Sergei Shelin: Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia

vhuo87jzsh8j2vtaThe label from a bottle of Port Wine 777. Courtesy of Collectionerus

Isolationism Has Corrupted Russia
The Sukhoi Superjet 100’s crash shows what happens when a country isolates itself from the world while trying to keep up with the 21st century’s Joneses 
Sergei Shelin
Rosbalt
May 7, 2019

Only Murmansk Region announced an official day of mourning for the people who perished at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport on May 5. There was little expectation a national day of morning would be announced, since the protocol for such things, adopted by the country’s leaders for their own convenience, do not stipulate a national day of mourning after disasters of this magnitude. It is thus neither a matter of heartlessness nor the upcoming Victory Day holiday.

The Sukhoi Superjet 100s have not been grounded, however. True, the authorities are currently pushing the hypothesis the crash was caused by pilot error. This is a more intelligible and attractive explanation than the hypothesis that was cooked up just the other day as a diversion, the one about how some passengers, allegedly, prevented other passengers from escaping because they were trying to get their luggage out of the burning plane. Nothing has yet been proven, however, although hardly anyone would argue with the fact that the first passenger jet designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been a failure.

The Super Jet was produced long before the current falling out with the west. Its designers made generous use of imported parts, hoping the plane would sell like hotcakes abroad. Today, the few foreign airlines whom Sukhoi managed to persuade to purchase the planes, for example, the Mexicans, complain about the Super Jet’s unreliability, design flaws, and delays in procuring spare parts. It would seem they are looking for a good excuse to stop flying the planes.

The flip side of these failures has been the attempt to force Russian airlines to operate the plane, especially Aeroflot. What would grounding the plane mean now? It would be tantamount to bringing the entire undertaking to a close. Clearly, the Russian state’s ambitions and collective self-interest have coalesced to oppose this decision. The Super Jets are still flying, and we can only hope everything will work out for the best.

Such semi-Russian, semi-foreign collaborations are feasible and normal if the general contractor is not having a spat with the outside world, and airlines are free to choose which airplanes they fly. This was not quite the case from the get-go, but when Russia’s quarrel with the west gained momentum, all the worst aspects of the venture elbowed their way to the fore, turning into a self-sustaining process.

The deeper Russia sinks into isolation, the worse the links in all business chains function, while state protectionism constantly increases for anything that resembles import substitution or at least apes it. The number of failures and breakdowns in all parts of Russian society, some of them involving fatalities, sometimes without them, thank God, inevitably grows.

What is the difference between yesteryear’s Soviet isolationism and the current Russian isolationism? The former was preprogrammed to generate victims and hardship. They were merely part of the system. We need not talk about Stalin’s horrors. Even during its final decades, the Soviet Union was still typified by universal poverty, quite strong societal discipline, and the ruling class’s relative modesty. This state of affairs was maintained by a ragtag ideology and a still palpable fear of the state machine. Isolation was vouchsafed, of course, by the Soviet Union’s lagging behind the outside world. But it did not weigh heavy on every aspect of life and all at the same time. People moved into Khrushchev-era blocks of flats, regarding them as the last word in modern housing. They drank 777 brand “port wine,” having no clue how real Portuguese port tasted.

On the other hand, the Soviet military-industrial complex competed successfully with the rest of the world, at least until the early 1980s. Even though it was a byproduct of military aviation, Soviet civil aviation was quite impressive. The country’s professional communities, including the period’s passenger airline pilots, maintained a strict work ethic longer than Soviet society at large. Crashes were not so rare, however. But they were usually covered up not only due to totalitarianism but also because the information revolution had not yet happened.

The Soviet regime seemed invincible almost to the bitter end. Current attempts to resurrect it, despite their impressive magnitude, are laughable.

Today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.  It does not have the stamina to compete in arms races and so forth with the outside world. It has even less will to self-denial, both among the elites and the grassroots. People have been adapting to the plans of the authorities to lock them up in a besieged fortress forever, but their life hacks are completely different from what they were in the last century.

Many Russians who have the right skills, experience, and education have been leaving abroad to work. By the way, their ranks have included hundreds if not thousands of the country’s best commercial pilots. Several millions of people, each of them capable of doing something well, have emigrated from Russia during Putin’s twenty-year reign.

