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Eco-Activists Link 'Putin's Palace' To President's Guards, 'Illegal' Forest Destruction

A drone shot of the Black Sea mansion known as "Putin's palace" from a January 19, 2021 documentary by Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation
A drone shot of the Black Sea mansion known as "Putin's palace" from a January 19, 2021 documentary by Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation

Amidst a political furor over Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny’s recent report that an estimated $1.37-billion, 68-hectare estate overlooking the Black Sea belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin, evidence of the estate’s ties to the Russian government appears to be mounting.

Both President Putin and the Kremlin have categorically denied any such association, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov positing this week that one or more entrepreneurs could “directly or indirectly” own the 17,691-square meter mansion and surrounding land at Krasnodar Krai’s Cape Idokopas.

But two Russian environmental activists tell Current Time that encounters they had with state security at the site of the so-called “Putin’s palace” suggested that the luxurious property is indeed connected to the highest echelons of the Russian state.

Follow The Forest

Ten years ago, Dmitry Shevchenko, a leader of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus organization, came across the residence’s construction site while investigating reported shore damage and the loss of 40 hectares of protected forest in the area.

Within about 20-25 minutes of the activists’ arrival, two men in camouflage who identified themselves as members of the Federal Protective Service (FSO), ran up to the group, forbade further photos, and ordered them off the property, Shevchenko said.

The FSO answers to the Russian president and protects strategic installations and high-level government communications.

At the time, to the consternation of tourists, the FSO, stating that the property was state-owned, routinely prevented anyone from walking along the beach beneath the construction site, Shevchenko alleged.

To Shevchenko’s surprise, the woods that lined the hillside leading down to the beach had not been cut down for easy access to the water or for a view of the sea from any structure. Rather, he charged, they had been left “to conceal this site so that, in particular, it could not be seen from the sea.”

Six years later, the state security presence apparently had only intensified.

In 2017, a routine check of satellite images of Russia’s Forest Fund, government-protected woodlands, from the area, showed that “a big blank space” had appeared in the forest near the site, with several plots of trees missing, commented Andrei Rudomakha, head of the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus .

“I was surprised. The Forest Fund is there. The territory is surrounded by a fence,” Rudomakha said. Curious, in late December 2017, he traveled to the location with colleagues for a closer look.

Though one of their number was detained, the activists put on masks and managed to enter the site “underground,” Rudomakha continued, without elaboration. They saw “serious security,” including dogs tied up inside the construction site, he said.

Rudomakha’s reconnoitering had not gone undetected, he believes. When the environmentalist returned home, he was attacked by three unknown assailants. A CC camera recorded the incident, but no one has been prosecuted for the assault, he said.

Supposedly, police cannot find those responsible. “Although I think that they are perfectly well known to the investigators – who they are and what they are,” Rudomakha said.

No official documents could ever be found that showed the government had given permission for buildings to be erected on the territory of protected woodlands, he continued.

In 2017, the then chairman of the President's Council on Civil Society Development and Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, had tried to get an answer from a deputy minister and other officials about what the justification was for the construction, but no one could say, he added.

“That is, the construction was absolutely illegal, and this was totally obvious,” Rudomakha alleged. “We wrote a ton of letters about this issue, but without any result.”

Photos from Rudomakha’s and Shevchenko’s trips to the estate were included, without their prior knowledge, in Navalny’s January 19 investigative report about the property, the two said.

Russia's State Security Organs Respond

The Federal Protective Service has not commented about whether its guards were ever deployed to the Cape Idokopas estate. But anti-corruption campaigner Ilya Shumanov, the deputy general director of Transparency International – Russia, noted that the FSO does not necessarily protect only senior state officials.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, for instance, is among those high-profile individuals with a state guard even though they are not state officials, Shumanov noted. Similarly, a state guard conceivably could be provided for “the leader of a major state company,” he added.

Names of powerful businessmen have been linked to the Cape Idokopas property ever since a scandal first surfaced in 2010 about then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s alleged ties to the mansion.

