four days before Putin took over as President and signed an amnesty for Boris Yeltsin. Turover denies having made these remarks, but then again he denies a lot of things--including having ever spoken to Oleg Luriye, the reporter who wrote this story. In any case, here is what Turover reportedly said about Putin:

"Volodya Putin is a separate long story. I have run up against him, but that is not the point. The point is that for the eight months of his work at the President’s Administration of Affairs in 1996-1997 Putin was responsible for Soviet property abroad. Let me explain. In addition to debts, Russia also inherited from the former USSR property abroad worth many billions, including property that belonged to the CPSU. Various organizations laid claim to it in 1995-1996 -- the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of the Maritime Fleet, and many others. But in late 1996 Yeltsin issued an edict ordering that all USSR and CPSU property abroad be transferred not to the Ministry for the Management of State Property but for some reason to the President’s Administration of Affairs. And Mr.Putin immediately got his paws on it. On orders from above, of course. When he embarked on the so-called classification of former USSR and CPSU property abroad in 1997, all sorts of front companies, joint-stock companies, and limited companies were immediately set up. Much of the most expensive property and other assets abroad was registered in the name of these structures. Thus property abroad was very thoroughly plucked before the state got its hands on it. And it was the current premier who did the plucking. He gained his first experience of theft during his time in Germany. Back then Putin, together with Shokhin and Poltoranin, contrived to ‘steal’ the huge building of the Russian cultural center in Germany. They leased it out for a purely symbolic sum for 50 years to a German firm with a tiny incorporation capital. Of course, this firm immediately sublet the building, but for very substantial sums at normal German prices. Where did the difference end up? I think there is no need to explain."

If any of this is true, then the identity of the next two Russians due to be charged in Switzerland is a matter of pressing importance to Russian national politics. If Putin was running rackets on this scale on "orders from above", there is reason to suspect that his rapid rise might have been a reward for his trustworthiness in running the Yeltsin family scams. No one who wasn’t implicated in the matters most dangerous to Yeltsin--who is said to be concerned about his place in history and would not like to exit this earth a world pariah--would have been promoted so high. Putin would have been involved with Mabetex. And if he was, one can be sure that Gusinsky and others are pressing to have him formally implicated by the Swiss before the elections.

If and when that happens, the star witness--the "crown witness", as the Swiss call him--will soon find himself planning a very perilous trip to the court house. In the meantime, Felipe Turover is "traveling".

"But I’m in no danger," he insisted. "I never talked about Putin, or something like that..."

"Do you want me to send you the Novaya Gazeta report by e-mail?" I asked. "You can see how Luriye quoted you--if you’re curious."

"Yeah, sure, great, I’d love to see it, this so-called interview," he said. "But better by fax. I’ll give you a fax number later."

Later? "Well," I said. "What’s your fax number? I’ll send it to you now."

"Now?" he said. "I will, uh... I will give it to you, because I must get back to the hotel, and there I will get you the fax number, but now I am traveling."

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