On Monday, as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists opened up its database of leaked files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca—the so-called “Panama Papers”—the official Russian line was “nothing to see here”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov yesterday dismissed the trove as merely “stolen documents”.
The files had only been available to a small group of journalists up until then, and the investigations had therefore focused on the biggest fish: world leaders, their closest associates and families. With the floodgates now open, journalists in Russia rolled up their sleeves.
6,285 Russians turned out to be on the list of offshore companies owners, reported RBC, one of the most influential privately-owned Russian business media outlets. And among those thousands appeared 16 names of Russian billionaires. Or, as RBC put it, “namesakes”. Someone with the same name as Alisher Usmanov, number three in The Forbes’ Richest Russians list, is connected to 15 offshore companies. People with identical names to Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, targets of Western sanctions who Vladimir Putin frequently cites in public as his close friends, have three offshore companies each. And someone called Iskander Makhmudov, who happens to share a name with a figure alleged to be central to various brazen corruption schemes in St. Petersburg in the 1990s when Vladimir Putin was Deputy Mayor, is connected to two offshore companies.
RBC’s careful wording is notable. The initial round of Panama Papers stories seem to have rattled Russia’s commanding heights. In Russia, RBC had led the initial charge after the Panama leaks broke in the world press, running stories highlighting the fact that several Russian high-profile officials were connected to offshore companies. Those directly named included Peskov, the Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulukaev, and the now-infamous musician and close personal friend of President Putin, Sergey Roldugin. There was no talk of “namesakes” at the time.
RBC is influential, but not massive. Most Russians only saw Vladimir Putin on his annual nationwide call-in show last month, explaining that his artist friend, Mr. Roldugin, had spent all his money buying up musical instruments, which he had then generously brought to Russia. If they happened to miss the call-in show spectacle, the government-controlled mass media dutifully ran with the story. Still, RBC’s efforts to actually break and report the news were not going to be tolerated by the Kremlin.
Sources in Putin’s administration say that the Russian President was still furious over RBC’s reporting into how his younger daughter’s sparkling academic career was helped along by multi-billion ruble government contracts when the Panama Papers story broke. A familiar script was deployed against the media company: At the very same moment Putin was retelling his story about Roldugin on the air, the FSB was searching the Moscow offices of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s Oneksim Group, a major stockholder of RBC. Several days later, rumors emerged that Prokhorov, who ran against Putin for the Presidency in 2012 (and who also owns the Brooklyn Nets) was discussing the sale of his media holdings. RBC’s editor in chief, who was to go on sabbatical to Stanford in the fall, soon after announced that she would be departing in May. (She left yesterday.)
Alas, all the careful, clever wording of articles in the world is unlikely to help once you are in Putin’s crosshairs. Reports emerged today that Moscow police have opened a criminal case against RBC. A former stockholder is accusing the media group of defrauding him of shares worth $13.5 million. Police say they will be investigating RBC’s CEO Nikolay Molibog and Oneksim vice-president, the Dutch media tycoon Derk Sauer.