Panama Papers: What Is the Scandal and How Is Putin Linked?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow in this March 22 file photo. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool/Files/Reuters

The so-called Panama Papers, leaked over the weekend, detail alleged money laundering schemes, with a $2 billion scandal leading to the heart of the Kremlin. Here is what we know about the leak and how it has been received in Russia.

What is the leak?

The leak was of 11.5 million papers and documents—held by Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm—that were handed to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung from a source that the newspaper has not identified.

Suddeutsche Zeitung then shared the files with 107 newspapers, outlets and agencies whose journalists are members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The network includes award-winning journalists from the biggest media around the world; independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta was the one to publish the report in Russia.

The documents cover a period of 40 years until as recently as December 2015 and contain sensitive information about what appears to be alleged tax havens being used for suspected money laundering, drugs and arms deals, as well as tax avoidance through Panama.

Panama is regarded as “one of the most well-established pure tax havens in the Caribbean,” as there are no taxes imposed on offshore companies that only engage in business outside of the jurisdiction, according to Investopedia.

How is Vladimir Putin linked?

The Russian president is not named in the papers published by Suddeutsche Zeitung, but his childhood friend and godfather of his daughter Sergei Roldugin is. Roldugin, a cellist by trade, should not be a man of excessive means, but according to the Panama Papers he is a shareholder in some of Russia’s biggest companies.

The musician has a 12.5 percent stake in Video International, Russia’s biggest TV advertising agency, he owns 15 percent of a Cyprus-registered company called Raytar, 3.2 percent of the infamous Bank Rossiya and he was offered a minority stake in the Russian military truck manufacturer Kamaz.

Besides Video International, four other offshore companies—Sonnette Overseas, International Media Overseas, Sunbarn and Sandalwood Continental—have been linked with Roldugin in the Panama Papers. All appear to be represented by a group of Swiss lawyers who act for the infamous Bank Rossiya. The bank and its owner Boris Kovalchuk are under U.S. and EU sanctions due to suspicions their operations and illicit dealings have helped Putin and his inner circle.

While Roldugin’s companies appear to have consistently made large profits from fake share transactions and consulting deals, as well as by receiving non-commercial loans, several documents from these companies claim Roldugin is not the “ultimate beneficial owner” of the enterprise. The confidentiality of that person is kept and instead Putin’s childhood friend is the one left formally responsible for these assets.

Some of the deals include a pattern of purchasing under-priced assets, including a 2011 purchase of a $200 million loan for $1, while four years earlier an entity owned by Roldugin had a $6 million loan written off, also for $1. In another example, the cellist’s Sandalwood Continental bought an asset for just $1 before selling it for $133 million, only three months later.

To make matters worse, the banks that agreed to the unsecured loans with entities such as Sandalwood were provided by Cyprus-based Russian Commercial Bank (RCB) and other Russian state banks. There is no explanation why the banks agreed to such dealings.

What has been the response in Russia?

Virtually nothing has been said about the scandal on Russian state airwaves on Monday morning. Neither of Russia’s top state news agencies, RIA Novosti and Itar-Tass, featured the Panama Papers as a top or ongoing story. Russia’s main state news channels have focused on a number of other stories, most notably the clashes in the South Caucasus over the weekend and a report alleging doping among British athletes is “commonplace and never punished.” The same segment on the latter has aired repeatedly on Russian news channels all day. Putin himself was seen discussing the modernization of Russia’s state archive Rosarhiv in a short televised meeting.

Where mentioned, the story was credited to Novaya Gazeta and when Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov addressed the specific reports in the afternoon he dismissed them as “Putin-phobia.”

“This is a continuation of the information attack, which we were anticipating,” Peskov said on Monday, Russia’s independent online TV channel Dozhd reports.

Peskov, whose own apparently vast Swiss watch collection has been the subject of speculation, denied he or his family are involved in any offshore dealings. He also said on Monday that anti-Russian rhetoric had become so strong in the West that it was “impossible to speak about Russia in a positive light.”

Last week, after being contacted to comment on the Panama Papers before their publication, Peskov issued a cryptic statement, warning that a Western smear campaign against Putin is coming. He warned that journalists and Western spy agencies were trying to attack Putin ahead of the 2018 presidential election.

The opposition in Russia, however, has flocked to praise it. Alexey Navalny, the famous anti-corruption blogger, has said the leaks are “not even the tip of the iceberg” that represents the Kremlin’s offshore dealings. In his blog, he wrote that all the files were only extracted from just one Panama law firm and the cover-up was likely much wider.

Three of the top Twitter 10 trends in Russia were in reference to the scandal, including one hashtag that was simply #offshore.

Open Russia, the London-based organization of Putin’s once great rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, also chimed in. The foundation and its activists have been tweeting about the reports and the official page of Open Russia said: “The most interesting thing is now what the state news agencies will do when they cannot avoid the offshore scandal.”

Dmitry Gudkov, often referred to as Russian parliament’s only MP in opposition to Putin’s United Russia party, mocked the Russian lack of coverage on Twitter. “Thank God,” he wrote. “The offshore investigation, if one is to believe state media, does not concern us.”

Meanwhile, Nadya Tolokonnikova, member of anti-Putin protest group Pussy Riot, retweeted a post that simply reads “they have uncovered 1 percent of Putin’s total wealth.”