By Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly addressed one of the most serious corruption allegations against him for the first time on Wednesday, saying he did not help businessman Gennady Timchenko create the Gunvor oil trading empire.
Timchenko, who has repeatedly denied media speculation that his close friendship with Putin was behind his business success, is ranked Russia's 17th richest man by Russia's Finans magazine.
Putin, who plans to return to the Kremlin as president next year after a four-year stint as prime minister, acknowledged that he knows Timchenko, praising him as a hard-working businessmen who started his company from scratch.
"I have known the citizen Timchenko for a very long time, since my work in St Petersburg," Putin told a group of Russian writers during an informal conversation.
Putin worked in the office of the St Petersburg mayor in the early 1990s while Timchenko and his friends, Putin said, span off an oil trading unit of the Kirishi oil refinery and privatized it.
"It was not yesterday or the day before yesterday that he entered commerce, he came as soon as privatization was allowed. I assure you, I know that a lot is being written about it, without any participation on my part," Putin said.
Swiss-based Gunvor has since grown into one of the world's largest oil trading firms exporting during some years up to a third of Russian oil.
Timchenko, along with Putin's former judo partner Arkady Rotenberg and scientist-turned-banker Yuri Kovalchuk, make up a group of businessmen whom Russian opposition branded "Putin's Friends" for their alleged links with the prime minister.
The trio are mentioned in a report by one of the opposition leaders, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, entitled: "Putin. Corruption."
Timchenko, Rotenberg and Kovalchuk rose rapidly in recent years through the ranks of Russia's richest people rivaling so-called oligarchs, who made their fortune through notorious loans-for-shares privatization auctions in the 1990s.
Timchenko expanded in the gas sector and is now the second biggest shareholder in non-state owned gas producer Novatek.
Putin never before addressed the issue of his links with the trio in public. His remarks on Wednesday were an apparent attempt to deal with the allegations at the start of the election campaign.
"I never interfered with anything related to his business interests, I hope he will not stick his nose into my business either," Putin told the writers in the latest in a series of meetings with Russia's artists.
The question, which was posed by writer Zakhar Prilepin, a former left-wing activist, has shown that many in the Russian audience were more concerned with Timchenko's Finnish citizenship than his business practices.
"One of the people who made a colossal fortune selling Russian oil, Gennady Timchenko ... took Finnish citizenship and as a Russian writer I am very surprised at this situation," Prilepin told Putin.
Putin said that Timchenko needed to work abroad to develop his oil trading business and he saw nothing wrong with Timchenko's choice of residency and citizenship. He said that to his knowledge Timchenko had retained Russian citizenship.
"I think it is normal that in the modern world an individual can choose any place to reside in and still feel connected to his homeland. Although for me such a thing would be impossible," Putin said.
(Reporting by Gleb Bryanski; Editing by Giles Elgood)