Meanwhile, the majority of Russians, who have stayed in Russia, have tried to make themselves as comfy as they can in their import-substitution society, hoping either for special perks or state welfare, or perks and welfare all at once.

Since isolation has kicked in, independent business, already frail, has almost gone extinct. But the bureaucratized “state-minded” capitalists who took over the entire business field have nothing in common with the dexterous captains of Soviet management. As they get filthy rich through import substitution, today’s Russian magnates would never think of depriving themselves of the outside world’s blessings. They do not pretend to be farsighted. Simple minded, they loudly demand that the isolationist feast go on, becoming more creative as it proceeds. From time to time, the peculiarity of their exclamations spices up the sad circumstances, but not much.

Many people laughed at Viktor Linnik, president of Russian agribusiness giant Miratorg, and the National Meat Association when they called on the government to ban individuals from bringing small amounts of sanctioned European produce back to Russia. They were especially amused when Linnik said, “Jamon should be eaten in Spain, while Parmesan cheese should be eaten in France.”

The most striking thing about what Linnik said was not his confusion about Parmesan cheese’s national provenance, but the ease with which one could continue his line of though by saying, for example, that Russian bread should be eaten in Russia and, consequently, it was time to stop exporting grain, one of the few export sectors in which Russia has been blossoming. Would you tell me only a crazy blowhard would suggest such a thing? I doubt you would. Many things that had seemed impossible have already happened during the current orgy of import substitution, which consists of equal portions of greed and persecution mania.

Russia’s newfangled twenty-first-century isolationism not only vouchsafes the country will lag behind others. It is a species of intellectual, moral and professional corruption. It means no lessons can be learned from accidents and disasters. It means decadence, decay, and collapse are fobbed off as a decent, normal life.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Nastiness Is a Warm Gun: The Kremlin’s Cowboys

bd1bf37b99A Miratorg worker tending calves. Courtesy of Readovka

Business Russian Style, or, What is Miratorg, and What Do You Eat with It?
Dmitry Zhuravsky
Readovka
April 30, 2019

How Did a Company Importing Meat from Brazil End Up Getting Most of Russia’s Agricultural Subsidies? 
Miratorg’s own website identifies it as the largest agribusiness investor in Russia. The company is owned the Linnik twins, Viktor and Alexander. Viktor serves as the company’s president. It was Viktor Linnik who, last week, proposed tightening controls on the luggage of people entering Russia and increasing penalties for the illegal import of meat-based products. Today, he encouraged Russians to stop thinking about Parmesan cheese and start thinking more about the country’s growth. To rub it in, he dubbed everyone disgruntled with such proposals “blowhards.”

We should point out right off the bat that the fact Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife’s maiden name is Linnik is only a funny coincidence, one which the Linnik twins have never tired of mentioning when they are interviewed by journalists.

The facts back this up. Blood relatives of the Russian state’s second most important person could not have established a giant agribusiness company that keeps all its accounts and founding capital outside Russia.

One hundred percent of Miratorg’s shares are owned by Cypriot offshore companies: 99.99% by Agromir, Ltd. (despite its Russian acronym, the company is registered in Nicosia), and 0.01% by Saudeid Enterprises, Ltd. (also registered in Nicosia).

Nevertheless, Miratorg is on the Russian federal list of so-called backbone companies and, since 2015, due to Russia’s self-imposed ban on meat and produce imports, it has been dubbed a strategic company. These regalia allow the Cypriot-based company to obtain loans from Vnesheconombank at discounted rates, which means it borrows part of its operating capital by drawing on the future pensions of Russians. (We published a detailed analysis of this scheme in a previous article.) It also means Miratorg can apply to the government for subsidies to pay back these selfsame loans.

A Success Story
Considering Viktor Linnik’s current circumstances, Miratorg’s origins appear laughable. The company was initially established to import meat from Holland and Brazil to Russia. To make the job easier, two years after the company was founded, in 1997, Miratorg opened a subsidiary in the Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port, through which it imported meat to mainland Russia. Miratorg did business this way for nearly ten years. In 2005, it purchased a stake in two BelgoFrance-owned pig farms in Belgorod Region. The import company was transformed into a full-fledged agribusiness.

Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg went on to co-found a farm in Kaliningrad Region. A little later, it moved into Bryansk Region, which has become the company’s second home.

It was also in 2005 Miratorg was chosen to be involved in the National Priority Projects, a program for growing “human capital,” announced by Vladimir Putin on September 5, 2005. Until Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, the program, which included promoting the agricultural sector as one of its priorities, was overseen by the current Russian prime minister. Since 2008, when Medvedev was inaugurated president, the agricultural growth program has had its own line item in the federal budget.

Current Realities
Miratorg is currently Russia’s largest meat producer. According to Kontr.Focus.ru, an online service for assisting in doing due diligence on potential clients and business partners, Miratorg, Ltd., has founded thirty-six subsidiaries in eight regions of Russia. In 2017, the company produced 415,000 tons of pork, 114,000 tons of poultry, and 82,000 tons of beef.

Russia’s regions regard Miratorg as a valuable investor whom nearly any governor would be glad to welcome into his neighborhood. According to Miratorg’s website, the company has made a total of 200 billion rubles in investments. The advent of an agricultural market player of this caliber in a region means a guaranteed inflow of money from the federal budget in the form of subsidies from the government’s agricultural sector growth program and  Miratorg’s own investments.

On paper, Miratorg is a real find for regions heavily dependent on federal government subsidies. Aside from the federal agricultural subsidies it brings with it, Miratorg contributes to regional budgets through the land it leases. Its farms provide jobs while they are being builty and after they are brought on line. In addition, it pays taxes in the regions. The company is not a burden but a blessing, or so it would seem.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Miratorg President Viktor Linnik. Courtesy of Readovka

Taking advantage of its status, Miratorg moves confidently around Russia. In the regions, it has become accustomed to acting suddenly and brazenly. The company often receives land under indefinite gratuitous bailments by order of the federal government, whose decrees are personally signed by Prime Minister Medvedev.

Miratorg usually acts in full compliance with the law, although the effects of how it does business trip up regional governments. After three years, the land it leases free of charge is transferred from regional ownership to Miratorg’s ownership.

Last summer, the Bryansk Commercial Court adjudicated a conflict between the Bryansk Meat Company (Miratorg’s local subsidiary) and the Bryansk Regional Government. Miratorg tried to prove that members of a district council had violated the law by refusing to sell them land they had been leasing. According to law, a company that has leased agricultural land for three years has the right to purchase it and continuing farming it. Only two conditions must be met for the deal to go through: the relevant regulatory authorities must have no objections, and the land must be used for its original purpose.

The Bryansk Meat Company had complied with these terms, but local councilors had not signed off on the deal. Originally, they had agree to lease the land to the investor. Later, Miratorg’s subsidiary decided to trick the council and buy the land. Consequently, the local council was not paid the rent promised to it and did not profit from Miratorg’s presence in the district.

Instead of a lease, the local council was offered a one-time payment, which is transferred to the council’s accounts when the investor buys the land. Bryansk Meat Company’s farm occupies thirteen parcels of land totaling 7,398,700 square meters. Under the terms of the sale of the parcels to Miratorg, the average assessed value of one square meter of land is a mere 1.6 rubles. It is a great deal for Miratorg, but not for Bryansk Region.

We found reports of similar law suits ongoing between Miratorg and local governments in other regions of Russia.

Nastiness Is a Warm Gun
Since 2009, Miratorg has also confidently been colonizing Kursk Region. Its investments there began with the Pristen District, but currently the company operates in thirteen districts in the region. Its facilities in Kursk Region include the Pristen Pig Farm, Blagodatnoye Agricultural Enterprise, Renaissance Farm, Fatezh Lamb, and Miratorg Kursk, Ltd. According to Miratorg’s figures, it invested 17 billion rubles on its agribusiness facilities in Kursk Region between 2009 and 2017. In the Pristen District, it built two pig-breeding facilities with three sites each, while in the Oboyan District it built two pedigree breeding units.

Currently, Miratorg is building what will be Europe’s largest refrigerated slaughterhouse with a capacity to process 4.5 million head of hogs or 400,000 tons of meat in slaughter weight. Miratorg has also been building seven pig farms in two other districts in the region.

