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Analysis & Opinion
03.03.11 Kremlin Cribs
By Andrew Roth

“Putin’s palace,” as it has affectionately become known in the Russian press, has been sold for $350 million dollars to a pair of Russian businessmen, the Kommersant daily reported today. The latest news in the case of the lavish country house indicates a move by the previous owners that will shield themselves, as well as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, from the press and controversy surrounding the complex.

Led by Ruleaks, Russia’s version of WikiLeaks, which made a name for itself by posting the first photos of the dacha, activists and bloggers have continued to uncover what they say are other secret building projects for Russian regional and religious leaders. Yet beyond making accusations and continuing to fuel public interest in the scandal, it remains unclear how the movement can take the next step and uncover more about the ownership of the projects or where the funds for the projects are coming from.

After photos of Putin’s dacha first appeared in January, other “palaces” have been photographed and uploaded to the Internet on a number of sites, including LiveJournal and Ruleaks. Several photographs of Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s gauche mansion were uploaded to a LiveJournal blog in late February, and more recently an alleged second “Putin’s palace” has also been found in Lunnaya Polyana in the Republic of Adygeya.

The scandal is a product of Russians’ interest in the closed lives of their leaders and a sense that corrupt practices are widespread in the government, said Pavel Rassudov, a member of the Pirate Party, which founded the Ruleaks project. This is not the first time that a scandal like this has gripped Russia’s blogosphere. Several years ago, speculation increased about government officials sporting watches whose worth was purported to be as high as $1 million. “They just did not make the money to possibly be wearing these watches. If they’re accepting gifts, that’s already an indicator of corruption, and if not, then where was this money coming from? This was about what you could see on their arms, and now what you see is the next stage: where do they live, and where is the money for these houses coming from?” asked Rassudov.

The issue has also been seized upon as a common cause by organizations that don’t solely focus on corruption. A group called the North Caucasus Environment Watch has posted pictures and staged demonstrations against the dachas because it claims that leaders have misused public land that should be protected from construction.

In mid-February, the group posted photos of a dacha complex located in the Krasnodar Region, which they claim is being prepared for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. Today, several members of the group were given short prison sentences in connection with a picnic protest they staged at a dacha, which they claim has been constructed for Alexander Tkachev, the head of the Krasnodar Region. The protestors uncovered instances of corruption and environmental violations, said Andrei Rudomakha, the group’s coordinator. “During the construction many of the trees were cut down, some of which are in danger of extinction.”

Yet while officials have denied ownership of the properties, it has been difficult for any further progress to be made by local activists. Public denials about the first palace have been issued by the Kremlin, as well as by the head of the region where the complex is located, Tkachev. Sergei Kolesnikov, the businessman who opened the issue by writing an open letter about the palace to Dmitry Medvedev, expressed his disbelief about a proposition that the palace would be converted for use as a sanatorium. “A sanatorium with three helicopter pads, with an absolutely separate internal energy infrastructure and everything else simply doesn’t exist,” he told Kommersant. “I think that all of this was done with one goal – to get Nikolai Shamalov out of this situation, so that no one has the opportunity to ask him the single question – where did the money come from?”
The source
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