An increasing number of surveys rate Russian president Vladimir Putin the richest man in Europe. Putin is allegedly to have amassed enormous wealth during his presidential reign and all the way back to the Petersburg days. At his annual press conference on 14 February, Putin for the first time commented on these rumours:
It is true. I am the richest man not only in Europe, but in the world: I amass emotions and am rich in the sense that the Russian people twice put the trust in me to rule such a great country as Russia. I count this as my biggest wealth.What concerns various rumours concerning my financial situation, I have seen some documents on this issue. This is simply gossip, which there is no reason to discuss - mere nonsense.
In Russia, there is a tradition of denial whenever such accusations arise. Instead, Putin chose to make fun of the issue - or rather make himself out as honoured by the trust and responsibility the Russian people has put in him. Judging from his body language, the Russian president appeared somewhat ill at ease with the question. Not that it was unexpected, and the answer was certainly rehearsed. Still, one did not need more than a glance at Putin's reaction to gather that he would not have passed a polygraph test.
The question of rising wealth and power in Russia is destined to determine the future development and stability of the country. As long as the elites may share the dividends of growing wealth and power, they will remain loyal to the system. The day this situation will change - e.g. by falling international oil prices - there is nothing to hold the system together except mere repression. The question is but for how long the elites will accept such a system, if they no longer have anything to gain from it. The risk is that a lack of growth will eventually lead Russia into crisis and turmoil with little to keep the system together.