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Putin's predictable 'Panama Papers' ploy

Just like the five stages of grief, Russia has a pretty predictable step-by-step response to bad press over the "Panama Papers" leaks. Fiona Clark walks us through it.

Sometimes I wonder if Dmitry Peskov is psychic. Last week the Kremlin's spokesperson warned that a tsunami or bad press was heading Russia's way and named the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as the source of the onslaught.

Clearly, thanks to the questions he received from journalists in advance of the release of the "Panama Papers," he was much better informed than say, the New York Times, which was taken by surprise when the leaks hit the headlines earlier this week. Peskov was prepared and swung into action to defend the Russian president against allegations concerning £2 billion (2.5 billion euros, $2.8 billion)-worth of offshore financial activities.

While the papers don't name Vladimir Putin directly, they reveal an intricate web of companies with holdings in offshore accounts which are purportedly under the name of Putin's close friend and godfather of his daughter, Sergei Roldugin - a cellist, who despite claiming he only owns a car, an apartment and a dacha, is apparently making £6.5 million a year and has some £19 million in cash in a Swiss bank.

According to the revelations, the offshore entities linked to Roldugin are all in turn linked to a company of Swiss lawyers who act on behalf of Bank Rossiya, which, as The Guardian newspaper says, "is no ordinary bank." The bank, which has long been dubbed "Putin's wallet" is run by Yuri Kovalchuk, another friend of the Russian leader.

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Peskov says the allegations are all lies when it comes to Russia.

It's a predictable response - the one Russia always takes when it is accused of doing something nasty. Just like the five stages of grief, Russia goes through its own six-stage process when it comes to dealing with bad PR. I call it DADRIS - denial, attack, deflection, retribution, investigation and finally, status quo.

Denial: When the story broke Peskov's refuted the allegations and blamed them on "Putinphobia" - a new word to add to the lexicon. He told media outlets: "There is no information concerning the president [in the papers] - just some insinuations, speculations, reflections that do not require a response."

Attack: Shortly after came a two-pronged attack. The first part had the familiar ring of 'shoot the messenger.' Peskov rounded on the ICIJ labelling it as a rag-bag of poorly qualified journalists with CIA connections. It's "an undisguised paid-for hack job," Russia Today quotes him as saying. "We know this so-called journalistic community perfectly well. It is clear to us that a number of journalists who are part of it have hardly majored in journalism; there are many former representatives of the [US] State Department and the CIA, along with other intelligence agencies." The final sting: "We know who funds this organization."

caricature with the word Offshore on it Copyright: S. Elkin

The Russian machine has clicked into action to denounce the allegations against Putin

Now it's personal

Once the discrediting was done phase two began: It's Personal. Peskov labelled the leaks as part of a targeted propaganda war by the West which is hell bent on destabilizing Russia and ousting its leader.

"It's obvious to us that the main target behind such ‘leaks' has been and still is our president, especially in the context of the upcoming parliamentary and, taking the long-term perspective, the presidential election in two years' time," he said.

But since a swath of current or former heads of state are looking a little red faced and the papers touch all continents with countries as far flung as China, Australia, Uruguay and the US itself implicated, it's hard to buy that argument.

Next comes the Deflection phase. This was used widely when the doping scandal broke. "It's not just us, everybody's doing it," was the resounding chorus line then. This time it's "why are you focusing on us when Putin hasn't even been named and David Cameron's father has been?" and "Why are you showing Putin's picture and not Cameron's?"

It is true that some of the UK press focused on Putin first, but that's not surprising as outlets like the BBC and The Guardian have been actively trying to track down money trails connected to the president and his 'missing billions' for years. Estimates of the president's worth vary from $40 billion (35 billion euros) to $200 billion (175 billion euros).

Retribution: Always the fun bit. Peskov has already said the government is willing to sue those who make false accusations and print lies about Putin. But since the allegations concern the activities of his close associates it's unclear what defamation he'd be claiming.

Next up is the Investigation: Russia, as it constantly reminds us, respects international law. And it has its own internal laws against money laundering including one which prohibits people's deputies and other high-ranking officials, and their wives, from profiting from foreign investments. They were supposed to have divested themselves of offshore interests back in May 2013.

The case for the prosecution

The Prosecutor General's office has said it will launch an investigation to see if any Russian or international laws have been broken. It will look at those named in the papers, so Putin's affairs will not be examined. His close friend, Roldugin, will not be so lucky.

And that leads us to the final stage: Status quo. Once the investigation is completed all will be as it was and order will be restored. Peskov, who is named in the papers as well, will have been proven correct when he said it was all lies, and the global conspiracy theory will be confirmed.

man speaking Copyright: Imago/Itar-Tass/M. Metzel

Roldugin could yet be made to face the music

The only person who might be feeling a little uncomfortable at the moment is the world's richest cellist. It's is not beyond the realms of possibility that, as in previous investigations of corruption, a scapegoat will be required to show that justice has been served, and given Roldugin doesn't run a bank or mining company, it could be him who takes the fall. He may well be pondering the decisions he's made and wondering if his cello will fit in a prison cell.

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