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

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Sanktsionshchiki

sankts“Sanctioned product”

The Demand for Sanctions Specialists Has Grown in Russia
Svetlana Romanova
RBC
November 9, 2017

According to recruiting agencies and job search sites, he Russian job market has seen a growing demand for employees who understand the ins and outs of sanctions legislation.

According to Headhunter.ru, there were 27 published vacancies for sanctions specialists in October 2017; there were a mere nine vacancies in October 2014. Sberbank, VTB, UniCredit, Raiffeisen, Globex, and the Russian Regional Development Bank are among the companies now recruiting these specialists.

It is not only banks that have been generating the demand (they account for 44% of all vacanies) but also law firms (21%), accounting firms (11%), and insurance companies (10%). Starting pay is 250,000 rubles a month [approx. 3,600 euros a month], but experienced specialists can count on monthly salaries of 500,000 rubles, we were told by the personnel agencies we interviewed.

Vacancies advertised on websites are only the tip of the iceberg: headhunters are usually employed to find sanctions specialists. The first request for a sanctions specialist to the recruiting agencyHays was made by a major private Russian bank in late 2014, said Darya Anikina, managing consultant for financial institutions at Hays. Currently, the agency selects candidates for at least five positions a month at different companies. Our sources at the agencies Cornerstone, Kontakt, and Unity also told us about a deficit of sanctions specialists.

“The profession doesn’t exist officially. It’s not taught anywhere,” said Yuri Dorfman, a partner at Cornerstone.

Headhunters have to make compromises and use their imaginations. For example, Cornerstone recently succeeded in placing a specialist at a bank. At his previous job, he had been employeed preventing money laundering, and monitoring and stopping illegal financial transactions. Sanctions specialists are also aware of the demand and have been making the most of it. When moving to a new company, they ask for at least a thirty or forty percent raise, rather than the customary twenty percent raise.

Whereas sanctions specialists are sought out by banks and legal firms, the consumer goods retail sector has been vigorously looking for specialists to help it get round the Russian Federation’s countersanctions, meaning specialists in logistics and foreign trade. According to the website Superjob, the salaries for such vacancies increased by 18% in 2017.

______________________________

Sanktsionshchiki: Who Recruiting Agencies Are Hunting Nowadays
Svetlana Romanova
RBC
November 9, 2017

The Russian labor market’s demand for sanctions experts has been growing. People who practice this new, rare profession earn between 250,000 and 500,000 rubles a month, and employers have been headhunting them with a vengeance.

Since March 2014, the US, the EU, and other countries have been continously imposing more and more sanctions on Russian nationals, companies, and individual industries. This has provoked a demand for sanctions experts on the Russian jobs market. Some companies simply cannot do without their assistance. According to headhunters, there is a lack of such specialists. Employees who have improved their qualifications and learned how to deal with the restrictions and risks occasioned by sanctions can count on salary increases of thirty to forty percent.

Sanktsionshchiki
In March 2014, 46-year-old Artyom Zhavoronkov, a partner at the legal firm Dentons who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, was planning to travel to Washington, DC, to give a lecture to an American audience about how to build a business in Russia. But since the US had imposed the first set of sanctions against Russia [sic], the Americans cancelled the lecture. Zhavoronkov kept his head and suggested changing the subject of the lectures. He decided to talk about something more topical: the sanctions and their consequences. Ultimately, the lecture took place, and it was standing room only in the auditorium. It was then that Zhavoronko understood he had found a new business niche: legal advices on issues related to sanctions. Currently, he consults twenty to thirty international and Russian clients monthly.

Recruiting agencies received the first requests for sanctions specialists in the spring of 2014, but by the autumn of 2017 the demand for such specialists had become stable. The demand has grown not only for temporary consultants like Zhavoronkov: many companies seeks to hire in-house specialists. According to HeadHunter.ru, its website listed nine such vacancies in October 2014. By October 2017, that number had grown to 27. Candidates are usually expected to have degrees in law or finance, a good command of English, and a high tolerance for stress.

This is the tip of the iceberg, because companies usually employ headhunting agencies to find sanktionshchiki. Russian ompanies have realized no one is going to cancel the sanctions anytime soon, the lists of sanctioned companies and individuals have been expanding, and so the problem will not solve itself.

The first request for a sanctions specialist to the recruiting agency Hays was made by a major private Russian bank in late 2014, said Darya Anikina, managing consultant for financial institutions at Hays. Currently, the agency selects candidates for at least five positions a month at different companies. Compared with other professionals, this is a tiny figure, but for the time being they are all that is needed. In a company that employs a thousand people, there might be three or four such specialists, but they will earn more than their colleagues.

Who and What Banks Are Looking for

Vacancy: Specialist for international sanctions monitoring group

Duties: Vetting of bank clients and transactions against the lists of international sanctions, as imposed by the US, EU, UN, and other in-house lists. Search and analysis of additional information on the internet and the bank’s internal databases in order to analyze automatically generated warnings regarding the bank’s clients and transactions. Drafting of brief, well-argued analyses of automatically generated warnings. Filing of reports.

Requirements: Tertiary degree in economics, finance or law. No less than six months’ experience working in a credit institution. Experience working with automated banking systems. Command of written and spoken English at the intermediate level is obligatory. Ability to cope with large amounts of routine work. The candidate must be detail-oriented, focused, perseverant, able to learn quickly, proactive, diligent, and well-spoken.

Sourcejob listing on the website Headhunter.ru

Banks on the Hunt
Artyom Zhavoronkov provides sanctions-related legal services. He establishes whether the owner of a company with whom his client plans to make a business deal is not on the sanctions lists, and he drafts supply contracts that account for international restrictions. But he also provides more ambitious services. Recently, Zhavoronkov drafted a plan for an oil company: he conceived and drafted an in-house list of “sanctions” rules. For example, Zhavoronkov devised a special algorithm for sale managers that prevents them from making deals with companies and individuals on the sanctions list.

“If questions arise, sales managers contact legal counsel, and together they decide whether they can sign a contract,” Zhavoronkov explained.

Most of all, Zhavoronkov is proud he succeeded in getting a major company off the sanctions list. (He did not name the company, citing a nondisclosure agreement.) He conducted long negotiations with regulators, trying to prove to them that the circumstances that had led to his client’s ending up on the sanctions list had changed. Although the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has not made public a single instance in which the US has taken Russian companies off the sanctions lists, there have been precendents in other countries. In September 2014, Canada removed sanctions from two Russian banks, Expobank and Rosenergobank, acknowledging they had been placed on the sanctions list mistakenly.

