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Teflon Putin? Over 20 Years In Power, Scandals Don't Seem To Stick To The Russian President

Russian President Vladimir Putin has now been at the helm in Russia for 20 years.

Vladimir Putin was not well known when President Boris Yeltsin picked him as prime minister on August 9, 1999, a key point in his meteoric rise to power. But years earlier, back in his hometown of St. Petersburg, he attracted the attention of local lawmakers who uncovered what they alleged was a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme and accused Putin, a deputy mayor, of masterminding it.

This would be the first of a series of scandals and accusations against Putin, many of them laid out in reports alleging involvement or complicity in misdeeds ranging from plagiarism and poisonings to corruption, embezzlement, lethal incompetence, and more.

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Several of these reports might have spelled political death for a leader of another country, and some of the occurrences they document have shaped Putin's rule. But with help from the loyal state media and the ruling party's grip on politics nationwide, he has weathered them all – and used some to bolster his position.

As Putin enters his 21st year as president or prime minister of Russia, RFE/RL looks at 21 potential scandals that have left him largely unscathed.

1) Marina Salye Report (1993)

In the early 1990s, at a time when St. Petersburg was experiencing food shortages, Putin was a deputy mayor and head of the city's external economic relations committee. St. Petersburg lawmaker Marina Salye headed a commission in 1993 that probed an alleged kickback scheme in which millions of dollars' worth of raw materials were shipped abroad in exchange for food shipments that never materialized. The Salye report, long scrubbed from official websites (but still available here), called for Putin and his deputy, Aleksandr Anikin, to be fired.

2) The 2000 Election

Unlike his landslide victories later, Putin's first election win was a squeaker. According to the official result he won 53 percent in the March 2000 ballot -- enough to avoid a potentially dangerous runoff against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who finished second with 29.5 percent. But The Moscow Times reported that it found vote counts were falsified and voter registrations had been doctored in more than half a dozen regions.

"Given how close the vote was…fraud and abuse of power appear to have been decisive," the English-language daily said. Central Election Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov denied any of the results were falsified. "We don't have a single serious document that casts doubt on the outcome," he said at the time.

3) Sinking Of The Kursk (2000)

The nuclear submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea after explosions on board on August 12, 2000, about three months into Putin's first term. He was criticized for remaining on vacation in Sochi, only returning to the Kremlin five days after the sinking. It was a further four days before he traveled to the northern port of Murmansk, where the rescue operation was coordinated.

An undated photo of the ill-fated Kursk submarine at her mooring at a base in Vidyayevo, Russia.
An undated photo of the ill-fated Kursk submarine at her mooring at a base in Vidyayevo, Russia.

Boris Kuznetsov, a lawyer who represented 55 of the 118 seamen who died in the disaster, described it as Putin's "first lie" and a turning point for post-Soviet Russia.

"When the Kursk sank, the government began interfering with the legal and law enforcement systems. The government began gathering all the mass media under its control. The entire process of undermining democracy in Russia, in many regards, began with this," Kuznetsov told RFE/RL.

4) Nord-Ost/Dubrovka Theater Hostage Crisis (October 2002)

Militants from the North Caucasus burst into a Moscow theater during a musical and took the audience, players, and staff hostage on October 23, 2002. More than 700 hostages were rescued after Russian special forces pumped a toxic gas into the theater and stormed it on October 26. But up to 130 hostages died, many from the effects of the gas and other problems during the rescue operation.

Medics remove a victim who died in the siege of the Dubrovka theater in 2002.
Medics remove a victim who died in the siege of the Dubrovka theater in 2002.

In December 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of 64 victims and ordered the Russian government to pay them about 1 million euros in total in compensation. The ECHR found that Russian authorities had improperly planned the rescue operation. It also took issue with the Kremlin's claim that the gas was not directly responsible for many of the deaths.

5) Blowing Up Russia (2002)

Deadly apartment-block bombings in 1999 were the focus of Blowing Up Russia, written by former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko and historian Yury Felshtinsky.

Published in 2002, the book, portions of which appeared earlier in Novaya gazeta, charges that the FSB orchestrated the bombings to justify the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya and catapult Putin to power. The book is banned in Russia as "extremist material."

The site of an explosion that destroyed an apartment block on Moscow's Guryanov Street in September 1999.
The site of an explosion that destroyed an apartment block on Moscow's Guryanov Street in September 1999.

An independent commission set up in 2002 and headed by State Duma deputy Sergei Kovalyov issued no findings after complaining about government stonewalling.

Commission member Sergei Yushchenkov was killed in April 2003, and commission member Yury Shchekochikhin died under suspicious circumstances in July 2003. Litvinenko died in London in 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.

6) Plagiarism (2006)

The U.S.-based Brookings Institution issued a report in 2006 alleging that Putin plagiarized parts of his 1997 dissertation, Mineral And Raw Materials Resources And The Development Strategy For The Russian Economy. It says he copied about 16 pages of the 200-page work from other sources.

