— -- A spokesman for Vladimir Putin today claimed the Russian president was the victim of a foreign conspiracy after a massive leak of legal documents showed some of his closest associates were allegedly involved in an extensive use of off-shore tax havens.
On Sunday, a consortium of media outlets, including the Guardian and BBC, published a year-long investigation based on 11.5 million documents leaked from an opaque Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The unprecedented leak, referred to as the "Panama Papers" and shared by the International Consortium of Journalists (ICIJ), appears to lay bare the sometimes dubious financial dealings of many elite figures around the globe. According to the Guardian, the documents indicate that more than 140 politicians, as well as family members and other relations, use off-shore tax havens. The use of tax havens can be perfectly legal and have many legitimate purposes. But some transactions raise serious questions.
According to the ICIJ, the documents place one of Putin’s oldest and closest friends at the center of an alleged off-shore scheme that allowed figures from the Kremlin’s inner circle to enrich themselves, often using apparently fake financial transactions and many involving state funds. The ICIJ says the documents reveal a web of companies registered in the British Virgin Islands and Panama that Putin's friends used to secretly handle around $2 billion in a deliberately complicated system that facilitated financial malpractice.
Although Putin himself is never mentioned by name in the leaked documents, the media outlets say it is impossible the president did not know about the scheme.The Kremlin furiously denounced the report as an unfounded attack based on “Putin-phobia," targeted specifically at the Russian president with intentions to destabilize the country.
“It's the usual speculations and insinuations. Although Vladimir Putin does not factually figure anywhere in this, for us the fact is obvious that the basic target of these information dumps has been and is our president,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitrii Peskov said in a news briefing.
Peskov said the reports involving Putin’s associates had nothing to do with the president himself and suggested the ICIJ was staffed by foreign intelligence agents, including former CIA agents.
The man at the center of the allegations is Sergei Roldugin, said to be one of Putin’s oldest friends. Roldugin is a successful cellist who became close to Putin in the late 1970s when the future president was still a low-level KGB officer in St. Petersburg. Roldugin is godfather to Putin’s eldest daughter and by his own account introduced the Russian leader to his now ex-wife, Lyudmila Putina. He has been described by a number of Russian biographers as one of Putin's best friends.
According to the ICIJ, the leaked documents revealed off-shore companies in Panama and the British Virgin Islands registered under Roldugin’s name. The ICIJ interviewed experts who said the documents show some of these companies were involved in suspicious transactions with companies owned by other Putin friends and appear to resemble classic money laundering and fraud techniques.
In some, Russian state banks allegedly offered massive unsecured loans to the companies at absurdly low interest rates; in others alleged fake share deals were made using stakes in state companies.
Many of the alleged schemes involving Roldugin’s companies are connected to Bank Rossiya, a Russian bank that has been described by the U.S. Treasury as the personal bank of Putin’s inner circle, including Putin himself.
According to the ICIJ, some of the money involved in the alleged Roldugin transactions was used to build a ski resort where Putin is believed to have a private lodge. According to Reuters, Putin’s daughter was married in a secret wedding at the resort.
Roldugin told Russian reporters involved in the investigation that he could not talk about the alleged scheme.
“I understand the topic is serious. Do you do business or not? Where’s the money from? Whose are they? I know all this. This is all delicate,” the cellist told reporters from Novaya Gazeta in his dressing room.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov refused to address any of the reports specifically, saying "there was nothing new” in them.