The services of sanctions experts are needed by investment funds, including ones run by major banks, and the management companies of oligarchs who have been sanctioned, said Zhavoronkov.  There is also demand from consulting companies. However, judging by job search websites, it is Russian banks that are most in need of employees versed in the ins and outs of sanctions. Since 2014, banks have accounted for 44% of such vacancies on HeadHunter.ru, with legal companies coming in second at 21%.

Recently, two vacancies were posted by the country’s largest bank, Sberbank. It seeks two experts for its international sanctions monitoring group. The specialists must prepare opinions on transactions and operations, that is, check whether they are covered by the sanctions imposed by international organizations and individual governments, consult with employees, and respond to their requests. Sberbank refused to tell us whether it had succeeded in filling the positions.

Other financial institutions have placed help wanted ads on HeadHunter.ru: VTB, UniCredit, Raiffeisen, Globex, and the Russian Regional Development Bank. None of them agreed to talk with us on the record. RBC’s sources at a major state bank confirmed they have a full-time sanctions specialist on staff. But the source refused to provide details, adding that no one wants to talk about it publicly, since the “topic is painful and nothing to brag about.”

Russian financial institutions that have been sanctioned need specialists to keep from having even more serious restrictions imposed on them and avoid jeopardizing their business partners.

Banks that have not been blacklisted need such specialists to avoid violating the sanctions by working with counterparties. Otherwise, they can also have their access to western loans cut off. Primarily, this concerns the top one hundred financial institutions in terms of assets. It is they who hire sanctions specialists, said Roman Kuznetsov, senior analyst at the investment company QBF. Each major bank has a few sanctions specialists, said Andrei Zakharov, director of the financial institutions personnel recruiting department at Kontakt.

Experience Is More Important than a Diploma
Of course, not a single Russian university educates sanctions specialists, nor are there any continuing education courses on the topic as of yet. Everything has to be learned on the job. Successful candidates for sanctions specialist jobs usually have three or four years’ experience working in legal compliance or auditing departments of banks. Candidates with other financial backgrounds are considered less often, said Darya Anikina.

Dentons employs 200 attorneys. Aside from Zhavoronkov, however, only two of his colleagues, both of them under thirty, deal with sanctions-related cases. Zhavoronkov is their mentor. He made it his goal to cultivate these unique specialists in firm. Currently, there are very few experienced employees who understand the intricacies of the sanctions. Three and a half years have passed since the first sanctions were imposed. This is too short a time to form a pool of specialists.

Unlike the Russian labor market, the specialization has existed on the American job market for several decades. Sanctions compliance in the US is an entire niche business, claimed Zhavoronkov. The staff of any American law firm usually has one such specialist. His or her work is considered routine.

According to Bloomberg, the demand for sanctions expertise in the US grew in 2014. American companies frequently hired former officials from the Treasury Department, who were involved in drafting most of the restrictions. For example, until 2014, Chip Poncy was head of the unit for combating the financing of terrorism and financial crimes at the Treasury Department, but after the first sanctions against Russia [sic] were imposed, Poncy founded Financial Integrity Network, which helps businesses deal with the restrictions.

The costs of making a mistake can be quite hefty. For example, the French bank BNP Paribas agreed to pay $8.97 billion in fines after it was discovered it violated sanctions regimes between 2004 and 2012, when it did business with individuals and companies from Sudan, Iran, and Cuba, which have been sanctioned by the US.

The Reverse Side of the Sanctions
Whereas banks and legal firms have been seeking sanctions specialists, the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector has been vigorously seeking people who can help them bypass the produce embargo imposed by Russia, that is, they have been seeking experts in logistics and foreign trade. According to the website Superjob, the job of foreign trade manager was among the top jobs in terms of salary increases in 2017. The starting salaries for such specialists have increased by 18% since the beginning of the year.

The Price Tag
None of the vacancies on HeadHunter.ru that RBC examined contained information on the salaries of sanctions specialists. However, recruiters says the starting salary of a specialist with little work experience is 250,000 rubles a month.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to fill the positions quickly, admitted Anikina. Nor is it always clear how and where to find the right people, Yuri Dorfman, a partner at the agency Cornerstone, agreed with Anikina.

“This is not marketing, where the process for filling jobs is clear and formalized. The profession doesn’t exist officially,” he said.

Recently, Cornerstone managed to find a specialist for the compliance department at a bank. At his previous job, he had been employeed preventing money laundering, and monitoring and stopping illegal financial transactions. Sanctions specialists, a new and rare breed, are also aware of the demand and have been making the most of it. When moving to a new company, they ask for at least a thirty or forty percent raise, rather than the twenty percent pay rise customary on the market.

Felix Kugel, managing director of the recruitment company Unity, sees an experienced attorney who has a thorough knowledge of corporate law as the perfect sanctions specialist. The salary of an employee like this could be around 500,000 rubles a month [i.e., over 7,000 euros; by way of comparison, according to the website Trading Economics, the average montly salary in Russia as of October 2017 was 38,720 rubles or 556 euros, although regular readers of this website will know that real monthly salaries are often much lower in particular occupations and regions—TRR].

It is unlikely sanctions specialists will be unemployed.

“I would be glad if the sanctions were lifted, despite the fact I earn money from them,” said Zhavoronkov, “but I am confident this won’t happen in the near future.”

Zhavoronkov recalls the Jackson-Vannick amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which limited trade with countries that restricted emigration and violated other human rights, e.g., the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Albania. It was officially abolished in 2012, although it had de facto ceased to function in 1987.

The new specialization will be in great albeit limited demand [sic] in Russia in the coming years, agreed Roman Kuznetsov. But additional knowledge about how the sanctions are structured would come in handy to all Russian banking, finance, and legal sector employees. Understanding the ins and outs of the sanctions means you have a good chance of increasing your salary by thirty to forty percent, we were told at Hays.

Restricted Area
The first set of sanctions, occasioned by the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Donbass, were imposed by the US, EU, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in mid March 2014. Since then, the black lists have expanded due to the inclusion of personal sanctions (directed at specific people and companies affiliated with them) and sectoral sanctions (directed against individual industries and activities), and other countries and international organizations have joined the sanctions regime. Currently, the US has sanctioned over one hundred Russian nationals and companies, not counting foreign companies connected with sanctioned Russians. The EU has sanctioned 149 individuals and 38 companies.

