Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself at odds with popular sentiment when asked about alleged privileges enjoyed by the offspring of his associates in his annual news conference.
“When you came to power in 2000, is this the sort of result you expected?” Yekaterina Vinokurova, a reported of an online publication, asked Putin on Thursday. “Maybe there are some things that should be corrected, maybe it’s not yet too late?”
The comment from Vinokurova elicited applause from the audience, unusual for an event attended by large numbers of journalists sympathetic to the Russian leader, Reuters reported.
After waiting for the clapping to end, Putin replied that if anyone was guilty of corruption, it was up to the legal system to investigate and that people’s careers could not be ended on the basis of unproven allegations, the news agency said.
Describing corruption scandals as “side effects” that happen in almost every country, he said people should not forget his main achievements were increasing the size of the economy and restoring the armed forces.
It was a subdued response compared to the outspoken rhetoric he deploys on other subjects and contrasted with a growing furor about the issue outside the Kremlin walls.
Russian truckers have been protesting against a new system of tariffs that is being administered by a firm co-owned by Igor Rotenberg, whose father is Putin’s close friend and former judo sparring partner.
Oleg Kashin, a high-profile journalist, alleged that he was beaten up by people connected to Andrei Turchak, the 39-year-old governor of the Pskov region in north-west Russia.
Turchak, the son of a businessman with long-standing ties to Putin, has denied the allegation.
Earlier this month, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta published allegations that a son of Russian prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika owned two hotels in Greece and a property in Switzerland, among other foreign assets.
Chaika has said the allegations were fabricated on the orders of people threatened by his crackdown on crime.
Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of independent pollster Levada Center, said Russians were disturbed by signs of political patronage.
“People who are in power and have some kinds of privileges and preferential treatment and build a business on these links provoke a certain amount of irritation,” he said.
At the moment that was not damaging Putin’s personal popularity, he said. Polls give him an approval rating of around 85 percent, and that support is unlikely to collapse soon.
But Grazhdankin said Putin was only safe from reputational damage as long as Russians were satisfied with their lot.
As ordinary people see their income shrink because of a recession made worse by Western sanctions, they are likely to pay more attention to the gulf between the rich and the poor, and especially to the wealthy individuals around Putin.
Some people have described the children of Putin associates as “princelings”, a phrase more usually used to describe the offspring of senior Communist Party officials in China.
At the end of his response, Putin recounted a Soviet-era joke about a bureaucrat who decided not to give someone a promotion on the basis of a false rumor involving a fur coat.
“We cannot behave that way” in the case of allegations against the offspring of Kremlin associates, Putin said.
“We need to look at the essence of the problems, and not try to use a particular complicated situation to serve some kind of quasi-political ends.”
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