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Financial Times Whitewashes Notorious Russian Fraudster

This article's bias and dishonesty is surprising to even the most hardened of cynics ...
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One of RI's regular contributors, the author is a well known commentator on Russia in the global financial media

The FT published a truly astounding, nay, embarrassing, article yesterday co-authored by Catherine Belton and Neil Buckley about bankrupted former oligarch Sergei Pugachev's legal battle with Russian prosecutors over the financial implosion of his business empire in 2012.  

<figcaption>Sergei Pugachev, one of the greatest fraudsters ever.  How could the FT not have known this?</figcaption>
Sergei Pugachev, one of the greatest fraudsters ever. How could the FT not have known this?

(The article is sometimes behind a paywall or login, so we have presented it in full at the end of this article - editors)

It betrays a stunning ignorance of the facts of the case, facts which are common knowledge to the financial community in Moscow.

In the 27 paragraph article, 17 of them were effectively a soapbox for Pugachev, with most of the rest drawing one false inference after another.

Only in the 15th paragraph does the article mention that the government charged Pugachev with massive and brazen fraud at the time, euphemizing it to the point where it seems trivial.  It never mentions that Mr. Pugachev presided over the largest corporate bankruptcy in Russian history. That slim paragraph, and another minor mention, buried at the end of the article (paragraph #22), is the only space the FT gives to the other side of the story.

The FT grossly distorts the issue, painting Pugachev as another persecuted oligarch worthy of pity, when in fact, he is widely seen by most financial experts in Moscow, foreign and domestic, to be a died-in-the-wool fraudster, the Russian Bernie Madoff.

The intellectual bankruptcy of The Financial Times is truly breathtaking - not just Khodorkovsky but now any criminal who claims to be a dissident receives accolades from this venerable broadsheet.

Mukhtar Ablyazov, who stole about $4 billion from Kazakstan, with a further billion each in Ukraine and Russia - was described by the FT in 2013 as a "political dissident", even though while he was stealing the money he showed not the slightest interest in politics.

And now Pugachev, whose totally criminal IIB bank he looted himself, leaving bond-holders with literally zero cents on the dollar, is the latest addition to their list of Brave Dissidents:

One of Vladimir Putin’s former closest associates has said Russian businessmen were all now “serfs” who belonged to the president, with none of the country’s companies beyond his reach. Sergei Pugachev, who was once so close to Mr Putin that he was known as the “Kremlin’s banker”, made the comments in his first interview since the state seized his multibillion-dollar ship building empire in 2012.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Pugachev warned there are no longer any “untouchables” in a Russian business landscape increasingly dominated by Mr Putin. The Russian economy, he argues, has been transformed into a feudal system where businessmen are only nominal owners of their assets. “Today in Russia there is no private property. There are only serfs who belong to Putin,” he said.

I never had much respect for either Buckley or Belton - but in the old days they had some minimal decency and journalistic standards. Now, their shocking dishonesty is obviously being done on command from above. The Soviet press was clean and impartial by comparison.

The article reads as if Pugachev paid, and paid handsomely, for every word in it.

God knows there is little that amazes me anymore - but even I am amazed!

Full text of the article follows:

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Businessmen are ‘serfs’ in Putin’s Russia, warns Sergei Pugachev

09 Dec 2008; Russia, Moscow. State Secretary of Russia-Belarus Union Pavel Borodin (left) and representative of the Republic of Tuva in the Federation Council of Russia Sergei Pugachev (right) at the Church ceremony of farewell to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. (Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant)

Sergei Pugachev in Moscow in 2008

A former close associate of Vladimir Putin has said Russian businessmen were all now “serfs” who belonged to the president, with none of the country’s companies beyond his reach.

Sergei Pugachev, who was once so close to Mr Putin that he was known as the “Kremlin’s banker”, made the comments in his first interview since the state seized his multibillion-dollar ship building empire in 2012.

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Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Pugachev warned that there were no longer any “untouchables” in a Russian business landscape increasingly dominated by Mr Putin. The Russian economy, he argued, had been transformed into a feudal system where businessmen were only nominal owners of their assets.

“Today in Russia there is no private property. There are only serfs who belong to Putin,” he said.

Mr Pugachev’s comments have fresh resonance amid the ongoing dispossession of another Moscow tycoon, Vladimir Yevtushenkov, whose arrest last month – and a subsequent court decision to seize shares in his Bashneft oil major – is still sending shudders through the country’s business community.

That event has been interpreted by many observers as a shattering of the rules that have governed relations between the Kremlin and the country’s oligarchs in the post-Soviet era.

Mr Pugachev – whose business interests once spanned banking, construction and shipbuilding – was a towering figure of those years. He was a member of former president Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle and then became a close confidant of Mr Putin.

When the former KGB officer became president in 2000, powerful holdovers from the Yeltsin era managed to maintain some independence. But after Mr Putin embarked on a campaign to retake state control of key parts of the economy the borders between business and the Kremlin began to be erased.

That process, Mr Pugachev argued, had now accelerated as the strain of western sanctions against Russia over its intervention in Ukraine increases.

