Kremlin gives the 'Pesk-off' to muck and polls

Kremlin gives the 'Pesk-off' to muck and polls
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sits by Vladimir Putin at an annual presidential press conference.
By bne IntelliNews January 29, 2016

Kremlin mouthpiece Dmitry Peskov seldom seems to get any down time. Then again, he is thought to be paid handsomely for his services by an all-powerful administration that has the last word in how Russia's untold billions in funds, assets and resources are managed.

Peskov and his team will have done some recent overtime examining the content and sky-high estimates of the personal fortunes of President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle made in the BBC Panorama programme "Putin's secret riches".

"Pure speculation and defamation," Peskov responded after the January 25 broadcast, which asserted that Putin alone has accrued some $40bn through covert stakes in energy and tribute from the compliant business elite. The US government also for the first time publicly accused Putin of corruption in the programme, prompting the spokesman to demand proof.

Putin, who was an officer in the Soviet KGB and then headed the successor FSB intelligence service before becoming president in 2000, last year declared his 2014 income as $110,000, slightly less than Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev officially earned.

"Putin is corrupt and the US government has known this for many, many years," US Treasury official Adam Szubin told the BBC, scoffing at the declared income. The Russian leader "has long-time training and practice how to mask his wealth", Szubin said.

The Kremlin can easily give the US claims the brush-off as another plot to destabilise Russia, as it can the conclusion of a UK inquiry the previous week that Putin "probably" approved the murder of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. (A "quasi-investigation" the results of which can be put down to "subtle English humour", said Peskov.)

Kremlin defiance of perceived hostile propaganda always sits well with the president's 'fan base' at home, which is still a phenomenon at more than 80% of the population. But as the recession bites deeper, real wages and living standards fall and unemployment rises, the leader is losing some of his sparkle, latest polls say.

Eroding Putin's fortress

The number of Russians who think the country is on the right track has fallen to 45% of the population - the lowest in more than a year - and Putin's approval rating also dipped, according to a poll released on January 27 by the independent Levada Center.

Considering a separate Levada poll found that 26% of Russians are hesitant to express their true opinions in surveys for fear of consequences, Fortress Putin may now be wearing even faster at the edges as low oil prices persist and Russia's GDP is expected to quiver back to growth only towards the end of the year.

This is also when parliamentary elections are due, when the ruling United Russia Party could take a hit as voters express dissatisfaction, even if 63-year-old Putin has until 2018 to tidy the house for his own re-election.

Currently, 34% of Russians polled said the country was on the "wrong route", compared with 22% in June 2015 and 27% in December 2015. Putin's approval rating dropped to 82% in January, compared to a record high of 89% in June 2015 and 85% in December. Medvedev's rating also slid to 56% this month, compared with 66% in June 2015 and 61% in December 2015.

"The approval ratings of the country's political leaders have declined somewhat, but currently they still remain at a high 'post-Crimean' level, despite the population's increasing concerns about the economic situation in the country," Levada Center analyst Karina Pipiya said.

Peskov hasn't commented yet on the latest drop in Putin's rating, but has attributed previous falls as "temporary" occurrences on an "emotional backdrop" of events in the country.

"Politicians who are guided by ratings are hostage of these ratings. Putin has no ambitions for ratings. It is important for him what he is doing," the spokesman said when the ruble crashed in December 2014.

Guyana's new neighbour

Meanwhile, the elephants in the Russian room were spotlit in two global barometer reports published on January 27. The country landed in 119th place (with Sierra-Leone and Guyana) in Transparency International's 167-tier annual Corruption Perceptions Index 2015.

In Russia, "corruption goes hand-in-hand with repressions", Transparency said in an appraisal that was reflected by the country's dismal showing in the Freedom House "Freedom in the World 2016" index. This listed Russia as "Not Free" for the 12th successive year, scoring only 22 of 100 possible points and a low 6 on a 7-point scale for political rights and civil liberties. The report noted "Russia's increasingly aggressive challenge to liberal values under [President] Vladimir Putin - domestically, among its neighbors, and in international organizations".

Scathing words that might elicit the same reaction Putin personally gave to claims about his wealth in an earlier press conference: "It's simply rubbish - they picked it all out of someone's nose and smeared it across their little papers."

Business as usual

Instead, the Kremlin has busied itself publicly with the graft problem, with Putin chairing a meeting of the Anti-Corruption Council the day after the BBC broadcast.

Corruption in Russia will not be eradicated "today or tomorrow" and maybe never, the president conceded. "But if we stop [fighting it], it will be worse. We can only keep moving forward."

The fight is hardly dazzling with its intensity though. As his country searches for billions to plug holes in the 2016 budget, Putin also noted at the meeting that the RUB588mn ($7.6mn) recovered of RUB15bn sought in criminal cases currently in progress is a "rather modest amount".