In 2018, former Russian legislator Olga Litvinenko asserted that the dissertation was written by her father, Vladimir Litvinenko, Putin's academic adviser and the rector of the St. Petersburg Mining University.

Putin has never addressed the charges.

7) Beslan School Attack Report (2006)

Gunmen attacked a school in Beslan, a town in a region bordering Chechnya, on September 1, 2004, taking more than 1,000 pupils, parents, and staff hostage. More than 48 hours later, Russian security personnel stormed the school after explosions were heard, and a blaze broke out in the gym where most of the hostages were held. At least 334 people were killed, the majority of them children.

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The official line was that the militants set off the first explosion and that grenades fired by Russian troops could not have sparked the fire. But an independent investigation by explosives expert Yury Savelyev contradicted that assertion.

"We have known for a long time that the security services were to blame for killing many of the hostages," he said. "But the Prosecutor-General's Office flatly refuses to listen to the testimony of eyewitnesses who saw it."

8) Gazprom (2008 and 2014)

Reports by Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015, and Vladimir Milov -- both of them former government officials who became opponents of Putin -- sought to expose corruption at the state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom.

A 2008 report documented alleged graft, waste, asset stripping, and other malfeasance, describing Gazprom as "Putin's main personal project."

Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller attend a gas-pipeline opening ceremony in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in 2011.
Then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) and Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller attend a gas-pipeline opening ceremony in the far eastern city of Vladivostok in 2011.

A report issued in 2014 focused on residential gas rates, stating that they had increased 20 times since Putin took office and asserting that much of the money went to pay bloated managerial salaries at Gazprom.

In a 2012 commentary in The Moscow Times, economist and author Anders Aslund said Gazprom resembles an "organized crime syndicate."

9) Gelendzhik Mansion (2010)

In 2010, a St. Petersburg businessman, Sergei Kolesnikov, sent a letter to then-President Dmitry Medvedev with details of a palatial residence on the Black Sea that he alleged was used exclusively by Putin. Kolesnikov claimed that ill-gotten gains from Putin's days in the St. Petersburg mayoral office had financed its construction.

Photographs of the lavish home were later published on the Russian version of WikiLeaks. It would be the first but not the last report of a luxury home in Russia allegedly owned or used by Putin.

10) Putin's First Decade (2011)

A Nemtsov and Milov report from 2011 not only documented the alleged abuse and corruption of Putin's first decade in power, but also set out what it contended were the results: a population drop of half a million people per year; a sharp increase in reliance on commodities -- from 44 percent to 65 percent; rising wealth disparity; the gutting of the national pension fund.

Russian opposition activists Boris Nemtsov (left) and Vladimir Milov in 2011.
Russian opposition activists Boris Nemtsov (left) and Vladimir Milov in 2011.

"Now we know the answer to the question, 'Who is Putin?' Putin is corruption, censorship, dependence on natural resources, social inequality, and depopulation," the report concluded.

11) Life Of A 'Galley Slave' (2012)

Putin once quipped he works like a "galley slave" for the Russian people. Yet another report from Nemtsov and Milov said he might be the "richest" slave in the world. Watches in white gold, yachts decked out in the plushest of drapery, and at least one airplane toilet worth $75,000 are among the alleged presidential perks detailed in the report, sarcastically titled The Life Of A Galley Slave.

"Putin's official declaration for 2012 says his income was 3,661,765 rubles. In order to honestly buy just his collection of watches, which is valued at 22 million rubles, he would have to work without eating or drinking for six whole years."

12) Sochi Olympics (2013)

This 2013 report by Nemtsov and Milov alleged billions of dollars earmarked for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi were stolen.

According to the exposé, up to $30 billion was stolen in the run-up to the games. "The main conclusion from the first chapter of our report is that, in preparing for the Olympics, $25-$30 billion has been stolen," Nemtsov said.

Nemstov said he calculated the figure by comparing the initial cost estimate of the games with the final $51 billion price tag and with typical overruns at previous Olympics. Russia had originally announced in 2007 that the 2014 games would cost about $12 billion. State auditors at Russia's Audit Chamber had repeatedly voiced concerns about skyrocketing cost overruns for the Sochi games.

13) MH17 (2014-present)

The British-based cybersleuthing outfit Bellingcat began gathering and analyzing open-source data shortly after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

Bellingcat charted how a Russian Buk antiaircraft system provided separatists in eastern Ukraine with the missile used to shoot down the plane.

Russia has denied any role in the downing of the passenger jet, offering up several other reasons for the shootdown, all of which have been rejected by investigators.

The Downing Of MH17: What Happened?
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Most of Bellingcat's findings on MH17, however, have been seconded by the Dutch-led Joint Investigative Team, which found that the missile which shot down the plane was fired by a Buk that was brought in from Russia and then taken back to Russia shortly afterward.

