Russian leaders’ ‘secret palaces’ provoke outrage

 

Moscow

Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev share between them at least two dozen palaces, villas and mansions, according to a respected Russian magazine, in a report that is likely to reignite a debate about privileges enjoyed by the ruling duo.

The Russian liberal media and blogosphere have been alive with discussion about possible secret residences belonging to the two since a businessman in December accused Mr Putin, the Prime Minister, of building a £600m palace on the shores of the Black Sea for his own personal use.

The magazine Kommersant Dengi reported yesterday that given the Russian regime's opacity, it was impossible to tell how many residences the President and Prime Minister had access to, but noted that some estimates gave Mr Putin 26 separate places to live in. The magazine itself counted 24 residences that could be used by the pair, including six that are only rumoured to be for presidential use. The list contains castles, dachas, palaces, a ski resort and even a chateau outside Paris.

Most controversial is the Black Sea palace, currently being built near the village of Praskoveyevka. Sergei Kolesnikov, a Russian businessman and supposed whistleblower, told a US newspaper in December that funds for the palace had been raised through "a combination of corruption, bribery and theft," and coordinated by a close associate of Mr Putin's. The newspaper said it had seen documents to support the claim. Mr Putin's official spokesman has denied the building has anything to do with the Prime Minister.

Photographs of the palace were published last month by ruleaks.net, a website that positions itself as a Russian version of WikiLeaks. They showed a colonnaded palace with interiors full of frescos and antique furniture. The website said it could not confirm the ownership of the palace, but had decided to publish the photos anyway.

Those who know Russian politics have doubted Mr Kolesnikov's story, noting that such a courageous information leak seemed unlikely for someone who had previously been involved closely with the scheme. It is possible the "leak" was part of a behind-the-scenes battle between officials loyal to Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev over which one of them will run for President in 2012. Notably, a few weeks after the palace story broke, a new "leak" about a luxury yacht obtained for Mr Medvedev found its way into the press.

In a bid to encourage transparency, all top-ranking officials have for the past two years had to submit declarations detailing their income and property. But many declarations seem laughable, with officials who lead openly lavish lifestyles declaring extremely modest incomes. Many regional governors and other top officials are believed to use elaborate schemes to mask the extent of their wealth and property.

In his official income declaration last year, Mr Putin said he earned 3.88 million roubles in 2009 (about £80,000), while his wife's income was just £12.

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