Russian Rail pays billions in secret

Reuters

One of Russia’s biggest state companies has handed billions of dollars to mysterious private contractors that disguise their ownership or have little or no presence at their registered headquarters, a Reuters investigation has found.

Russian Railways, led by Vladimir Yakunin, an old friend of President Vladimir Putin, awarded about 115 billion rubles ($3.5 billion) to 11 such private companies between 2007 and 2013, according to public tender documents and private bank records.

Two of the 11 firms were the only bidders in 43 tender competitions, worth up to $340 million, since 2010. Though bidding as rivals, the two have striking similarities. They were registered on the same day, opened bank accounts on the same day and in two recent years reported exactly the same number of employees. Of the 11 companies, none of their real owners could be traced, and only one had staff members at its registered headquarters when a reporter visited.

The state rail giant awarded $1 billion to a single contractor that is a type of company that is not obliged to disclose its owners. Its registered headquarters is a one-room apartment in a run-down apartment building in Moscow. No one was there when a reporter called during working hours.

An analysis of a database of 70 million Russian banking transactions obtained by Reuters indicates that much of the money paid to this contractor was rapidly transferred to other companies. Some of those recipients have either been declared bogus by Russian authorities or appear to have nothing to do with railway work.

Russian Railways (RZhD) said there is nothing wrong with its contractors or the way its contracts are awarded. In a letter to Reuters, a spokesman for Yakunin and Russian Railways said: “The procurement activity of OAO RZhD is conducted in strict accordance with applicable law. … An internal review was conducted of documents and agreements with the companies. … No violations were found whatsoever.”

In 1990s Russia, after the collapse of communism, individuals bought swaths of state assets at knockdown prices, becoming hugely wealthy oligarchs. Since then, privatization has slowed. But the state pays billions of dollars each year to private contractors.

Reuters began examining contracts offered by Russian Railways after learning that several companies winning rail tender competitions of significant value all had accounts at a bank called Capital Commercial Bank (STB).

One of the major shareholders in STB, which is now defunct, was a businessman called Andrei Krapivin, who Yakunin once described as an “old acquaintance” and an “unpaid adviser.”