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Panama Papers: Putin’s cellist friend says ‘invests in musicians’

A cellist friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin named in the Panama Papers as owning a $2-billion offshore empire was portrayed as a humble patron of the arts Sunday, in a state TV programme in which he said he helps hundreds of musicians.

Sergei Roldugin, an acclaimed musician who has known Putin since the 1970s, hit the spotlight when details emerged of his ownership of offshore firms dealing with Russian state companies, part of a vast leak of millions of documents known as the Panama Papers.

The Papers revealed that Putin’s associates, notably Roldugin, “secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion (1.75 billion euros) through banks and shadow companies,” according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

But a TV show broadcast Sunday on state-owned channel Rossiya, put the focus on Roldugin’s passion for music and helping young Russian talent, noting the high cost of musical instruments and that the leaks were managed by Washington.

The programme was screened three days after Putin denied the Panama Papers revealed any corruption within his inner circle, saying Roldugin spent money he earned from his business shares to buy musical instruments abroad for cash-strapped Russian institutions.

“I went around begging for this and that from anyone I could find,” Roldugin said of his early efforts to restore the mansion that now houses the Saint Petersburg House of Music, an institution supporting young classical musicians.

“Everything is expensive, instruments are expensive, professors are expensive… Everything is outrageously expensive,” Roldugin said as he showed the reporter stuccoed ceilings, parquet floors and a Stradivari cello.

But the idea that Roldugin spent the money on buying instruments overseas drew ridicule from Russia’s opposition, and Vedomosti daily reported that Russia only imported $50 million worth of musical instruments in 2015.

Roldugin was eventually offered a “small share in business” by “sponsors,” the programme’s narrator said, “so that he can stop begging”.

The cellist has a stake in Bank Rossiya — identified by the US treasury as a personal bank of Russia’s elite — with the Panama Papers alleging that his offshore funds were managed by people linked to the bank.

“We are investing in hundreds of young musicians,” Roldugin said in the programme, without commenting on the shell companies in his name or explaining how they managed to make so much money.

The programme, which also reached out to respected cultural figures for comment, including conductor Valery Gergiev and Hermitage museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, concluded that the leak “does not harm Russia”.

It also repeated the claim that the Panama Papers were “orchestrated by the (US) State Department itself” — allegations levelled by Putin and by the whistleblowing group Wikileaks.