MOSCOW – In his first comments since mass protests erupted across Russia over the weekend, President Vladimir Putin denied on Monday that he owns a billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea and called the demonstrations illegal and “dangerous.”
That Putin responded at all to opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s viral video investigation, which alleged that the lavish dwelling was built for Putin using a “slush fund,” is indicative of how much the exposé has irritated the Kremlin. The video has racked up more than 87 million views on YouTube in just five days.
Lyubov Sobol, Navalny’s top aide, said on Twitter that Putin “could not ignore what the whole country is discussing.”
In a televised virtual meeting with Russian university students, Putin, who refuses to even refer to Navalny by name, said he did not watch the video “simply because I don’t have the free time to watch such information” but added that he “scrolled through video compilations” his assistants provided him.
“Nothing of what was indicated there as my property belongs either to me or my close relatives,” Putin said.
The comments neither deny the existence of the property itself nor contradict Navalny’s investigation, which alleged that the residence formally belongs to four proxies with ties to Putin’s inner circle.
Navalny created the “Putin’s Palace” video while recovering from nerve-agent poisoning in Germany last year, but it was not released until after he returned to Russia last week. He was arrested immediately upon arrival for allegedly violating the terms of his suspended sentence in a 2014 embezzlement case. He was then sentenced to 30 days at a Moscow detention center, pending a Feb. 2 court hearing.
Navalny, who has blamed Putin for the August poisoning, said he waited until he was back in Moscow to publish the video as a show of fearlessness. In it, 3-D artistic depictions of the palace’s interiors included Italian furniture worth more than $50,000. The palace purportedly includes a hookah lounge with a pole-dancing stage, an underground ice hockey rink, a casino and a wine-production cellar.
“Of all I have seen there, I was interested only in one thing: winemaking,” Putin said. “It’s a very good and noble activity.”
Though Putin dismissed Navalny’s video as “boring,” it spurred demonstrations across Russia on Saturday. Many protesters chanted, “Putin is a thief!”
Reuters estimated that 40,000 attended Moscow’s rally alone. As Putin’s comments Monday were airing on state television, Navalny’s team called for more protests this weekend.
Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a commentary that the Saturday demonstrations “had a broader support base” than past protests organized by Navalny and his allies.
“People saw this as a protest against lawlessness and – in light of last year’s changes to the constitution, which allow President Vladimir Putin to effectively remain in the job for life – the usurpation of power,” Baunov said.
Commenting on the demonstrations, which were not sanctioned by the government, Putin said, “Everyone has the right to express their point of view within the framework provided by the law. Anything outside the law is not just counterproductive, but dangerous.”
He cited the 1917 Russian Revolution and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as examples of “when the situation went far beyond the framework of the law and led to such destabilization of society and the state that not only those who destabilized the state and society were hurt, but also people who had no relation to it.”
More than 3,700 people were detained in the protests Saturday, according to Russian rights group OVD-Info. Putin said law enforcement agencies “should fulfill their duty to serve the people of Russia,” equating the Russian police response to how the United States is prosecuting rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“What will they do to these people? One top FBI official said they have long arms and will catch everyone, imprison everyone. From 15 to 25 years, as for domestic terrorism,” Putin said, adding that those rioters “also had political slogans, but outside the framework of the law. Why should we allow everything outside the framework of the law? No.”
The State Department on Saturday condemned “the use of harsh tactics against protesters and journalists this weekend in cities throughout Russia,” adding that it followed “years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition.”