Vladimir Putin launched his fourteenth annual citizen call-in session as Russian president on Thursday, just months ahead of a key parliamentary elections that will test support for the leader's party.
The much-reported Panama Papers revelations came up within the second hour of questions. Putin didn't question their validity, but he said that Seuddeutsche Zeitung – a German newspaper that was heavily involved with the reporting – was obligated to Goldman Sachs. Both Goldman Sachs and Seuddeutsche Zeitung were not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
While Putin is not named in the documents there are allegations of a billion-dollar money-laundering ring controlled by a Russian bank that has links to associates of the Russian leader. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), one of the teams that has been analyzing the data, told CNBC the papers show Putin's close aides were involved in a $2 billion money trail with offshore firms and banks.
Over 2.5 million phone calls were reportedly received by the end of the call-in's first hour on top of those sent via video and social media, touching on topics ranging from tense international relations, poor regional road infrastructure, food price inflation, and even Putin's love life.
While the event is viewed as an opportunity for Putin to reach out to everyday citizens it has been widely criticized for being scripted and stage-managed. A report published by Russian business news channel RBC even claimed that the Kremlin was coaching the audience outside Moscow ahead of the broadcast.
The live broadcast often runs for around four hours.
A question said to be sent by a 12-year-old girl quickly drew on two of the country's geopolitical conflicts, asking who Putin would save first if both Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko were drowning. While calling it a difficult question, he appeared to condemn both leaders, saying "if someone is determined to drown you can't help them."
Later, when probed about his personal life, he said he understood the interest but didn't want to broadcast the details, joking that he otherwise risked moving foreign exchange rates and oil prices.
The call-in program comes ahead of elections for the Russian parliament Duma slated for September 18. While Putin's presidency isn't up for review, it will be an opportunity to test the popularity of his ruling United Russia party led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as the country's population suffers the effects of low oil prices and extended western sanctions including high inflation and negative economic growth.