Who is fretting about Panama Papers? Probably not Putin. (+video)
How it plays at home
At least, not for now. Many Russians may see either business as usual or 'Putinphobia.'
Moscow — The Kremlin saw it coming, and warned last week that something calling itself the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was preparing to launch sensational corruption allegations against Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.
"We are not talking about objective journalism, but rather an orchestrated attack – cooking and introducing information. We don’t like this," Mr. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media.
The Kremlin can probably relax.
The massive dump of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca does indeed contain fresh and damning information about the offshore financial shenanigans of Mr. Putin's close friends. But, experts say, the fact that Putin is not directly named in any of the materials will enable the Kremlin to maintain his public image of being above the fray and blame a hostile Western media for indulging in what Mr. Peskov on Monday dubbed wild "Putinphobia."
Meanwhile, the scope of the leaks – which include suspicious transactions by at least 12 present and former world leaders, including Moscow's arch-enemy, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – provides plenty of grist for Russia's state TV propaganda mill to deflect the allegations.
"Russians are well accustomed to living in a system where property and power are unified. They have no doubts that most of our officials live far beyond their declared means," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Nothing about this is likely to make most people lose faith in Putin personally, and his approval ratings seem unlikely to fall. Our TV stations, which most people get their daily information from, will make sure that everyone sees that the West is rotten, the whole system is dirty, and it's not just us."
Outing Russia's offshore money
At least those Russians who use social media and can access Moscow's remaining independent media, such as radio station Ekho Moskvi, will be exposed to the whole story.
Two Russian newspapers, the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta and the business daily Vedomosti, are part of the consortium that is investigating the documents, and they promise to flesh out the allegations concerning Putin's inner circle with their own reporting. Today's Vedomosti features a long report on Putin's friend and St. Petersburg musician Sergei Roldugin, who is alleged to be a "front" for laundered cash, perhaps for the Kremlin leader himself.
"We've been working on these materials for the past half year, we have a team on it, and we're digging up a lot of information on Russian citizens, including some big businessmen, who have offshore accounts," says Yelena Vinogradova, a spokesperson for Vedomosti. She says it should be political dynamite in Russia, since Putin himself ordered all offshore accounts to be closed two years ago.
"Today's report, about an old friend of our president [Roldugin] who is involved in quite a few financial flows, is just the beginning. We're following up leads on quite a few officials and other people, who shouldn't have large sums of money to invest, and there will be many more revelations coming," she adds.
But analysts say the liberal-minded, critical part of the population that is inclined to believe these allegations, will only feel their own longstanding convictions confirmed. There has been no shortage of reports about the high-rolling style of Russia's Kremlin-connected elite in recent years.
A pamphlet written four years ago by the late liberal leader Boris Nemtsov detailed the huge state-property empire, including yachts and palaces enjoyed by Putin and his entourage, but stopped short of accusing the Kremlin leader of having a secret, private fortune. Others, including Moscow political pundit Stanislav Belkovsky, have suggested Putin may hold offshore bank accounts worth up to $40 billion.
Opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, despite being under house arrest, keeps up a steady drumbeat of revelations about the oversized mansions and off-color financial dealings of the Russian elite through his popular web portal.
One viral social media scandal featured Kremlin spokesman Peskov, who sported a $620,000 watch – worth more than four times his declared income – at his lavish wedding in a Sochi resort last summer.
More recently, credible reports surfaced about wealthy friends of Putin's providing benefits, such as apartments, for alleged girlfriends of the Kremlin leader.
Easy for Russians to shrug off
"The thing is, this is not news to Russians. Nobody doubts that the system of power here is completely corrupted," says Georgi Satarov, a former Kremlin aide and head of the InDem Foundation, a Moscow think tank that specializes in researching political corruption.
"Average Russians would actually think it strange if a high official wasn't stealing money. This is what's expected. So, does anybody really think Russia will be overturned because of $2 billion of Putin's?" he says.
Sergei Markov, a former Putin adviser, admits that rich friends of Putin's might step up to provide favors, such as buying apartments for women connected with the boss. But he claims that doesn't mean Putin had direct knowledge of it.
"I am absolutely sure that there are people who want to be helpful to Putin. But that doesn't mean it's his money, or that he is doing this himself," Mr. Markov says.
For now, experts say, few Russians will want to delve into the allegations, and even opposition media such as Vedomosti will steer clear of directly implicating Putin in their reporting.
"If you're waiting for some big impact in Russia, don't hold your breath," says Anton Pominov, Russia director of the global corruption watchdog Transparency International. "Most Russians will be inclined to accept that accusations against Putin are hostile propaganda. And, as for the rest of it, it's a sad fact that these files show that Russia is far from unique in the world; this system has been used by politicians from all over.
"The main hope is that these revelations may lead to greater international efforts to curtail these offshore zones, force greater transparency upon them, and that may have a positive effect on the behavior of Russia's elites down the road."