October 7, 2015 / 6:26 PM / 4 years ago

Private palaces: Russia moves to hide property data

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian officials lampooned by anti-corruption activists for living in opulent mansions are moving to cover their tracks by limiting access to public data about property ownership.

The government proposal to restrict Russia’s Unified State Register of Property Rights follows a spate of revelations about the extravagant lifestyles of some top officials at a time when many Russians are suffering from a gruelling economic crisis.

At the moment, anyone can request data from the database, which holds information about a property’s address, appearance and ownership, but the Russian government now wants to limit access to state organisations.

“Increasingly, the aim of information requests ... is not about the property but for the personal data of its legal owner,” the government said in a statement. “This information could be used for criminal purposes.”

Others say the draft law is intended to prevent further embarrassment for public figures such as President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who was spotted sporting a designer watch worth $620,000, four times his annual salary, at his wedding in August.

“The initiative (behind) this draft law is aimed at anti-corruption projects,” said Ivan Pavlov, former head of the Freedom of Information Foundation that campaigned for greater government transparency in Russia. “It is a restriction of socially significant information.”

Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who revealed the price of Peskov’s watch and named his new wife as the owner of a $15 million luxury villa, said the draft law was targeted at the work of his Foundation for Fighting Corruption.

“Corrupt officials cannot stop us taking pictures of their palaces, but they are trying to make it so it is no longer possible to make a formal link between civil servants and their property,” he told Reuters.

Pavlov said Russian real-estate agents and lawyers who use the database would also be hit by the proposed restrictions, but the real aim was to impinge on the work of those who exposed the riches of Russia’s elite.

Opposition media and anti-graft campaigners have named multiple members of Putin’s inner circle, including State Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev and ex-Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, as owners of multi-million dollar homes.

A Reuters investigation found that even the president himself owns a luxury estate near the Black Sea dubbed “Putin’s Palace”, an allegation he denies.

“All Russian power structures are united in attempts to hide the real information about their homes and yachts,” Navalny said. “But the investigations of our foundation will not stop.”

Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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