Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken out for the first time about the Panama Papers, calling the leaks an attempt to destabilize Russia. Putin also said a friend of his named in the leaks had done nothing wrong.
Media reports based on the leaked documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca alleged that Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and friend of Putin, had quietly built up a sprawling business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to the Russian leader. Roldugin himself has now been linked to nearly $2 billion in offshore transactions.
But on Thursday Putin said that Roldugin had spent his money on musical instruments that he intended to donate. Speaking in St. Petersburg, the Russian president directly addressed the accusations against Roldugin — who is the godfather to Putin's first child.
"There is a certain friend of the president of Russia, he did such and such a thing, and there is probably a corruption element there," Putin said. "But there isn't any [element of corruption]."
Putin said Roldugin was a brilliant musician and a minority shareholder in a Russian company from which he earned some money but not "billions of dollars." He said Roldugin had spent almost all the money he had made from the venture on acquiring expensive musical instruments abroad, which he was in the process of handing over to state institutions.
"I am proud to have such friends," said Putin. The Russian President also stressed that his own name had never surfaced in the leaked files.
The Panama Papers, which included more than 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, were leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. They then became part of a broader investigation coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has brought in nearly 400 journalists from around the world to report on the papers' revelations.
So far the files, which contained the details of clients around the world, prompted Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland, to quit, put British Prime Minister David Cameron under pressure over his family's financial affairs, and sparked calls in Ukraine to investigate President Petro Poroshenko.
But in Russia, where state media closely hews to the Kremlin's line, the allegations have either been played down or portrayed as part of an attempt to undermine the ruling elite before parliamentary elections later this year. Before Putin's remarks on Thursday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov had already dismissed the allegations as the result of "Putinophobia" and said that the journalistic consortium behind the Panama Papers included "many former state department and CIA employees, as well as those of other intelligence services."