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Vladimir Yakunin, President of Russian Railways, attends the opening day of the St. Petersburg International Forum in St. Petersburg May 22, 2014. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)
Vladimir Yakunin, President of Russian Railways, attends the opening day of the St. Petersburg International Forum in St. Petersburg May 22, 2014. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)

Russian Railways paid billions to secretive private companies Add to ...

As well as their elusiveness, MPC and TSA have other striking similarities, including the fact they were set up on the same day in 2005 by the same individual and that they opened bank accounts on the same day at STB.

These overlaps were no mere coincidence, said a former manager who worked for both companies at different times in the mid 2000s. The two companies were in effect part of the same group and bid together on Russian Railways contracts to ensure the group owner had a “guarantee of winning.”

MPC and TSA list two different people as managers in corporate filings; neither of them responded to repeated requests for comment.

Referring to the two companies, Yakunin’s spokesman Pirkov wrote: “They are suppliers acting in good faith and are fully functioning enterprises ... Deliveries under these contracts are made on time, (and) production was of reliable quality. No evidence has been found that they acted in bad faith.”

Of the 10 companies studied, only one, called Zheltransavtomatika, had a registered headquarters where Reuters found employees working. The company’s manager did not respond to written questions.

Four of the 10 companies listed their offices at locations where nobody had heard of the businesses at all. These headquarters included a freight depot by a motorway, a car repair shop and an upmarket children’s department store in central Moscow.

Who owns these companies? MPC is a type of entity that isn’t obliged to declare its shareholders. The registered owners of the other nine contractors to Russian Railways are a motley bunch. An examination of official filings showed each firm was owned by one or two individuals – a total of 10 women and three men.

Those owners whom reporters were able to trace all lived in modest Moscow apartment complexes. In one run-down building, a person listed in official documents as sole owner of one of the contractors confirmed having been the formal owner until recently. In reality, though, this person said, they had never truly controlled the company, but had acted as a straw owner, hiding the real owners of the firm.

The straw owner knew the company’s business involved contracts with Russian Railways but had no other knowledge of its operations. The straw owner alleged that the controlling influence behind that contractor was Andrei Krapivin, the man Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, once described as an unpaid adviser.

“I know Alexei Krapivin,” said the straw owner, referring to Andrei Krapivin’s son. The son, he said, organised business between Russian Railways and the company. The straw owner said Krapivin senior was the “main man” behind this arrangement, while his son handled the practicalities.

In his phone call, Krapivin’s son, Alexei, said STB belonged to Gorbuntsov and not to his father, and said his father was not a hidden controlling influence behind rail contractors. He did not answer further questions. However, a written statement signed by Andrei Krapivin records that he was a shareholder in STB from 2007 to 2009. Public corporate records also show that he was a shareholder in 2008.

Yakunin’s spokesman did not comment on whether Krapivin had any connection to any of the 10 contractors, but ruled out the possibility of any wrongdoing.

THE TRANSACTIONS

From the steam locomotives of “Doctor Zhivago” and the Russian Revolution to the double-decker express trains hurtling to the Winter Olympics, railways have helped make Russia, permeating the nation’s geography and culture.

When Vladimir Lenin returned from exile to lead his revolution in April 1917, he travelled from Finland to Russia’s old Tsarist capital of St. Petersburg by steam train. By the 21st century, Russian Railways was looking to upgrade the historic line to take electric trains running at 220 km per hour (140 miles per hour).

One of the biggest beneficiaries of that project was a private contractor called Setstroienergo. In total, Russian Railways awarded Setstroienergo nearly $1-billion between 2007 and 2013, according to public tender records and a database of bank transactions supplied by Gorbuntsov.

When Gorbuntsov left Russia after falling out with former business partners, including Krapivin, he brought with him a laptop. It contained, among other banking data, millions of transactions that took place through STB between the beginning of 2007 and late 2009. Money frequently moved through a whirl of accounts, making it hard for anyone such as outside auditors or tax officials to track, Gorbuntsov said.

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