3fe1ac38af.jpgA billboard showing Miratorg’s assets in Kursk Region. Courtesy of Readovka

Why has Miratorg invested so much in Kursk Region? For the same reason it has invested heavily in Smolensk, Bryansk, Kaluga, Kaliningrad, and other regions in Russia. The Russian federal budget supports domestic industrial agricultural enterprises with subsidies. Some of the federal government’s assistance is earmarked for the largest players in agribusiness, the strategic, “backbone” companies we mentioned earlier. Some of the assistance is filtered through regional government budgets, where it is meant to boost small companies and support local producers. When Miratorg sets up a subsidiary in a region, it automatically grabs the lion’s share of federal subsidies for itself.

In Russia, there are no limits on the subsidies a particular agricultural holding company can receive. By using the subsidiaries it has established in the regions, a national agribusiness company can qualify for regional subsidies. For example, in 2016, the Bryansk Meat Company was awarded 98% of all subsidies earmarked in the federal budget for promoting agriculture in Bryansk Region.

At the same time, Miratorg has been officially designated as a strategic, “backbone” enterprise. Accordingly, the company and its subsidiaries also receive subsidies for pursuing particular projects. Since 2014, Vnesheconombank has lent Miratorg $871.5 million to expand meat production. Thanks to sleights of hand such as this on, in 2016, Bryansk Meat Company left not only farms in Bryansk high and dry in terms of financing but also farmers nationwide by hogging 90% of all subsidies earmarked for agriculture. The total amount of subsidized loans was 33.6 billion rubles, and this financing was obtained by a single Miratorg subsidiary for a single year.

The company has been feeding off this program since it was founded in 2005. Miratorg has received hundred of billions of rubles in subsidies over this period.

The more subsidiaries it gets, the more lines of credit Miratorg can receive. The story  of its rise to the top bears a strong resemblance to the way Yevgeny Prigozhin built his school cafeteria catering monopoly in Moscow. There is one signal difference, however: whereas Concord Catering’s contract implies that Prigozhin’s food production facility does the work for which it was contracted and pays back its debts out of the profit generated by the facility, some of Miratorg’s loan agreements contain an interesting loophole. It can fulfill its obligations to Vnesheconombank one of two ways, either the way Concord Catering does it, by paying back its debts out of its profits, or by selling off its founding shares in its subsidiaries to pay off its loans. Meaning, hypothetically, Miratorg can rid itself of some of its subsidiaries.

Where Do Miratorg’s Profits Go?
Considering the billions in government subsidies it receives annually, Miratorg and its owners do not even have to run a good business to live high on the hog. According to open sources, Miratorg’s profits shrunk fivefold in 2016, amounting to a mere five billion rubles, despite the fact the company received several tens of billions of rubles in subsidies from the Russian federal government.

Nevertheless, Miratorg is the main supplier of meat for huge fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King. It has also launched its own cafes and supermarket chain. Miratorg’s profits, which are incomparable to the subsidies paid to the company, end up not in Russian bank accounts, but in offshore accounts in Cyprus.

d79d3fe745.jpgA  Miratorg supermarket, newly opened somewhere in Russia. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg’s operations do not resemble an attempt to promote Russian agriculture, but rather a scheme for spiriting federal money out of the country. Given Miratorg is the industry leader in terms of land assets and government support, it should also have come to monopolize supermarket shelves. Its status as a strategic enterprise and the subsidies it receives simply oblige it to aspire to this end. The government’s plan was to have Miratorg replace all the imported meat banned from supermarkets with domestically produced meat.

Instead, Miratorg annually receives several hundreds of billions in subsidies allocated by the government to support the country’s agriculture. Miratorg spends the money to purchase land, which it uses, along with shares from its regional subsidiaries, as collateral to obtain more loans.

Ultimately, instead of building a successful business and resurrecting Russian domestic agriculture according to the government’s plan, Miratorg merely filches money from the federal budget. As long as it keeps feeding the “Cypriot butchers,” real hardworking Russian farmers will have to get by without substantial assistance. Eventually, the whirligig of subsidies could lead to the complete collapse of Russian agriculture as such.

Thanks to Anna Klimenko for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader