MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin once compared ruling Russia to being a “galley slave”, but four yachts that come with the job, as well as a string of palaces and a wealth of luxury perks help explain his refusal to quit the presidency, leading critics said on Tuesday.
Listing 58 planes and helicopters and 20 homes with opulent fittings worthy of the tsars, not to mention 11 watches which alone are worth several times Putin’s annual salary, a report published under the ironic title “The Life of a Galley Slave” by opposition leader Boris Nemtsov denounced the lavish spending as an affront to millions of Russians living in dire poverty.
“One of the most serious reasons prompting V. Putin to hold on to power is the atmosphere of wealth and luxury to which he has become accustomed,” wrote the authors. “In a country where more than 20 million people barely make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is a blatant and cynical challenge to society. We absolutely cannot put up with this.”
The Kremlin, which has long portrayed the 59-year-old president as a man of simple tastes with a liking for popular sports and active outdoor pastimes, did not immediately comment.
Intended to foster faint stirrings of opposition to Putin’s recent re-election for a further six years, the report may struggle for attention. In a mark of the reluctance of Russians to challenge the Kremlin, Nemtsov said he had struggled to find a printer willing to produce the booklet. And after publication, it was largely ignored by the country’s major media outlets.
Many ordinary Russians seemed indifferent to opponents who reveled in eye-catching details, such as the $75,000 toilet on a presidential jet. The authors also identified from photographs a total of 11 luxury timepieces on the wrist of the head of state and calculated their total value at some $700,000, while noting Putin had declared an annual income less than $115,000.
The president has long denied rumors that he has built up a vast personal fortune. The report did not address that but it illustrated in 32 pages how the former KGB spy has expanded the trappings of office since he rose to power in 2000.
Tales of extravagance in the leadership, though familiar to Russians throughout their history from tsars to commissars, come at a potentially awkward time for Putin after the biggest protests of his 12-year rule, mostly from middle-class urban liberals who are now trying to fire up indignation more widely.
“I hope that after this report the numbers of people believing that Putin and his allies are swindlers and thieves will approach 70 percent,” Nemtsov said, using the labels for the ruling elite which have become a slogan for the opposition.
“After that, I think we will be able to free the country of them,” he said at an event to launch the pamphlet.
But the responses of the likes of Moscow pensioner Yelena Nikitichna suggested it might be an uphill battle to turn any dismay over Putin’s perks into a boost for the protest movement.
“It’s obviously too much, way beyond what is needed to do the job,” she said. “But of course that is no surprise to me. I’ve lived here for 70 years. It’s always been like that.”
Among the young, too, many did not share Nemtsov’s anger:
“Russian authorities and leaders have always been famous for their rather luxurious ways. This is a historical pattern and he is not the first to live a fairly luxurious life,” said Yelena Malmova, a first-year university student in the capital.
“Personally, I don’t care,” she said. “For me, how well he does his job is most important.”
The text was accompanied by photographs of luxurious homes, jets, helicopters, cars and watches, complete with footnotes citing Russian media as sources for many of the items. Nine new residences had been added to the list available to the president since Putin first became head of state in 2000, it said.
Homes he could retreat to across the country, ranged from seaside palaces to a ski lodge, and boasted everything from saunas and billiard rooms to a “presidential church”.
For a man who, in 2008, described his workload in office as being like that of a galley slave, the Kremlin fleet of luxury yachts may draw more comparison to the lifestyles of Russia’s high-profile business tycoons, the “oligarchs”.
Though Putin may have little leisure time Putin to enjoy the assets at his disposal, and he can point to fellow world leaders enjoying special transport and country retreats - such as the U.S. president’s Air Force One and Camp David - the report was scathing of the expense lavished on Kremlin facilities.
One 53.7-metre yacht with a designer interior, a spa pool, waterfall and wine cellar is relegated to second best, it said.
“The real diamond of the Kremlin flotilla,” the authors judged, is a five-decked yacht with a jacuzzi, barbecue, a maple wood colonnade and a huge bathroom faced in marble.
While not addressing Putin’s personal wealth directly - the president once dismissed talk of him being a billionaire as “snot” from the noses of Western reporters and smeared on paper - it challenged his self-portrayal as “your humble servant” to paint him as a callous, Nero-like figure ignoring the corruption and poverty that has hobbled the economy and blighted lives.
It juxtaposed Putin’s latest declared annual income of 3.6 million roubles ($112,400) and his account of owning only three old cars with a description of some of the 700 automobiles at the disposal of the presidential administration.
Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the 1990s, has become one of Putin’s fiercest critics and was among the leaders of a series of protests in the past nine months. But the president remains popular for bringing order after the chaos that followed the collapse of communism in 1991, even if a recent opinion survey found a majority would prefer a new leader come 2018.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alastair Macdonald