Vladimir Putin has dismissed media reports that billions of dollars in Panama offshore accounts might be linked to him as a US-backed “provocation”, as he told ordinary Russians that the country’s economic crisis will ease next year.
The leak of confidential documents from a Panamanian law firm earlier this month has angered the Kremlin, forcing it to field questions about offshore accounts allegedly belonging to one of Putin’s best friends.
Speaking during a televised national phone-in on Thursday, Putin dismissed the leak and subsequent media reports as part of a shadowy US-backed plot designed to discredit Russian politicians ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.
“They must understand that the issue is not about specific people, individuals, no matter what position they hold in Russia,” said Putin, after lashing out at US officials and US bank Goldman Sachs.
“The issue is about the country, which cannot be manipulated.”
Putin delivered a spirited defence of his friend Sergei Roldugin, who, according to reports based on the Panama Papers, has a business empire involved in offshore transactions that might be linked to Putin.
“Who does it, these provocations? We know that there are some staff from official American institutions,” said Putin.
Putin’s primary focus however was voters’ workaday problems.
He cast himself and the ruling United Russia party as an anchor of stability at a time when the economy is shrinking and the financial knock-on effects of Russia’s stand-off with the West are still being felt.
With real incomes down and people worried about high food inflation, unpaid wages, and corrupt officials, Putin adopted a father-of-the-nation stance, letting people know he understood that many, especially in the regions, were suffering but that economic growth would return next year.
Addressing public concerns over the economy is crucial for the Kremlin ahead of a parliamentary election in September and it is carefully monitoring the regions for any signs of social unrest.
Thursday’s event provided a controlled platform for people to let off steam and feel listened to.
Wrapping up the event after three hours and 40 minutes, Putin said he had heard a lot of impassioned questions from worried citizens.
“I share your concerns in nearly 100 per cent of cases,” he said. “We’ll work together so that your problems are relieved.”
Putin took questions via video link from two women, Tatiana and Yelena, who said they had not been paid for months of work at a fish processing plant on a Pacific island, and that officials had ignored their complaints.
The issue is a widespread one since Russia’s economy slowed, with businesses that are struggling with falling sales often delaying wages.
The Russian president, live on air, instructed his prosecutor-general to think about firing the local prosecutor for failing to act on the women’s complaints.
“I want to extend my apologies and assure you we will do everything to resolve the situation,” Putin said.
Within hours, it was announced a senior prosecutor would travel to the fish processing plant on Friday to find out what was going on.