Kremlin and the Panama Papers: Lots of Icing, but No Cake

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Bryan MacDonald

Journalist

Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov really stirred things up last week when he alleged that certain foreign interests were trying to smear Vladimir Putin. Media anticipation went into overdrive and speculation mounted that some kind of massive revelation was imminent.

The fact that Putin has been accused of all kinds of elaborate wrong-doing in the past only served to whet appetites even more. Such as, earlier this year, when Britain’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, reported that he was the richest man in the world. Back in 2012, London’s state-controlled BBC had him building a palace on the Black Sea. Indeed, three years later, the Daily Express newspaper valued the property at $1 billion.

Not to be outdone, The Daily Telegraph’s Roland Oliphant had him sailing around in a $35 million yacht in January. Meanwhile, a few week’s earlier, the Daily Mail wrote that Putin owned a $23 million villa near Marbella, Spain, where he cultivated “one of the world’s most expensive wines.” Long-term Marbella resident, Dolph Lundgren, could have told Putin a few things about Russian stereotypes. He played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

While the British media is uniquely talented when it comes to reporting complete poppycock, the Americans do try to keep up. Only last week, the likes of Vanity Fair, US Weekly and The Daily Beast had the Russian President dating Wendi Deng. If, like me (and I suspect Putin himself), the only Deng you immediately recognise is Deng Xiaoping, you’ll be delighted to learn that Wendi is the ex spouse of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch owns The Sun, thus squaring the circle somewhat.

Immortality

To be fair, this light-hearted balderdash made a change from the usual US tabloid coverage of Russian affairs. You can be fairly sure that invented stories of liaisons with minor celebrities probably even amuse the Kremlin. They certainly should go down better than when Newsweek (July, 2015) had Putin invading the Baltic States or The Daily Beast asserted that Russia was “giving ISIS an air force.”  That happened in October last, according to their Russia Editor, who has apparently never actually been to Russia.

Anyway, given previous smears against Putin, the Moscow media pool expected something really massive this time. One colleague suggested that maybe the CIA were about to prove the President immortal? He was crestfallen when I told him that the topic has already been covered. The Daily Telegraph attempted to prove it last December Proving that stupidity is not confined to only one side of the Atlantic, the New York Post followed up. They went a step further by trying to establish a link to Count Dracula.

All Hat; No Cattle

So, can you imagine how much of an anticlimax Monday’s Guardian front page was? The headline, “Revealed: the $2 billion trail that leads to Vladimir Putin” excited people all over the world. But for Russia watchers, it was different. Bearing in mind that the BBC claimed only three months ago that Putin was worth $200 billion, $2 billion seemed like pocket change. Then we read the article and realised that Putin wasn’t actually named at all in the Panama Papers.

That didn’t stop western outlets, almost exclusively, focusing on Putin all day Monday. BBC radio, for instance, led with the Russian President, barely mentioning the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose father was directly implicated. Even then, the Cameron mention was buried towards the end of the report.

Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, was caught with his pants down. The Panama Papers cache even supplied a scan of his passport. Indeed, we learned that submitted a utility bill – as proof of address – to Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the scandal, on September 1, 2014. That was the very same day he alleged that Russia was openly attacking Ukraine.

Curiously, despite the fact that Ukraine is currently receiving vast amounts of Western aid, the Poroshenko story was pretty much buried. Take The Guardian, for example, which dumped it on the web around midday Monday. In contrast to Putin’s page one treatment, the Poroshenko angle wasn’t prominently displayed in the newspaper at all.

Of course, corruption is a massive problem all across the former-USSR. In some states, like Ukraine, it extends right down to things like Kindergartens and vehicle registration. In, vastly wealthier, Russia recent graft scandals suggest the problem is now largely restricted to the top level and involves millions, rather than ten’s, of Dollars. While the country’s score continues to improve in Transparency International reports, only the very myopic would suggest that Russia has conquered malfeasance.

Ultimately, these endless attempts to smear Putin are counterproductive to Western interests. Firstly, they’ve become so preposterous that even casual consumers of media can see through the baloney at this point.

More importantly, they have little impact inside Russia. After the 90’s, when they lived in what amounted to a gangster state, Russians still assume that public figures are inclined to steal. That’s not to suggest that Putin has done so. Indeed, there is no reason for Putin to plunder. As President, he has the resources of the Russian state at his fingertips. He doesn’t need actual money to live well. The Russian system is based on power, not cash. Russians know that.

Many, so-called, Russia experts in the West can’t seem to grasp the concept. Until they do, we’re likely to see more and more, increasingly outrageous, attempts to defame Putin. As Russians largely resent outside interference in their internal affairs, the net result of these smears will probably be increased support for the President.

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