Five Russian banks with ties to the Russian state have been sanctioned: Sberbank, VTB, Gazprombank, Rosselkhozbank, and Vnesheconombank. These financial institutions are not eligible for long-term financing abroad, and US and European investors are forbidden from buying shares and Eurobonds from these banks. In addition, the US has banned doing business with 33 companies in the Russian military-industrial complex, including Kalashnikov, Almaz-Antey, Rosoboronexport, Rostec, United Aircraft Corporation, and Russian Helicopters. The oil and gas industry is represented in the black lists by Rosneft, Transneft, Gazpromneft, NOVATEK, Gazprom, and Surgutneftegaz. The US and UE have imposed sanctions not only on banks, military-industrial companies, and oil and gas companies but also on completely “peaceful” firms, for example, the drinking water and beverage manufacturer Aquanika, a subsidiary of Gennady Timchenko‘s Volga Group.

In 2016, [former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US Department of State] Victoria Nuland said in Kiev that the sanctions would not be lifted until Russia returned Crimea to Ukraine.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Stringer

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

rubiks-cube-costume-amazon-2

Instrument Failure: Why It Is Hard to Trust Rosstat’s Data on the Recession’s End
Sergei Aleksashenko
RBC
February 6, 2017

Over the last year, Rosstat has ceased publishing a number of important indicators for judging the economy’s real performance.

The other day, Rosstat published its updated assessment of the Russian economy’s performance over the past two years. Strictly speaking, there is nothing surprising about the fact that Russia’s official statistics agency amends its previously published assessments. It happens constantly in other countries, too. The fact is that the initial assessments, which are released a month or a month and a half after the the end of the latest quarter, are derived from on-the-spot information that is subsequently corrected.

A Rubik’s Cube
But what is really surprising is that, according to the updated view of Rosstat’s statisticians, the economy’s performance over the last two years was significantly better than had been thought. Rosstat now claims that, in 2015, Russia’s GDP decreased only by 2.8%, rather than 3.7%, as indicated in earlier assessments, and that 2016 basically saw no decrease whatsoever. This new take has been a surprise to everyone, including the Economic Development Ministry, whose experts have said they don’t understand why Rosstat has so radically revised its own assessments. They have been seconded by experts at Vnesheconombank (VEB), which nowadays employs a large team of macroeconomists led by ex-deputy economics minister Andrei Klepach. Rosstat’s assessement has also been a surprise to the prime minister and president, who have expressed no joy the economy had been doing much better than they thought only a couple of weeks ago.

As in many other cases, the different indicators in GDP figures do not exist in isolation from one another. They are closely linked, and it is almost never possible to change one of them without changing another. In very simple terms, it looks like this. GDP is the sum of the added value produced in different sectors of the economy, such as industrial manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, finance, etc. If the figures for manufacturing have suddenly improved or deteriorated, then, with all other things being equal, the figures for GDP should change just as much. But in addition to a manufacturing element in GDP, there is an end use element in GDP, which shows the level of demand for what the economy produces. In this case, the factors of demand are the populace, the state sector, nonprofit organizations, accumulation (investment and inventories), and net export (the difference between exports and imports). If the figures for manufacturing have deteriorated, not only should the total amount of GDP change but one of the components of demand should change as well, meaning we should be able to understand not only what manufacturing sector produced more added value but also who paid for it.

But that is not all. There is a third component of GDP, sources of income: added value divided by household income, net taxes (on manufacturing and imports), the gross operating surplus, and mixed income. That is, after we have determined from GDP figures for manufacturing who has produced more, and from figures for use who has bought what has been produced, the figures on sources of income tell us who earned money from this. It is a kind of Rubik’s Cube, which has only one correct (objective) combination. We see it clearly at once, just as see clearly when the cube has not been put together correctly.

The Quarterly Maze
There are other subtleties in GDP figures. For example, one of the big problems is calculating GDP in real terms, that is, adjusting it for inflation. Rosstat publishes deflators for individual sectors and, naturally, when they are used with sector-specific nominal data, the grand total should converge. So everyone has a good sense of the state of the economy, Rosstat should assess each quarter’s GDP performance in terms of the previous quarter. We are well aware that the first quarter, in which half of the month of January is taken up by holidays, and cold weather puts a halt to many kinds of work, bears no resemblance to the third quarter, when the weather is warm and the harvest is underway in the countryside. Nor does it bear any resemblance to the fourth quarter, when builders are trying to bring on line as many completed (or almost completed) buildings as possible, and the government spends at least twice as much money from the budget as in other months. When all these things are factored out, we arrive at the most important indicator, which tells us how things stood in the previous quarter.

Don’t laugh, but Rosstat has not published this figure since April 2016. At the recent Gaidar Forum, I needled one of the heads of Rosstat to find out why this had been happening. For fifteen minutes, he tried to persuade me I had simply not been able to locate the right table on his agency’s website. Rosstat’s website leaves a lot to be desired, of course. To fish out the right information, you sometimes have to spend an hour or two figuring out the poorly organized databases. In this case, however, I insisted the information was simply not there. A couple of days later, I received a letter from Rosstat saying that, indeed, Rosstat did not calculate this figure and did not know when it would be doing so again.

That alone is enough to take Rosstat’s published data about the Russian economy’s improved performance at less than face value. If we add to this the fact that Rosstat stopped publishing monthly investment figures in the spring of last year, and announced in November that revised figures for the manufacturing sector’s performance (figures that would, of course, be revised upwards) would be published only in the spring, it becomes obvious that Russia’s official statisticans cannot actually put the Rubik’s Cube together, and they don’t really know what is going on with the Russian economy. Meaning that all the instruments that should be telling us where the ship of our economy is sailing and how fast it is sailing there have failed.

The Secret GDP
I don’t want to argue the problem I want to touch on in my conclusion prevents Rosstat from adding everything up correctly. I suspect there are many more problems, and I fear that even the heads of Rosstat are not aware of all of them. But we cannot avoid talking about the fact that vast amounts of data relating to the work of the military-industrial complex and the security agencies are classified.

In fact, if this secrecy keeps anyone from understanding anything, it is the Russian authorities and Russian society. When it receives classified information, Rosstat has to hide it amidst its tables in such a way that not a single spy will guess it is there. To do this, Rosstat inevitably distorts the performance indicators for different sectors, adding something here, and trimming something there. But since hiding the truth from spies is much more important than telling the truth to Russian society, don’t shoot the piano player, as they say, for the poorly assembled Rubik’s Cube. He is playing as well as he can.