13) The Russian Laundromat (2014)

A blockbuster report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) describes how organized criminals and corrupt politicians in Russia allegedly moved more than $20 billion in dirty funds out of Russia using a network of offshore shell companies, banks, fake loans, and proxy agents.

Published in 2014, the OCCRP report said that funds sent through the complex money-laundering scheme were then deemed clean by corrupt judges in Moldova, and later moved into bank accounts across the European Union.

In connection with those findings, OCCRP named Putin the 2014 "Man of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption."

15) Ukraine War (2015)

Nemtsov's last work was released months after he was shot dead near the Kremlin on February 27, 2015. Completed by Ilya Yashin, the 65-page document -- called Putin.War -- details the takeover of Crimea by Russian forces in February 2014 and their later deployment to assist separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

"The shameful and cowardly war that Putin started will cost our country dearly. We will pay for this adventurism with the lives of our soldiers, with economic crisis, and political isolation," it said.

Russia has denied involvement in the war, which has killed some 13,000 people, despite evidence it has aided the separatists heavily by providing troops, weapons, and other support.

16) The Litvinenko Inquiry (2016)

Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former FSB officer turned Kremlin critic, died in London in 2006 of acute radiation poisoning. British investigators concluded he was poisoned with polonium-210 slipped into his drink at an upscale London hotel by Andrei Lugovoi, a former FSB officer and current member of the State Duma, and Dmitry Kovtun, a former KGB officer.

Former FSB operative Aleksandr Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in November 2006.
Former FSB operative Aleksandr Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in November 2006.

Issued in 2016 and led by retired British judge Sir Robert Owen, the Litvinenko Inquiry found that Putin and his spy chief at the time, Nikolai Patrushev, "probably approved" Litvinenko's poisoning. Before he died, Litvinenko wrote a letter accusing Putin of ordering his death.

Litvinenko had also accused Putin of ordering the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was fatally shot less than two months before his own demise. The Kremlin has denied Putin was involved in either death.

17) The McLaren Report (2016)

A two-part report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found that more than 1,000 Russian competitors in more than 30 sports were involved in "an institutional conspiracy" to conceal positive drug tests over a period of five years.

Vitaly Mutko, then-Russian sports minister and now a deputy prime minister, was implicated, but there was no "direct evidence" that he knew of the doping program. Putin was not mentioned in the report.

Russian doping whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov (file photo)
Russian doping whistle-blower Grigory Rodchenkov (file photo)

Much of the material for the WADA probe was provided by Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory. He told a German documentary that Putin must have been aware of the doping program. Rodchenkov, later called a "jerk" by Putin, is now living in the United States under witness protection.

Two other Russian anti-doping officials, Nikita Kamayev and Vyacheslav Sinyev, died mysteriously in 2017.

18) Panama Papers (2016)

According to leaked legal and financial documents known as the Panama Papers, friends and allies of Putin used multiple offshore structures to move vast sums of money around the world. Putin's longtime friend, cellist Sergei Roldugin, was linked in the papers to $2 billion in offshore transactions.

Vladimir Putin (left) with the musician Sergei Roldugin in 2016.
Vladimir Putin (left) with the musician Sergei Roldugin in 2016.

Putin defended Roldugin, saying the musician spent "almost all the money he earned on acquiring musical instruments from abroad and bringing them to Russia." Putin also suggested that the Panama Papers were a plot by U.S. government officials and spy agencies.

19) Putin's Money (2017)

A 2017 report by the OCCRP and the independent Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta said that Putin's inner circle of friends and relatives control combined wealth of nearly $24 billion.

"The one commonality in the group members' financial success is their connection to the president," the report said.

It singled out three close Putin allies – Mikhail Shelomov, Sergei Roldugin, and Pyotr Kolbin – who had amassed mysterious fortunes.

"They claim not to be businessmen, are not known to the public, and in some cases have little idea of the riches that are registered under their names," the investigation found.

20) Brain Drain (2019)

More and more Russians are voting with their feet, leaving Putin's Russia in rising numbers. At least that was the conclusion of a 2019 report by the Washington-based Atlantic Council, recently banned in Russia after being judged a "fundamental threat" to the country's security.

The report found that, since Putin's rise to be Russian president, between 1.6 and 2 million Russians – out of a total population of 145 million -- have moved elsewhere.

The report said the "politically driven brain drain" quickened with Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, followed by a weakening economy and growing repressions.

21) Crushing Dissent (2019)

An April 2019 report titled The Kremlin's Political Prisoners: Advancing A Political Agenda By Crushing Dissent, documented what it said was a growing crackdown on free assembly and speech, with the number of political prisoners in Russia increasing from 50 to more than 250 in the previous four years.

Putin's Kremlin "is once again engaged in the widespread detention of activists, regime opponents, and disfavored minorities," it said, adding that the clampdown is aided by "an ever-increasing array of laws specifically designed to criminalize acts of everyday life," such as demonstrations and social-media posting.

The report came months before the current crackdown on protests over the moves to bar independent and opposition candidates from elections to the Moscow City Duma in September.