In 2011, influential businessman Aleksandr Ponomarenko, the co-owner and chairman of the board of Sheremetyevo International Airport, told the daily Kommersant that he had acquired the property for $350 million from Nikolai Shamlaov, a co-owner of the private Rossia Bank, and his two partners.

(Shamalov is believed to be a close acquaintance of President Putin and the former father-in-law of his daughter, Katya.)

But a representative of Ponomarenko’s office informed the news site that the magnate had sold his interest in a project to develop the property in 2016. The individual did not name the buyer.

He or she claimed that Ponomarenko has no information about the estate’s current status.

Navalny claimed that 70 square kilometers of land adjoining the mansion currently are held by the Federal Security Service (FSB) for "research and educational activities."

The government appears to have a keen interest in protecting the overall area.

The Federal Security Service, which oversees domestic intelligence matters, confirmed to the news outlet RBC that a no-fly zone has existed over Cape Idokopas since July 24, 2020.

The FSB attributed the reason to "the increased intelligence activity of a number of neighboring states, including members of the NATO bloc." A local administrative post for the zone was set up in October 2020, the agency said.

It did not elaborate about whether such zones are routinely placed over supposedly private property or about its "research and educational activities" at the site. It claimed that the zone exists only to defend Russia’s border.

The Federal Protective Service, however, denied to RBC Navalny’s allegation that boats are prevented from coming closer than 2 kilometers to the Cape Idokopas shoreline.

The Kremlin's Unnamed 'Entrepreneurs'

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the North Caucasus Environmental Watch, though, are not the only bodies that have reported a government link to the property. Three Russian businesses that have fulfilled orders for the estate have described it as a presidential residence as well.

The St. Petersburg company Profima stated in a 2019 presentation that it had delivered Czech-made Cetetherm heating equipment to the Praskoveevka residence, the mansion’s official name, Open Media reported on January 25. Profima named the presidential administration as the client.

Earlier, the Moscow company Aerokompleks had posted on its site that it had delivered equipment for a helicopter pad at Praskoveevka, which it described as a residence of the head of state. The website of the Krasnodar flooring company Optima Komplekt Stroi, which had supplied the residence with rubber coating in 2009, also described Praskoveevka as a presidential residence.

But presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov is having none of it. At his January 26 press briefing, Peskov stated that the Gelendzhik estate belongs to one or more entrepreneurs and denied that Putin had ever visited the location.

It is “obvious,” Interfax reported him as saying, that one businessperson or several “directly or indirectly own this site.”

The Kremlin, however, does not intend to name these individuals since it “does not have any right” to do so, he said.

Peskov claimed that it is “impossible” to get into further details about the property, and advised reporters that they address “the competent organs.”

Transparency International-Russia’s Shumanov believes the case should be the subject of a parliamentary investigation.

Navalny’s film, which has attracted over 95.2 million views since January 19, did not make completely “obvious” legal arguments for Putin’s supposed ownership of the complex, he said.

Consequently, Shumanov added, both the Kremlin and Putin are exploiting this weakness.

A Student's Question, A Woman's Disbelief

At a January 25 videoconference with academic high-achievers from the Ufa State Oil Technological University, the Russian leader responded to Navalny's investigation for the first time. “Nothing that is indicated there as my property belongs to either me or my close relatives, and never did," he asserted. "Never.”

Daniil Chemezov, the third-year student who ventured to ask Putin whether Navalny’s claims were true, told Current Time that representatives of the presidential administration had “examined” his question and “edited it for correct wording,” but did not censor it.

Chemezov described himself as satisfied by Putin’s response.

As does the Kremlin, he believes that investigations like Navalny’s are part of a “massive propaganda” campaign against the government.

The president’s objection that, if he had owned the property, his name would appear in property registration documents sounded reasonable to him.

Not all Russians agree, however.

“I don’t believe Putin,” said one middle-aged woman in black interviewed on the street in St. Petersburg. “It’s either his or [that of someone from] his circle.”

Ultimately, though, the woman found Navalny’s findings more “funny” than a fresh piece of news. “Because we live in Russia,” she explained with a laugh. “We live in Russia.”