If you think about it, it is obvious the financial figures for the military-industrial complex’s performance are no state secret. The technical specs of weapons, the technology used to produce them, and, maybe, their locations can be secrets, but not the amount of money spent on their procurement (the classified section of the budget) or the amount of added value generated by the military-industrial complex.

I am confident that under the current Russian president we should not expect any progress in declassifying these figures. That was not what he was taught at the Higher School of the KGB. Since that is so, we are unlikely to find out in the coming years what is up with the Russian economy.

Sergey Aleksashenko is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of liketotally80s.com

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Oleg Derispaska
Oleg Deripaska. Photo courtesy of deripaska.com

“I believe that it takes just 100 people to change a country for the better provided that these people are driven professionals capable of creating something new. I am sure that in Russia there are far more than 100 such people, so let’s join forces and work together.”
Oleg Deripaska

_________

Deripaska’s Company Releases Sales Figures for “Olympic” Apartments
Natalya Derbysheva
RBC
May 27, 2016

sochi-olympic village marina
Mockup of the Sochi Olympic Village’s Coastal Cluster. Photo: Andrei Golovanov and Sergei Kivrin/TASS

Oleg Deripaska’s company RogSibAl has sold 20% of the luxury apartments it built on the Black Sea coast in Sochi for the Winter Olympics. The company believes this is a good result. 

RogSibAl, a subsidiary of Oleg Deripaska’s Basic Element, built 2,700 luxury  apartments on the Black Sea coast for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Athletes lived in the apartments during the competition. According to Vnesheconombank, the project’s budget was 25.3 billion rubles, 22.3 billion rubles of which RogSibAl borrowed from Vnesheconombank.

The coastal Olympic Village is now known as the Imereti Resort District. It consists of four quarters, the Coastal Quarter, the Maritime Quarter, the Park Quarter, and the Reserve Quarter. Apartments are available for purchase in all four quarters. The price per square meter ranges from 152,000 rubles to 195,00 rubles [approx. 2,070 euro to 2,650 euros per square meter—TRR].

Since the apartments went on sale in 2013, 20% of them have been sold, a Basic Element spokesman told RBC, meaning that over 500 apartments in all have been sold. Basic Element’s spokesman added that the company had sold 118 apartments from January to May 2016.  The company plans to have sold 350 apartments for a total area of 25,000 square meters on the year.

Basic Element has been renting out the unsold apartments. According to the company’s spokesperson, the rental demand for the 2016 summer season is 97–100%.

The sales figures are worse than what Basic Element had planned in 2011. Igor Yevtushevsky, RogSibAl’s general director, had then told Vedomosti that the company was planning to sell 50% of the apartments before the start of the Olympics, and the other half in 2014–2015.

Basic Element’s spokesman said it would be unfair to compare current sales figures with projections made in 2011.

“The project has undergone big changes,” he explained.

The company cites data from the MACON Realty Group, according to which 387 business- and luxury-class real estate transactions were concluded in Sochi from January to May 2016, meaning that the Imereti District’s share of this business was 23%.

The government has discussed the conditions of restructuring the loans issued by Vnesheconombank for building Olympic sites, RBC’s sources told it earlier this week. A federal official explained that Deripaska’s companies were in the most complicated circumstances in terms of loans, since the demand for apartments was not great.

Sochi Olympic Village. Photo courtesy of Nikita Kulachenkov
Sochi Olympic Village. Photo courtesy of Nikita Kulachenkov

Basic Element has not disclosed the figures of the income from its sales of the properties. Its spokesman did say, however, that all the proceeds were being wholly turned over to Vnesheconombank in repayment of the loan and that RogSibAl had been fulfilling all its obligations to the bank.

Given that sales usually begin at the design and construction stage of a property, 20% sales in the second year after a property has been operation is hardly satisfactory, argues Marina Udachina, director of the Institute for Innovations, Infrastructure and Investments. According to her, the situation is partly due to a slowdown in economic growth and a reduction in the demand for luxury properties.

__________

Nikita Kulachenkov
Facebook
May 27, 2016

Only 20% of the apartments in the Olympic Village have been sold in two years.

Here is what we wrote about this a month before the Games:

“The site is being built by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, one of the few private investors in the Olympics. Only he is building with public money. Twenty-two of the twenty-five billion rubles in the project’s budget has been secured with a loan from state-owned Vnesheconombank. Derispaska’s company is planning to pay back this money by selling the village as a residential complex after the Games. It will be hard for them to find buyers. A single bed in the village costs as much as a two-room flat in Moscow.”

Of course, the crisis, sanctions, and being “surrounded by enemies” have inevitably led to a drop in demand for fairly pricey holiday apartments. On the other hand, this was offset by the fact that demand was supposed to shift to the domestic market from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and other countries where housing had become almost twice as expensive for Russians.

As a result, sales did not take off, which is a pity. I know that after the Games a good person, familiar to a lot of my people on my wall, worked on the project.

We can also add to this news the latest about Sberbank, which after agonizing for a long time has today finally sold the Mountain Carousel ski resort on the installment plan to the former governor and current minister Tkachyov* and his young but quite talented son-in-law. The joke there is that Sberbank invested 25 billion rubles into Mountain Carousel, while Vnesheconombank loaned it 55 billion rubles. Vnesheconombank fiercely resisted the sale, because it is one thing when Sberbank is in hock to you to the tune of 55 billion rubles, and quite another when it is Tkachyov and family. Apparently, Gref is tougher and stronger than the moribund Vnesheconombank, although it does not make our lives any easier.

Since for some reason business has not been booming at nearly all the former Olympic sites, the government has authorized the repayment of Olympic loans over a period of 25 years at a reduced 5% interest rate. And to keep Vnesheconombank from kicking the bucket altogether, the Finance Ministry will give it another 150 billion rubles straight from our pockets.

I probably do not need to remind you of the total amount that we, the taxpayers of the Russian Federation, paid for the construction of all these “great power” bells and whistles.

P.S. I’m going to do a little populism practice. Anyone in Russia want a twenty-five-year mortgage at five-percent interest? Ask Tkachyov, Potanin, Deripaska, and Vekselberg “how.” )))

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Alexei Navalny for the heads-up. This post should be read in tandem with my post for May 25, 2016, “The Decline Has Gone Uphill.”

* On August 2, 2012, Tkachyov announced plans to deploy a paramilitary force of Cossacks in Krasnodar Krai, beginning September 2012, as vigilantes to discourage internal immigration by Muslim Russians. In a speech to police, he stated, “What you can’t do, the Cossacks can. We have no other way—we shall stamp it out, instill order; we shall demand paperwork and enforce migration policies.”

