Peculiar things are afoot with senior Russian officials and their relatives tied to pricey real estate: Their information keeps disappearing from public property records.
Kremlin foes, journalists, and anticorruption activists in recent months have uncovered evidence that entries in the official federal real-estate database have been quietly edited, in some cases obscuring ownership of expensive properties thought to be controlled by members of Russia's political elite.
Moreover, the Russian intelligence community is pushing draft legislation that would curb access to personal information in public real-estate records, thus shielding these details from inquisitive journalists and the broader public.
Evidence of the alleged manipulation of property documents has emerged at a time of heightened scrutiny of the wealth of Russia's ruling class, particularly following the massive dump of incriminating data on offshore holdings contained in what have been dubbed the Panama Papers.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin's name reportedly does not figure in the documents, they have linked members of his inner circle to billions of dollars' worth of asset transfers and opaque transactions.
Expensive real estate held by Russian officials and their relatives has become a powerful populist lever in the opposition's campaign to expose what they call endemic corruption and cronyism under Putin.
But these activists allege that Rosreestr, the federal agency tasked with maintaining Russian real-estate records, is making it more difficult to track the ownership of these properties by illegally tweaking or even deleting information in its database.
"It's this kind of administrative lawlessness -- backdoor dealings," Ivan Zhdanov, the top lawyer for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's Anticorruption Fund, told RFE/RL. "It has no basis in law. They're just finding some bureaucratic means of carrying out their internal orders. They have their own special internal legal system."
The most recent example, Navalny's group alleges, involves Kirill Shamalov, a businessman ranked by Forbes as Russia's youngest billionaire and widely reported to be Putin's son-in-law.
Navalny's chief investigator, Georgy Alburov, wrote in an April 26 Facebook post that the owner information in the Rosreestr entry for a central Moscow apartment that Shamalov has listed as his residence was replaced with a bureaucratic code nearly a year ago, though ownership hadn't changed hands since 2004.
Alburov wrote that "it's clear that Shamalov has been given government protection" because he is Putin's son-in-law and the son of the president's longtime associate, Nikolai Shamalov, who has been slapped with EU sanctions and who Brussels says "benefits from his links with Russian decision-makers."
Neither Putin nor his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has confirmed or denied that Shamalov is married to the Russian president's younger daughter.
"However Putin and Peskov try to hush up this unpleasant topic, the special status of this citizen is obvious even from [the Rosreestr] records," Alburov wrote.
Zhdanov told RFE/RL that Navalny's group planned to file a lawsuit to force the agency to restore data on the original record and would decide this week whether to pursue a separate case or add the complaint to a similar one linked to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
It was during its investigation of a multimillion-dollar, pagoda-style mansion tied to Shoigu that Navalny's organization first encountered what it calls a surreptitious attempt to protect the powerful by manipulating Rosreestr property records.
In October, it published copies of documents from the registry showing that Shoigu's daughter, Ksenia, became the owner of the property in a prestigious village on Moscow's western outskirts in 2009, when she was 18.
But Ksenia Shoigu's name appeared to have been deleted from the records after they were obtained by Navalny's group, as were other names and entities listed as previous owners, including a man with whom the defense minister has played ice hockey.
The allegedly altered record showed that the sole owner is a woman named Yelena Antipina, whom Alburov claims is Shoigu's sister-in-law. (Her last name is the same as the maiden name of Shoigu's wife, Irina, and the father of both women is named Aleksandr.)
A spokesman for Shoigu's daughter told the Russian newspaper RBK in November that allegations about her ties to the property "do not correspond to reality."
Last month, meanwhile, an investigation by Transparency International's Russia office uncovered a Moscow apartment owned by firebrand nationalist politician and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and his family that it estimates is worth 500 billion rubles ($7.6 million) -- an appraisal Rogozin disputes.
The Rosreester record for the apartment states that the identities of the five owners "are not indicated," according to a copy published by Transparency International on March 25.
But a copy of the same record dated November 11, 2015, and published by Alburov following the Transparency International exposé names the owners as Rogozin and four members of his family, including his son Aleksei, who was recently appointed deputy head of the Defense Ministry's property department.
"How can you explain the missing entry in the record of a 10-room apartment in an elite housing complex?" Transparency International wrote. "We presume that one of the Rosreestr employees either accidentally or deliberately deleted information about the owners."
Navalny, who is currently serving two suspended sentences on embezzlement convictions he calls politically motivated, said on April 26 that his group would also file a lawsuit concerning alleged document manipulation involving the Rogozin apartment.
Alleged shenanigans with the database have even touched Putin's ex-wife, Lyudmila, who has reportedly since remarried.
Russia's Sobesednik newspaper reported in January that sometime between December 23 and January 25 a Rosreester record for an apartment owned by Russia's former first lady -- identified under her alleged new married name -- was altered to delete her date and place of birth.
Of Yachts And Planes
Rosreestr did not immediately provide comment when contacted by RFE/RL about the alleged manipulation of its public records, and instead requested that any query be put in writing.
Anya Levitov, managing partner at the Moscow-based real estate firm Evans Property Services, told RFE/RL that, typically, Rosreestr records "shouldn't be changed" in the absence of a sale or transfer of ownership.
"That's the whole point of having a property register," Levitov said. "It's pretty insane that it can be altered without actual transaction taking place. These records are the records of the transaction, the only one. So altering the register means that anyone's property can be taken away in the same way."
Lawyer Zhdanov told RFE/RL that public access to real-estate records from the agency have been critical to efforts to ferret out alleged corruption among officials.
The group's investigations "to a large degree are based on and helped by open-source data from Rosreestr," he said.
Russian security services, however, have moved to close off such access. Draft legislation submitted by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB, would significantly restrict third-party access to personal information contained in public real estate records.
The legislation would also limit public access to personal information contained in ownership records for other big-ticket items favored by Russia's political and business elites: yachts and airplanes.
The Russian government's legislative committee approved the draft bill for further consideration in October, saying Rosreestr records are being used by third parties for "criminal" purposes and "other violations linked to the dissemination and use of information about citizens and property they own."
"Increasingly the goal of a request for information from the registry is not the real estate, but personal information about the owner," the commission said.
Whether the bill will ultimately be submitted to parliament for consideration remained unclear.