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Putin Says Panama Papers Part Of Western Plot To Destabilize Russia

  • Mike Eckel

Russian President Vladimir Putin mocked the massive leak of financial and legal documents known as the Panama Papers that reportedly implicate several people close to him, saying the project was part of a Western government campaign to destabilize Russia.

In his first remarks since news organizations on April 3 began publishing articles based on the leak, Putin denied having any links to offshore accounts detailed in the trove of materials revealing vast networks of shell companies, some apparently being used to hide sizable wealth.

"Our opponents are above all concerned by the unity and consolidation of the Russian nation, our multinational Russian people," he told an April 7 forum for local and regional journalists in St. Petersburg. "They are attempting to rock us from within, to make us more obedient."

Among the names reportedly appearing in the documents is that of cellist Sergei Roldugin, an old friend of Putin's and reportedly a godfather to one of his daughters. Media reports on the Panama Papers have said Roldugin holds hundreds of millions of dollars in offshore assets.

Putin said he was "proud" of Roldugin.

"[Roldugin] has spent nearly all the money he has earned on buying musical instruments abroad and he brought them to Russia," he said.

"We always welcome it when somebody does things like that, but he has gone much further," Putin added. "I know that he has spent several months already on efforts to have the instruments registered as property of government-financed institutions."

Putin himself is not named in the some 11.5 million documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, according to news organizations that have accessed the materials, a point the Russian president stressed.

"Your humble servant is not in them, so there is nothing to talk about," he said. "However, there is a specific purpose in it. What have they done? They have produced an information product. They have dug up some of my acquaintances and friends. I will talk about them too. They've poked here and there and mashed something up."

LIVE BLOG: The Panama Papers

The Kremlin frequently criticizes what it portrays as a systematic campaign by Western governments and media outlets to undermine Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov addressed the Panama Papers days before the reports were published after being contacted by media outlets for comment. He claimed that an effort was under way to taint Putin and disrupt parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

At the St. Petersburg forum, Putin suggested that the U.S. government may have been behind the leak, and he made reference to an April 6 tweet by WikiLeaks, the organization that orchestrated the massive leak of U.S. State Department cables in 2010.

WikiLeaks suggested the U.S. government was involved because one of the Panama Papers' partners -- the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) -- has received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), among other sources of financing.

"WikiLeaks has shown that behind, let's say, [the Panama Papers issue] there are certain U.S. officials and agencies," Putin said.

Putin's comments also reflect a tacit Kremlin endorsement of WikiLeaks and its controversial founder, Julian Assange, who has hosted a talk show on the Kremlin-funded TV channel RT, previously known as Russia Today.

Moscow has also given sanctuary to another well-known leaker of U.S. government documents, Edward Snowden.

In Washington, U.S. officials have denied involvement in the Panama Papers leak.

The Sarajevo-based OCCRP has denied any government involvement as well, saying USAID was only one source of funding and that receiving government money was important for doing projects in regions where few institutional donors exist.

"The idea that OCCRP is not an independent media outlet simply because it has taken some government money, while appealing to the world view of some, is simply not true," it said.

"We accept government money knowing this may affect our credibility with some, but we chose doing some good over not existing at all," it added.

Russian state media outlets have largely ignored reports about Putin's associates identified in the Panama Papers, focusing instead on the offshore dealings of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that were revealed in the leak.

Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader who has investigated corruption among top Russian officials, ridiculed Putin's defense of Roldugin. He noted that the cellist's offshore companies reportedly engaged in suspicious commercial contracts that netted him substantial profits.

Putin is a "monstrous liar," Navalny wrote on his website on April 7.

In typically wry fashion, Putin opened his remarks joking about St. Petersburg's tumultuous role in Russian history, pointing out the city was home to three revolutions: 1905, February 1917, and then October 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power.

"I hope the results of your efforts won't result in a fourth revolution," he said, "but just the opposite."

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