Source: Wikipedia, New York Times

Russian Trade Union Blues

f98cd1
“Peace, Labor, Putin.” The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) has 22.7 million members, who annually pay out almost 68 billion rubles to fund their trade union associations. (The FNPR has 122 such affiliated organizations nationwide). At best, only 140 million rubles make it to Moscow. The rest stays at the local level. Photo courtesy of vestnikburi.com

An RBC Investigative Report: How Russian Trade Unions Make Money 
Vyacheslav Kozlov
RBC
April 29, 2016

The Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR) will celebrate May Day with a march in support of workers. As RBC has found out, the budget of the country’s largest trade union organization runs in the billions of rubles, much of it earned from real estate it freely inherited from the Soviet Union. 

In February 2016, Crimea’s most famous resort got a new owner. The Foros Spa, right down the road from the residence where Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive during the 1991 coup attempt, was purchased for 1.4 billion rubles by the Federation of Trade Unions of Tatarstan.

Even their bosses in Moscow could not understand where a little-known noncommercial organization from Kazan had got its hands on that kind of money.

“When we saw the news, we didn’t even reprint it at first. We called and checked whether it was true,” an employee at the FNPR’s central office told RBC. (The Federation of Trade Unions of Tatarstan is an affiliated member of FNPR.)

The folks in Kazan reassured the trade union bosses in Moscow. The organization, which is mainly funded by membership dues paid by workers, really did not have that kind of money. It had acted as a middleman in the purchase of Foros, getting the money from major regional companies.

“There are such companies there: KamAZ, Tatneft, petrochemical plants [part of the TAIF GroupRBC],” said FNPR leader Mikhail Shmakov, bending his fingers back as he listed off the companies.

Shmakov spoke with RBC in his office on Leninsky Prospekt, 42, in Moscow. In keeping with Soviet tradition, the building is even nowadays called the Trade Unions Palace of Labor.

foros
Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who owned the property before the peninsula was annexed by Russia, could have insisted on imposing sanctions on the buyers of the famous Crimean spa Foros. The scheme for buying Foros, involving the Tatarstan trade unions, made the deal less risky, sources told RBC. The view, above, is of the government dacha Zarya (Dawn), where the coup plotters held Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Courtesy of Mikhail Pavlishak/TASS

Shmakov could not conceal his satisfaction with the deal, calling it “brilliant.” RBC’s source in the FNPR executive committee and another source, close to the Tatarstan government, said the scheme for buying Foros, involving trade union bosses, was employed so the real buyer would not end up on the sanctions lists of the European Union and the US.

“To act as a middleman in such deals you have to have good connections with the authorities and big business. They have to consider you one of their own. You have to be a loyal organization,” a source close to the FNPR leadership explained to RBC.

The FNPR has long been cooperating with the authorities and business. Heir to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions (VTsSPS), the federation is proud of the fact it is the largest labor union in Russia, with 122 affiliates and over 20 million members.

How does the country’s largest trade union organization make its money?

Budget
Despite its federal scale, the FNPR is an extremely closed organization. It does not publish financial statements.

“This information is available only to members of the executive committee, and even then documents containing specific figures are not distributed to everyone. Some are given documents without any figures,” said an employee in the central office.

RBC has obtained a document describing the FNPR’s budget in terms of percentages. From this document it follows that the federation has only two sources of income, membership dues and “other income,” a phrase that mainly conceals revenue from commercial operations.

shmakov
FNPR chair Mikhail Shmakov (pictured above) has remained at the helm of the country’s largest trade union organization for all 25 years of its existence. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

The document reveals that membership dues make up 70% of the FNPR’s revenues, while “other income” amounts to 30%.

Expenses are more complicated. 40.5% is spent on organizational and business operations, and 46.6%, on subsidizing FNPR institutions. Six percent goes to the so-called solidarity fund (for holding protests, paying wages of workers during downtime on the job, and making one-time payments to members involved in work-related accidents), while another 6.3% pays for dues in the international organizations of which the FNPR is a member, and 0.4% is spent on maintaing the auditing commission. In other words, nearly 90% of expenses go towards maintaining the organization itself.

Shmakov confirmed the income percentages in conversation with RBC. (He said nothing about expenses.) In 2016, the FNPR’s budget was 200 million rubles, according to Shmakov. An RBC source close to the Kremlin, who was well acquainted with the operations of the trade unions, confirmed that the FNPR’s annual budget was comparatively small.

“A few years ago, it did not exceed one million dollars,” he said.

The amount looks strange when you consider the number of people paying membership dues nationwide. The income of FNPR’s various affiliated trade unions, from factory locals to central committees, is incomparably greater than the parent organization’s budget.

Membership dues in most Russian trade unions are one percent of wages. If we take the official membership figures (according to Shmakov, the FNPR has around 20.7 million dues-paying members, plus another three to four million students and pensioners who do not pay dues) and the national average monthly wage (according to Rosstat, it was 33,900 rubles in February 2016), the dues paid by all FNPR-affilated trade unions should come to approximately 5.7 billion rubles monthly or 67.9 billion rubles a year.

But not all that money makes it to Moscow.

“The money is spread around the entire organization,” said an employee in the central office.

Locals keep from fifty to ninety-five percent of collected dues, explained our source. The rest is split among central and regional organizations.

How are these billions of rubles spent?

Expenditures
“Exempt trade unionists” is the Soviet-era legal term for trade union employees, from executives to secretaries, who are exempt from working directly at a particular enterprise. Their salaries are usually paid by the trade union itself. Trade union association executives surveyed by RBC confirmed that up to half of an organization’s budget can go to paying exempted workers. For example, the Pskov Federation of Trade Unions spent nearly 30 million rubles of its 2015 budget of 66 million rubles on the salaries and bonuses of over sixty exempt employees, says the federation’s head, Ulyana Mikhailova.

RBC asked the FNPR to provide it with the number of exempt employees nationwide but our request was turned down. Open sources mention the number of elected trade union officials. According to a 2011 FNPR executive committee decision, there were 13,500 such officials.

union membership
How Union Membership Has Declined. [According to the graph, union membership in Russia has declined from 65 million in 1992 (the first full year of independence) to 20.7 million in 2016. – TRR.] Sources: RBC interview with Mikhail Shmakov; decisions of the FNPR executive committee; white paper edited by Sergei Khramov and Mikhail Delyagin. Inserted text reads: “On average, 24% of the able-bodied population, i.e., approximately 17.2 million people, admit they are trade union members, according to an October 2008 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).” Courtesy RBC

But this is only a small part of the trade union army. According to figures for 2011, there were 191,000 trade union locals in Russia.

