MOSCOW -- The Russian public is used to being left in the dark about what President Vladimir Putin discusses with high officials and the heads of other former Soviet republics. Official photos of Putin and his guests provide the fodder for headlines -- and countless memes -- that often follow.
Putin’s latest meeting with Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus -- his fourth since August -- was no exception. More than five hours of talks yielded only seven minutes of official footage, in which Putin comments on the weather and Lukashenka fingers a briefcase of documents that, he claims, expose unspecified Western machinations.
But with few details forthcoming, many observers focused instead on the venue for the informal second day of talks on May 29: a 54-meter luxury yacht complete with a sumptuous dining area boasting panoramic views of the sea.
“Russians earning 10,000 to 40,000 rubles ($136-$545) a month…are apparently proud of the fact that Putin has a 30-million-euro yacht,” one Twitter user wrote sarcastically, citing the reported cost of the vessel.
Dozhd, an independent TV channel in Russia that often airs opposition views, reported on May 31 that the yacht, now named Chaika (Seagull), was built in Turkey and purchased by the Russian government in 2011, when Putin was prime minister.
Dozhd also noted a previous meeting, apparently on the same yacht, between Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018.
Officially, the May 28-29 talks in and around the Black Sea resort city of Sochi led to Moscow’s release of a $500 million loan to Minsk and an increase in the number of flight connections with Belarus as a show of support for Lukashenka. The Belarusian leader is being shunned in Europe since his government scrambled a fighter jet on May 23 to ground a Ryanair flight and arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist who was aboard, along with his girlfriend, a Russian citizen.
But there was little in the way of details about crucial questions that haunt the close but often tense relationship between Russia and Belarus, leaving observers on social media with little to do but comment on the photos of Putin and Lukashenka posing by the sea -- some with wry humor, others angrily -- or zero in on the lush setting.
The attention to evidence of Putin’s alleged wealth, or the perks that he has at his fingertips, was nothing new.
Officially, Putin earned a salary equivalent to $136,000 in 2020, and in his declaration, he listed a modest apartment, three Soviet-era cars, and a small camping trailer handed down by his late father.
But in nearly 22 years as president or prime minister, he has regularly been accused of amassing a huge personal fortune. In 2012, three years before he was shot dead near the Kremlin, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov co-authored a report describing a stunning array of helicopters and jets, homes, luxury watches, and four yachts that, according to the report, belonged to Putin or were available for his use in connection with his office.
The report referenced a 54-meter yacht similar in description to the Chaika, but said the “real diamond of the Kremlin flotilla” is a five-deck vessel equipped with a Jacuzzi, a barbecue, a maple wood colonnade, and a large bathroom faced in marble.
Shots of the yacht in Sochi come four months after Putin was forced to publicly dispute allegations by jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) that a $1.36 billion estate complete with hookah bar, vineyard, and ice hockey arena had been built for the Russian president on the Black Sea, not far from the waters he cruised with Lukashenka.
In April, the FBK -- which has been targeted by a government effort to label it as an extremist group -- followed up with reports of another lavish residence it linked to Putin.
The Kremlin said the sprawling property that Navalny dubbed “a palace for Putin” does not belong to the president. Arkady Rotenberg, a construction magnate and childhood friend of Putin’s, later came forward to say that he is the owner.
Other apparent efforts to discredit the January report from the FBK included a remark at the time from Dmitry Kiselyov, a state-TV presenter widely seen as a Kremlin propagandist:
“Putin has no need for luxury,” Kiselyov asserted. “For him, this is just not cool.”