Fri., Apr. 1, 2011, Russia, Moscow region. Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sistema company Vladimir Yevtushenkov during a meeting of the Governmental Commission on High Technologies and Innovations. The meeting took place in Novo-Ogaryovo. Kommersant Photo/Dmitry Azarov #RU 01.04.2011, Россия, Московская обл., Ново-Огарево. Председатель совета директоров АФК "Система" Владимир Евтушенков во время заседания правительственной Комиссии по высоким технологиям и инновациям. Заседание прошло в Ново-Огарево. Фото: Дмитрий Азаров/Коммерсантъ

Vladimir Yevtushenkov, one of Russia’s richest businessmen was arrested last month

“Now there is Putin and there are his lieutenants who carry out his orders – and all cash generated is put on the balance of Putin,” he said. “The country is in a state of war. And therefore big business cannot live as before. It has to live under military rules.”

Mr Pugachev’s own problems began with the 2010 collapse of Mezhprombank, the top 30 lender he founded. He fled Russia in 2011 for exile in London as the state moved to take over his shipyards, as part of efforts to recover funds from the bank. Last year, a Moscow court issued a warrant for his arrest, blaming him for the bank’s failure.

In his first public comments about the charges, Mr Pugachev denied any responsibility. Instead, he claimed Mezhprombank’s bankruptcy was the result of a Kremlin campaign to seize the controlling stakes he held in Russia’s two biggest and most modern shipyards at a knockdown price.

The businessman is preparing to present evidence in a London court that he said will prove the bankruptcy was part of a state “raid” on his empire, as he seeks to fend off a freezing order on his international assets issued in July by Russia’s Deposit Insurance Agency.

Now there is Putin and there are his lieutenants who carry out his orders – and all cash generated is put on the balance of Putin. The country is in a state of war. And therefore big business cannot live as before. It has to live under military rules

- Sergei Pugachev

At the heart of the case is some $2.1bn in unpaid debts owed by Mezhprombank, some of which resulted from emergency Central Bank liquidity support provided in late 2008 in the midst of the global financial crisis.

The government has alleged Mr Pugachev was behind a series of transactions that damaged the bank’s balance sheet, including the transfer of $700m in Central Bank bailout funds to an account in Switzerland controlled by his son.

Mr Pugachev said the transaction did not involve the Central Bank funds and was related to a commercial investment.

He also claimed he had struck an agreement with the Central Bank to repay Mezhprombank’s debt with the proceeds from the sale of two St Petersburg shipyards – Severnaya Verf and Baltiisky Zavod. Those assets had been valued by BDO, the international audit firm, at $3.5bn. Nomura, an investment bank, valued them at between $2.2bn and $4.2bn - more than enough to cover the roughly $1bn owed to the Central Bank.

But the Central Bank revoked the bank’s licence when it missed an interest payment in October 2010. Soon afterward, it filed suit to seize Mr Pugachev’s shipyard stakes, triggering a chain of events that ended in their forced sale in 2012.

They were sold to the state-controlled United Shipbuilding Corporation for $415m and $7.5m, respectively – a fraction of the BDO valuation. At the time, USC was chaired by Igor Sechin – a close Putin ally who now heads Rosneft, the state oil company that many analysts believe is now poised to scoop up Mr Yevtushenkov’s Bashneft stake.

Russia’s central bank declined to comment to the FT. But the then central bank governor, Sergei Ignatiev, told the FT’s Russian sister paper, Vedomosti, earlier this year he had not given any guarantees that Mezhprombank would keep its licence.

“I never regarded the pledge of the shipbuilding assets as part of some planned deal to sell them,” Mr Ignatiev said.

one of the main concerns of Russia's business elite, who are also known as the "Oligarchs". WAW/AA - RTR6RG2©Reuters

Pugachev with Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2000

Dmitry Peskov, press spokesman for Mr Putin, denied that the central bank had been used to seize Mr Pugachev’s shipbuilding assets. “The [shipyards] business was in ruins. Who is interested in such a devastated business? He built up huge amounts of debts and then ran away,” Mr Peskov said.

Mr Pugachev disputed this, arguing that the shipyards were flourishing under his ownership after a decade of decay. The government, he said, later inflated their debts artificially by recording advance payments for ships as debts.

More broadly, though, he viewed the loss of his empire as part of a campaign that began with the state’s attack in 2003 on Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil business and has extended to today’s seizure of Mr Yevtushenkov’s assets. Driving it forward, he argued, is a Russian leader with a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of private property – as demonstrated during a visit to a nuclear icebreaker produced by his shipyards, the country’s first in 35 years.

“I remember his amazement,” Mr Pugachev recalled. “There were swimming pools, gardens, an orangery on board. This was an icebreaker worth more than $1bn. But for him, it was incomprehensible. In his view, a private owner can make buns but he can’t make icebreakers and military ships.

Mr Putin, he said, still had the mentality of “a Soviet person, a chekist,” - the Russian word for a secret policeman.

“There is no point in anyone looking for a mistake by Mr Yevtushenkov,” he said. “This is just the system starting to eat itself.”

 


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