“At least one exempt worker emerges in a local with no less than three hundred members,” said Yuri Milovidov, director of Proftsentr, which assists trade union activists. “By my calculations, at least a quarter of these locals have at least one trade union worker. Some have several. There are fifty to seventy thousand such workers countrywide.”

A source in the FNPR executive committee said there were fewer trade union employees, around forty thousand. But even if we take this figure at face value, it turns out that the FNPR is one of the country’s major employers. (By way of comparison, AvtoVAZ, Russia’s largest auto manufacturer, employed around fifty thousand people as of late 2015.)

According to the FNPR employees surveyed by RBC, the average monthly salary among trade union employees is around 25,000 rubles, a little lower than the national average. The payroll bill for professional trade unionists across the country thus might be as much as one billion rubles a month.

Known as the Labor Palace of Trade Unions since Soviet times, FNPR's headquarters on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow is of the most well-known pieces of real estate managed by the federation. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC
Known as the Trade Unions Palace of Labor since Soviet times, the FNPR’s headquarters on Leninsky Prospekt in Moscow is of the most well-known pieces of real estate managed by the federation. Photo courtesy of Oleg Yakovlev/RBC

The exact number of employees in the FNPR central office is unknown. The federation declined to answer this question when asked by RBC. A source in the central office said there were no more than 120 employees. Another source said their salary was small but higher than the national average: around 60,000 to 70,000 rubles a month.

Shmakov declined to disclose his salary.

28 Kilometers from Moscow
In the village of Chigasovo, in an elite neighborhood on the Rublyovskoye Highway in the Moscow suburbs, there is a house and plot of land (516.2 square meters and 1,798 square meters large, respectively) owned by a Viktor Shmakov, which is the exact same name as that of Mikhail Shmakov’s son. The FNPR chair’s son does business. According to SPARK, he is the director of Art Mix LLC, which organizes celebrations and events. As ads on the real estate and property rentals website CIAN.ru indicate, several five-hundred-square-meter cottages sited on fifteen-acre plots in Chigasovo are valued at around 36 million rubles. Mikhail Shmakov forwarded our questions about the house and land’s ownership to the proprietor, as listed in the Unified State Register of Real Estates Rights and Transactions (EGPR).

The Russian Federation of Spas
The FNPR acquired property amid the turmoil of the early 1990s, when familiar institutions of Soviet power crumbled. It was then that the young trade union leader Mikhail Shmakov, previously employed as a rocket engineer, managed to gain standing among Russian leaders and head the new organization, which immediately declared itself the VTsSPS’s legal successor. In legal terms, its property was transferred to the FNPR in 1992 through a special agreement. This property is now the source of the “other income,” mentioned above, the revenues the trade unions generate from commercial operations.

The exact number of real estate properties and land plots that were donated to the FNPR is contained in the appendices to the 1992 agreement, which the federation keeps secret. During the twenty-five years of its existence, the agreement has never been published. (The FNPR also refused to provide a copy to RBC.)

Milovidov, who worked for the FNPR for many years, claimed that 2,582 properties were transferred to the federation: 678 health spas, 131 hotels, 568 stadiums, and over 500 Young Pioneer camps.  It is unclear how many of these properties are still managed by the federation, but informally, sources there said the trade unions had lost around sixty percent of the property belonging to the VTsSPS when the Soviet Union collapsed.

According to Profkurort, the main trade union tourist agency, the trade unions now run exactly 374 resorts (health spas, boarding houses, vacation retreats, and children’s summer camps) in sixty-five regions from the Russian Far East to Kaliningrad.

The FNPR’s most profitable properties are in the southern Russia and Moscow. The trade unions particularly cherish their properties in the Caucasian Mineral Waters area. Their health spas account for over a quarter of so-called bed capacity among all the resorts in the area. Annually, they can take in 160,000 guests.

“Shmakov personally handles the Caucasian Mineral Waters. It’s his project,” RBC’s source in the federation’s central office explained.

To manage all its properties in the Caucasian Mineral Waters area, the federation founded Spa Management (Holding) LLC in 2005, which runs twenty-two health spas, including balneo baths and mud baths, mineral water drinking rooms, three boiler plant companies, a kindergarten, a library, a repair and construction company, and a car and truck pool. The federation’s share in the holding is nearly 85%, while over 15% belongs to the Stavropol Territory Association of Trade Unions, also affiliated with the FNPR. In 2015, the holding’s total revenue was 5.4 billion rubles, and its net profit was 294 millions rubles, Yulia Korogodova, Spa Management’s director, told RBC.

The FNPR’s other claim to fame are its hotels and health spas in Sochi. (According to RBC’s calculations, the FNPR and its subsidiaries own twenty-six buildings and seven lots there.) Sochi was the site of the FNPR’s biggest project in recent years, the reconstruction of three hotels for the Winter Olympics.

“Everyone was surprised that Shmakov had decided to get involved in the reconstruction of Sochi along with billionaires Vladimir Potanin and Oleg Deripaska, and other big businessmen. The authorities set them the harsh task of finishing in time for the Olympics at all costs, and this led to the fact that the poor FNPR was almost among the first to deliver its sites,” a source close to the federation’s central office told RBC.

metallurg
Steelworker Spa in Sochi is one of three properties reconstructed by the FNPR for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The federation borrowed two billion rubles from Vnesheconombank to finance the work. The trade unions are now attempting to restructure their debt. Photo courtesy of PhotoXPress

The trade unions had no money of their own, said our source, so they took out a loan from state-owned Vnesheconombank, which was the main source of funding for the Olympic projects, another source close to the FNPR told RBC. Shmakov confirmed that there was a loan. RBC found out from Vnesheconombank that the funds had been allocated to three joint-stock companies: Adler Spa, Steelworker Clinical Spa, and Trade Union Spas (Svetlana Spa). These companies all manage trade union properties in Sochi.

According to Shmakov, the loan amounted to 1.5 billion rubles. Spa Management, however, clarified that 2 billion rubles had been borrowed. The total investment in the Olympic hotels was 2.7 billion rubles, according to Spa Management, although they did not explain the source of the additional 700 million rubles. Shmakov said the FNPR was forced to put up Adler Spa as collateral for the loan. He confirmed that all revenues from the reconstructed hotels now have to go towards paying off the loan. In the current circumstances, however, the FNPR would rather not have to pay. According to sources at Vnesheconombank, the FNPR has sent them a request to restructure the loan.

