Sun, Sep 02, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Putin’s presidential perks make him world’s richest ‘slave’

While millions of Russians struggle to make ends meet, the Russian president lives a life of luxury — and opposition figures want everyone to know

By Miriam Elder  /  The Guardian, MOSCOW

Illustration: Constance Chou

To hear Russian President Vladimir Putin tell it, he works like a “galley slave,” pouring blood, sweat and tears into toiling for the Russian people with little personal gain in return.

Yet according to a new report by some of his harshest critics, Putin may be the richest “slave” in the world, reaping official perks as the powerful leader of a country with a long history of enriching its omnipotent tsars.

Watches in white gold, yachts decked out in the plushest of drapery and at least one flying toilet worth US$75,000 are among the presidential perks detailed by Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned Putin critic, and his co-author Leonid Martynyuk, a member of the opposition Solidarity movement, in a report released on Tuesday.

“Putin has led Russia for more than 12 years,” the authors wrote. “Losing popularity, Putin is maniacally clinging to power. It’s clear why.”

It is not just the “fear of losing his freedom, capital and property” or the influence of his inner circle, who have grown fantastically rich under his rule, they said. “One of the most serious reasons that forces Putin to hold on to power is the atmosphere of wealth and luxury to which he has become accustomed and which he does not want to give up.”

According to the authors, Putin has overseen a phenomenal expansion in the awarding of presidential perks. At his disposal are 20 palaces and villas, a fleet of 58 aircraft, a flotilla of yachts worth about 3 billion roubles (US$92.6 million), a watch collection worth 22 million roubles and several top-class Mercedes cars.

“We did not publish data on the cost of the clothes and things that Putin regularly uses: the suits, shoes and ties worth tens of thousands of dollars — mere trifles when compared to the villas, aeroplanes watches and cars,” they wrote.

The report, ironically titled The Life of a Galley Slave, is the latest salvo in the opposition’s attempt to discredit Putin as they continue to challenge the legitimacy of his return to the presidency this year. It could signal an attempt to expand the opposition beyond the urban middle class that comprises most of its ranks, highlighting the stark contrast in the way Putin lives compared with the average Russian.

“In a country where more than 20 million people can hardly make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is a blatant and cynical challenge to society by a limitless ruler,” the report said.

With photographs of each palace, watch and aircraft, the report paints a colorful picture of the life enjoyed by Putin, and famously compared himself to a “galley slave” during a 2008 press conference.

There are the columned facades of palaces outside Moscow, in the southern resort of Sochi, and dozens more around the country. On an island in the center of Lake Valdai, stands a 930 hectare estate serviced by a 1,000-strong staff that includes a “presidential church, swimming pool, two restaurants, movie theater, bowling alley and concrete helipad.”

The authors compare Putin’s nearly two dozen official residences to the number held by other state rulers — two for the leaders of the US and Germany, and three for the president of Italy. Nine of the villas were built while Putin was at the helm of the country, they added.

The Russian president has long attempted to present an image of average Russian machismo, staging regular photo ops with factory workers and bikers. Images of his stark home life stand in contrast to the meetings he holds in the Kremlin’s gilded halls. During a televised meeting of his participation in Russia’s nationwide census in 2010, Putin appeared on a drab beige sofa in one of the two modest apartments he is officially registered as owning.

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