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Analysis & Opinion
08.02.11 Palatial Denial
By Tom Balmforth

A top Kremlin official has dismissed speculation in the Russian mass media that the ruling tandem has over two dozen lavish palaces and dachas, and that they have new ones under construction. Sergei Kolesnikov, a disenfranchised former business partner of people close to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, fired up media speculation on the tandem’s extravagant retreats with a December open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev, alleging that his mentor is building a $1 billion palace at Praskoveyevka on the shores of the Black Sea.

Kolesnikov’s apparent gambit to embroil Putin in corruption invited speculation that he was sponsored by advocates of a second presidential term for Medvedev. Subsequently, the respected weekly Kommersant Dengi alleged that both Putin and Medvedev have 26 residences between them, in a story published less than a month after the Russian president carried out his flagship anti-corruption measure to verify the incomes and property of officials.

“The Russian president’s main residence is currently the Kremlin,” Vladimir Kozhin, the presidential property manager, told Interfax. “Apart from that, the head of state’s residences are Gorki-9 in the Moscow Region, Bocharov Ruchei in Sochi, and Valdai in the Novgorod District. That is it. No new residences are being built for the president.” Officially Putin has residences at the Riviera in Sochi and at the Moscow Region’s Novo-Ogarevo, the presidential residence which Putin did not vacate when he officially left the top post in 2008.

Ruleaks, a whistleblower site created by the little known anti-copyright group Russia’s Pirate Party, published photographs of the colossal chateau at Praskoveyevka on the Black Sea, while affirming that “we are not prepared to confirm whose palace this is, we are just publishing photos of the object itself.” Ruleaks still sustained a three-day hacker attack after publishing the photos, said Pavel Rassudov, the chairman of the Pirate Party of Russia. “Denial-of-service attacks were carried out on our site, and it wasn’t accessible for a while,” he said.

Ruleaks is comprised of Wikileaks’ U.S. cables in translation, while the photos of the premier’s purported pad are the only original content on the site, although Rassudov said this soon could change. “I think that the editors of the site have already received or will soon receive additional information that will definitely be published.”

Kolesnikov in December approached the Washington Post, which broke the story on Putin’s palatial tsar’s retreat. In an open letter to Medvedev, Kolesnikov alleged that Nikolai Shamalov, thought to be a close friend of Putin, funneled money from oligarchs into foreign accounts at the behest of Putin. These funds were then supposedly used to start building the palace in 2005. The Washington Post said it reviewed Kolesnikov’s evidence and that it corroborates the claims.

Kommersant Dengi wrote that it has asked the General Prosecutor’s office to look into the charges, but that it has so far declined. “The general prosecutor does not see any grounds for checking the facts,” the weekly wrote, noting that Russia’s nominal opposition, the LDPR and the Communist Party, also declined to comment on the allegations.
The findings may come as little surprise for those who buy into past claims that Putin is the richest man in Europe, but there are still numerous theories behind the appearance of Kolesnikov's corruption allegations, unprecedented in their detailed attack on Russia's powerful prime minister.

Was Kolesnikov’s letter “political?” “Without a doubt,” said Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. And not because Kolesnikov is sponsored by advocates of Medvedev in the oft-touted but still unsubstantiated rift in Russia’s ruling duo, he said. “I believe that Kolesnikov was forced to publish this information. I find it hard to believe that Kolesnikov did this out of remorse or for other moral or ethical reasons,” said Mukhin.

“I think that Sergei Kolesnikov is part of an information campaign which is noticeable in the Western press and is directed against Vladimir Putin and his personal circle. It works in the interest of Dmitry Medvedev but that does not mean that he is part of it,” he claimed, emphasizing that Kolesnikov is vulnerable to foreign secret services for access to his Russian-made money, as he lives abroad. Still, the American daily had a very different take on the situation. “Kolesnikov is one of those brave souls a journalist meets occasionally who decides to expose what he sees as wrongdoing, regardless of the personal risks,” it wrote.
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