Vnesheconombank’s money was used to rebuild the Svetlana Health Resort as the Sea Galaxy Hotel Congress & Spa and renovate the Steelworker Spa and one wing of the Adler Spa. There are 690 beds in the 18-story Sea Galaxy. In high season, a standard single room, according to the hotel’s price list, costs 5,300 rubles a night. In 2014, Profkurorty (Svetlana Spa) JSC, which manages the reconstructed hotel, recorded revenues of nearly 197.3 million rubles and a net profit of over 178.6 million rubles.

The ownership of trade union real estate is extremely confusing and opaque. Without engaging in commercial operations itself, the FNPR has founded dozens of companies to manage its properties nationwide.  (The Krasnodar Territory Trade Unions Council alone has registered 74 subsidiaries at various times.) However, as analysis shows, many of the spa companies in the Caucasian Mineral Waters areas and Kuban are closed organizations: over thirty of them are closed joint-stock companies, while the rest are private legal entities. From 2010 to 2014, these companies earned nearly 45 billion rubles.

From One Funeral to the Next
In late June 2015, the latest memorial service took place in the House of the Unions on Bolshaya Dmitrovka in Moscow, a building that belongs to the trade unions. People came to pay their last respects to former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Even President Putin attended the ceremony. Almost three weeks later, Alexander Bulgakov, perennial director of the House of Unions, was arrested by police investigators right in his office, next door to the State Duma.

The Investigative Committee reported that Bulgakov had been detained as he was receiving 308,000 rubles from the director of another commercial entity, House of the Unions Refreshments LLC. Allegedly, Bulgakov had extorted the money, which was ten percent of the cost of the banquets and receptions catered by House of the Unions Refreshments. A year later, Bulgakov was sentenced to four years in prison.

house of unions
The House of the Unions, adjacent to the State Duma building in Moscow, has long been considered the country’s primary venue for paying last respects to famous politicians and public figures. Along with the Trade Unions Palace of Labor, it is the most popular architectural landmark belonging to the trade unions. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

An RBC source, close to the FNPR, did not rule out a link between the two events, the memorial service for Primakov and Bulgakov’s arrest.

The service’s organizer, the Presidential Property Management Directorate, was, allegedly, displeased with the original fee Bulgakov had asked for holding the ceremony, said the source. (According to the state procurements site, the event’s final cost was 1.222 million rubles.) Complaints against Bulgakov were made to law enforcement authorities. RBC’s source in the FNPR’s central office confirmed he had heard this hypothesis.

Shmakov also acknowledged he had heard the story about dissatisfaction with the price of the memorial service, but he said it was not confirmed in the end. According to him, when negotiating the arrangements for Primakov’s service, Bulgakov had quoted the usual rate for such an event.

“It all started with the memorial service for Shvetsova [former State Duma deputy and former Moscow deputy mayor Ludmila Shvetsova — RBC]. It cost four million rubles. Moscow city hall paid this money, because that is how much such events cost. It was this price that he [Bulgakov] offered,” Shmakov said now.

Like most of the trade union properties in the capital, the House of the Unions belongs to the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP), which is part of the FNPR. The MFP also owns the Izmailovo Hotel Complex, Krylatskoye Velodrome, Znamensky Brothers Olympic Center, Trud Swimming Pool, Sokolniki and Peredelkino Spas, and Planernaya Olympic Center in Khimki.

Izmailovo-Hotel
The Izmailovo Commercial and Hotel Complex in Moscow is trade union property like, for example, the Sputnik Hotel on Leninsky Prospekt. In contrast to the Sputnik, however, which is owned directly by the FNPR, the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions holds the controlling stake in the Izmailovo complex. Photo courtesy of top10hm.net

The most profitable asset in Moscow is the Izmailovo Hotel Complex. The Moscow Trade Unions Property Fund owns 75% of the shares in Izmailovo Commercial and Hotel Complex JSC, which manages the Gamma, Beta, Delta, and Vega buildings, while the FNPR holds a seven-percent share. (The remaining shares are owned by members of the board of directors.)

In 2014, the total revenue generated by the hotels in the Izmailovo holding was over 3.25 billion rubles, with a net profit of over 240 million rubles. The MFP wholly owns the Alpha Commercial and Hotel Complex, which manages one more of the Izmailovo hotels, which is not part of eponymous joint-stock company. In 2014, Alpha’s gross profits were over 770 million rubles; its net profits, over 33 million rubles.

The FNPR does not own so much property directly in Moscow. It owns the Trade Unions Palace of Labor on Leninsky Prospekt, where the organization has its central office; the nearby Sputnik Hotel; a motorpool near Kaluzhskaya subway station; the building of the Academy of Labor and Social Relations, in western Moscow; and its own tailor’s shop and primary care clinic.

At Public Expense
People who began their careers in Soviet times know the terrifying sounding word sotsstrakh (“social insurance”). These were payments made by the Social Insurance Fund (FSS), which was managed by the trade unions until the early 2000s. Sotsstrakh paid for children’s trips to Young Pioneer summer camps, and for workers and pensioners to go to health spas. Then the FSS was taken over by the state, but the health spas were left to the trade unions, providing them with yet another way of making money.

“When the state lacks enough of its own health spas to provide treatment for everyone who has a legal right to it, it refers people to trade union spas,” explained Nikolai Murashko, director of the FNPR’s Spa Directorate.

Judging by public procurement records, government contracts are a serious source of revenue for the trade unions. Over a period of six years, from 2010 to 2016, FNPR’s Resort Holding implemented government contracts worth more than 4.8 billion rubles. During the same period, the spas owned by the Krasnodar Territory Trade Unions Council sold holiday packages worth a total of approximately four billion rubles.

The FNPR’s affiliated trade unions also make money on government contracts. The MFP and its member organizations, for example, were awarded government contracts worth more than 617 million rubles during the same six-year period. The Federation of Trade Unions of Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region earned 242 million rubles, while the FNPR earned 32 million rubles itself.

What does the FNPR give the state in return?

A Necessary Organization
Shmakov had no doubt the federation fulfilled its main functions: protecting labor rights and controlling the propertied classes. For sixteen years, the government has convened a special tripartite commission for regulating social and labor relations. Government ministers, employers (e.g., the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and Opora Russia), and trade unions officials sit at the same table. A Kremlin official, however, warned against exaggerating the commission’s role.

