RUSSIA

Why The Panama Papers Won’t Bring Putin Down

Or even hurt him a little

RUSSIA
Disappointment that the allegations concern a “mere” $2 billion — Mikhail Svetlov
Apr 04, 2016 at 6:38 PM ET

Less than 24 hours after a massive leak of documents from one of the world’s biggest offshore law firms had implicated close associates of Vladimir Putin in a suspected billion-dollar money laundering ring, a handful of opposition activists gathered in central Moscow to call for the impeachment of Russia’s long-time leader.

Standing well apart from each other so as not to violate harsh laws on public protest, they held signs that read “Putin. Offshore. Impeachment.” Online, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s biggest anti-corruption campaigner, called for the jailing of Russia’s political elite over the explosive contents of the millions of financial and legal records leaked from the Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca.

Unfortunately, for Kremlin critics, the likelihood of imminent impeachment or jail time for Putin is about as likely as a Moscow winter without snow. Or, perhaps, a Russia without the engrained, high-level corruption that, by the Kremlin’s own admission, amounts to at least $33 billion – a sum equivalent to 3% of the national GDP – in stolen state funds, every single year.

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Although Putin’s name is not mentioned in the documents, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which carried out a detailed examination of what have been dubbed the Panama Papers, suggests that $2 billion was “secretly shuffled” through a bank controlled by the Russian government and shadow companies headed by members of the president’s inner circle. “In almost every instance, the result is the same: money and power moves in the direction of the network, to companies and people allied to Putin,” the ICIJ said.

One of the men who is named in the documents as a beneficiary of alleged ill-gotten gains is Sergei Roldugin, a classical cellist and conductor, who is reportedly Putin’s best friend, as well as godfather to his daughter, Maria. “It’s possible Roldugin…is not the true beneficiary of these riches. Instead, the evidence in the files suggests Roldugin is acting as a front man for a network of Putin loyalists – and perhaps for Putin himself,” the ICIJ writes. 

Putin wasn’t the only world leader who came under suspicion as a result of the ICIJ’s investigation. Its findings have raised serious questions about the financial dealings of a host of powerful figures, including Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and Argentina’s head-of-state, Mauricio Macri. Celebrities such as Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi are also mentioned in the papers, as is the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is posthumously accused of using a Bahamas-based fund to avoid paying UK tax.

But while the ICIJ’s sensational findings have sparked large protests in Iceland, and impeachment calls in parliament in Ukraine, the blowback for the Russian authorities – Monday’s tiny protest in Moscow and some online anger aside – has been minimal. And there is little indication that anything will change.

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“This will have no influence whatsoever on Russians’ attitudes to Putin,” predicted civic activist Alena Popova in a Facebook post. “There will be no mass protests across the country…and Putin’s approval ratings will not decline.” 

So what’s going on here? Why are Russians so indifferent to what looks suspiciously like the mass looting of the country’s national wealth to benefit a small group of Kremlin insiders? On the face of it, they should be outraged. After all, Russia’s tanking economy means that almost 20 million people, or some 13% of the population, are now living under a poverty line defined as an income of less than $140 a month. 

First off, it’s important to remember that millions of Russians simply haven’t heard about the allegations. Although internet use in Russia is widespread, most people continue to get their news from state-controlled television channels. As of Monday evening in Russia, Channel One, the most popular TV station, had not made a single mention of what opposition-minded Russians have been calling Panamagate. Other state TV channels either stayed similarly quiet, or led with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s claims that the investigation was an attempt by CIA-connected journalists to foment discontent in Russia ahead of this September’s parliamentary elections. Crucially, that parliament is controlled by Putin’s United Russia party, while the remaining lawmakers, with only a handful of notable exceptions, are opposition merely in name. There will be no calls for impeachment from Russia’s parliament.

But the reasons for Russians’ apathy are more complex than mere Kremlin control over national television or even parliament. As Popova, the political activist, pointed out, high-level corruption is so deeply-rooted in Russia that it’s almost taken for granted. “Society has become accustomed almost on a genetic level that politicians can steal from our pockets,” she wrote.

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Although opposition figures welcomed the ICIJ’s revelations, some expressed disappointment that the allegations against Putin concern a “mere” $2 billion. It is an attitude slammed by Kirill Rogov, an independent political analyst. “This is a syndrome of highly-corrupt countries,” he wrote. “People here are simultaneously convinced that 1) everyone steals and they steal a lot, and that 2) it’s impossible to prove anything, and so 3) there’s no need to prove anything…As a result, paradoxically, the boundary between a crime and a non-crime is erased for society.”

But fervent patriotism and anti-Western sentiments, both of which have rocketed in Russia in recent years, are also a factor in Russia’s collective “so what?” in response to the Panama Papers. As one Russian blogger wrote on Monday: “Did you think we don’t know that our authorities steal? We have always known…But it’s better for Putin to steal, and leave our values and independence intact, than for Navalny [the pro-democracy opposition figurehead] to come to power and steal as well, while also selling Russia out to America.”

Although opposition figures admit that the Panama Papers aren’t going to bring Putin down, they insisted that the ICIJ’s revelations would contribute to a general change in public opinion. “There is no silver bullet after which Putin will face serious problems,” said Vladimir Ashurkov, a former banker and opposition figure. “But the public perception of Putin and his circle of government appointees and crony businessmen is gradually changing.”

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It’s an opinion echoed by Konstantin Rubakhin, an anti-corruption campaigner, who wants to see opposition candidates at the upcoming parliamentary elections publicise the ICIJ’s findings to as wide an audience as possible. “Even candidates with little hope of getting elected can be used as a media to inform people how government thievery affects their everyday lives,” he says.

For now, though, Putin’s foes face an uphill struggle in convincing Russians that the Panama Papers are anything worth getting excited about. “The majority of Russians equate Putin with Russia,” wrote Popova, the civic activist. “And so they simply don’t see the difference between Putin’s wallet and Russia’s national budget.”