By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin once compared ruling Russia to being a "galley slave", but four yachts that come with the job, not to mention palaces, aircraft and a wealth of luxury perks help explain his refusal to quit the presidency, leading critics said on Tuesday.
Listing 58 planes and helicopters and 20 homes with opulent fittings worthy of the tsars, not to mention 11 watches which alone are worth several times Putin's annual salary, a report published under the ironic title "The Life of a Galley Slave" by opposition leader Boris Nemtsov denounced a "blatant and cynical challenge" to millions of Russians barely managing to survive.
The Kremlin, which has long portrayed the 59-year-old president as a man of simple tastes and a liking for popular sports and active outdoor pastimes, did not immediately comment.
Putin, who declares a personal income barely a quarter of that of his U.S. counterpart, has long denied rumors that he has built up a vast personal fortune. The report did not address that but it illustrated in 32 pages how the former KGB agent has expanded the trappings of the office of president since he rose to power in 2000; it is intended to foster faint stirrings of opposition to his recent re-election for a further six years.
"One of the most serious reasons prompting V. Putin to hold on to power is the atmosphere of wealth and luxury to which he has become accustomed," wrote Nemtsov and co-author Leonid Martynyuk. "In a country where more than 20 million people barely make ends meet, the luxurious life of the president is a blatant and cynical challenge to society.
"We absolutely cannot put up with this."
Among eye-catching details, the authors highlighted a $75,000 toilet on a presidential jet. They also identified from photographs a total of 11 luxury timepieces on the wrist of the head of state and calculate their total value at some $700,000; Putin has declared an annual income of about $115,000.
YACHTS FOR "GALLEY SLAVE"
Tales of extravagance in the leadership, though familiar to Russians throughout their history from tsars to commissars, come at an awkward time for Putin as he has faced the biggest protests of his 12-year rule, mostly from middle-class urban liberals who are now trying to fire up indignation more widely.
The text was accompanied by photographs of luxurious homes, jets, helicopters, cars and watches, complete with footnotes citing Russian media as sources for many of the items. Nine new residences had been added to the list available to the president since Putin first became head of state in 2000, it said.
As well as 15 helicopters, the 43 other aircraft available to Putin include an Airbus, two Dassault Falcon executive jets and an Ilyushin Il-96 airliner that features an $18-million cabin fitted out by jewelers - and that toilet which, the report says, cost close to $75,000.
For a man who, in 2008, described his workload in office as being like that of a galley slave, the Kremlin fleet of luxury yachts may draw more comparison to the lifestyles of Russia's high-profile business tycoons, the "oligarchs".
One 53.7-metre yacht with a designer interior, a spa pool, waterfall and wine cellar is relegated to second best.
"The real diamond of the Kremlin flotilla," the report says, is a five-decked yacht with a Jacuzzi, barbecue, a maple wood colonnade and a huge bathroom faced in marble.
A 930-hectare (2,300-acre) residence on Lake Valdai in northwestern Russia has a cinema, a bowling alley and a "presidential church", the report said.
It said a little-known three-storey residence near Saratov, on the Volga river southeast of Moscow, has German chandeliers and Italian furniture, and features a billiard room, a winter garden, a pool and sauna.
While not addressing Putin's personal wealth directly - the president once dismissed talk of him being a billionaire as snot picked from noses of Western reporters and smeared on paper - it squarely challenges the image he offers of himself as a modest servant of the state, and paints him rather as a callous, Nero-like figure, ignoring Russia's persistent problems.
"Russia is continuing to die out ... the country has lost more than five million people, an African level of corruption has fettered the business activity and daily life of the country, and Russia's dependence on natural resources has only deepened during the years of Putin's rule," the report said.
Putin often refers to himself in public as "your humble servant". In a declaration filed this year, the report said, Putin reported an income of 3.6 million roubles ($113,000)and listed three old domestic cars and a trailer hitch handed down by his father as the vehicles he owns.
The report juxtaposes that with a description of some of the 700 automobiles at the disposal of the presidential administration, including an armored Mercedes limousine Putin can use to commute to the Kremlin from his country estate.
In addition to that suburban Moscow residence, Novo-Ogaryovo, and Bocharov Ruchei, his summer base in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin also has the run of two palaces by the Baltic, villas on the Volga and a ski lodge in a nature reserve in the Caucasus mountains, the report says.
Among the watches, a potent symbol of personal wealth among Russians since the collapse of communism, the report listed five made by Blancpain of Switzerland and one made by the German firm A. Lange & Soehne as among the most valuable in the collection.
Nemtsov and Martynyuk suggested money used on the upkeep of the residences and other presidential assets would be better spent for the public good.
Putin's spokesman and other Kremlin officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the report.
Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the 1990s, has become one of Putin's fiercest critics and was among the leaders of a series of protests over the past winter.
The protests began over allegations of fraud in parliamentary election won by Putin's ruling party last December and followed concern about his plan, announced last September, to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
Putin has not ruled out running for re-election in 2018, but a poll by the independent Levada Centre this month found that a majority of Russians would prefer someone else replace him.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alastair Macdonald)