“The minutes from some of the meetings are long, but that is where it ends: in the minutes. The state conducts its own policy,” he said.

He was echoed by someone who had been involved in the meetings.

“A trade union that, for example, is capable of getting people onto the streets can have a real impact on social and economic policy. Because of this, when it comes to the FNPR’s bread-and-butter issues, pensions, for example, the federation finds it quite hard to pound its fist on the table and say things will be the way it says.”

Rosstat’s data suggests that while in the 1990s there were several hundred or even thousands of labor strikes recorded annually, the numbers slumped to several strikes a year in the 2000s. One of the causes was the tightening of procedures for striking, as described in the new Labor Code, which took effect in 2002.  One of the authors of the new Labor Code was current State Duma deputy speaker Andrei Isayev, formerly a secretary of the FNPR.

“The law on strikes is prohibitive,” said Boris Kravchenko, chair of the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR).

The KTR, like a number of other independent trade unions, such as the locals at AvtoVAZ and the Ford plant outside Petersburg, emerged in the late 2000s as a counterweight to the the FNPR, which cooperates with the authorities.

The Kremlin appreciates the fact that the FNPR does not go on strike and cooperates with the United Russia Party. [Isayev is a member of the party’s general council — RBC.]

“The FNPR are constructive critics. The goal of certain other organizations is to get people protesting on the streets. The FNPR has a different stance: solving a problem before people take to the streets,” says an official in the presidential administration.

* * *

In May 2011, the FNPR was one of several organizations that joined together to establish the Russian People’s Front (ONF), headed by Vladimir Putin. The ONF is now the only public organization in Russia comparable to the FNPR in terms of numbers of regional offices. And, like the FNPR, the ONF does not disclose its budget.

With additional reporting by Mikhail Rybin, Anastasia Napalkova, Maria Zholobova, and Yevgenia Glazova.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sean Guillory for the heads-up. NB. Because of the sheer quantity of figures given in rubles in this article, I have foregone my usual practice of converting them into euros for ease of comprehension. Current and historical currency rate conversion tables, however, are eminently accessible on the web, so knock yourselves out. TRR

Ivan Ovsyannikov: Russia’s Welfare Chainsaw Massacre

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev holds

Welfare Chainsaw Massacre
Ivan Ovsyannikov (Russian Socialist Movement)
September 30, 2013
anticapitalist.ru

A “welfare chainsaw massacre” is exactly what we might call the government’s actions and statements over the last few months. The ruling class is once again attempting to pay for the latest uptick in the economic crisis from out of the pockets of workers.

On September 1, while speaking to students at the Far East Federal University, Putin announced the transition to a policy of austerity and reduced social spending. “The world economy has slumped a bit, and ours is hunkering down behind it,” the president said in his typical manner by way of explaining the upcoming unpopular measures. And he supported an earlier proposal, voiced by Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov, to replace the “maternity capital” program with “targeted assistance to poor families.”

However, a few days later, Dmitry Medvedev said that the maternity capital program would not be cancelled. “But it will be modified,” Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Maxim Topilin added in a whisper.

The fact that public opinion has been probed on such a sensitive point is quite significant. The maternity capital program is almost the only widely publicized social achievement of the Putin era. Putin has repeatedly stated it was his idea. And now this essential element of Putin’s social populism has been openly questioned.

No less provocative looking are the experiment with introducing social norms for electricity consumption (see Andrei Zavodskoi, “Cruel Economy”) and the de facto raising of the retirement age, which has long been discussed and is today closer than ever to realization. According to Deputy Primer Minister Olga Golodets, “We are not discussing raising the [retirement] age for any category of workers. We’ve gone another direction by promoting voluntary postponement of retirement. That is our principled position, and the government’s position.” However, such tricks are unlikely to mislead anyone.

The most scandalous revelations, however, are the statements made by government officials concerning labor relations. If, until recently, Mr. Topilin based his ministry’s decision not to index Russia’s penny-ante unemployment benefits on the fact that “at present there remains a high probability of finding employment in the labor market,” Mr. Medvedev has now said the exact opposite. He argues it is time to get away from the policy of preserving employment at all costs and not be afraid of cutting inefficient jobs: “The times all of us now face are not the easiest. […] Some people—perhaps a significant portion of the population—will have to change not only their jobs but also their professions and place of residence.” There is no doubt we have fallen on hard times, but the Prime Minister is clearly disingenuous when he talks about “all of us.” Russia’s ruling elite has no intention of depriving itself of jobs and handsome profits. So, in a conversation with François Fillon, Mr. Putin elegantly hinted that he would “not exclude” the possibility of seeking a fourth term as president.

But has the Russian economy “hunkered down” badly enough to warrant such painful experiments on the population? Isn’t “stagnation” only a plausible excuse for implementing the longstanding plans of the gentlemen from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs?

As was reported in late August, the Ministry of Finance planned to save 1.1 trillion rubles [approx. 25 billion euros] over three years by eliminating the maternal capital program and reducing expenditures on pensions. At the same time, federal and regional budget expenditures on preparations for the 2018 World Cup should amount to 438 billion rubles, that is, almost half a trillion. The mass protests and riots in Brazil, sparked by excessive government spending on the 2014 World Cup, are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Russians could learn a lesson or two from Brazilians.

But maybe massive sports venue construction projects will generate many new jobs and return the taxpayer money spent on them? No, they will not. Unlike the great construction projects of the Soviet era, when funds were invested primarily in developing production, Olympiads, Universiades, and World Cups are, by definition, loss makers for national governments. Many analysts trace the current economic disaster in Greece to the 2004 Summer Olympics, which enriched transnational corporations while depleting public finances. The London Olympics have also been declared unprofitable. As for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, its unprofitability has been recognized by nearly all serious experts, including Vnesheconombank chair Vladimir Dmitriev, who said in an interview with Vedomosti newspaper that “a serious percentage of [Olympics-related construction] projects are calculated to make a loss.” According to Dmitriev, “Given the current model and market trends, there are big problems with returns on investments. For example, one million square meters of hotel space are being built in the Imereti Lowland. When this space goes onto the market after the Olympics, a sixty percent occupancy rate will be hard to achieve. The costs of many projects have seriously risen as they have been implemented. […] For many sites, there is no complete project documentation or confirmed cost estimates. All this confirms our doubts.”

As for jobs, they really will be generated—for thousands of migrant workers. Federal Law No. FZ-108, adopted specifically for the World Cup, leaves no doubt about that. First, the law establishes special lightweight entry requirements for foreign workers involved in preparations for the World Cup. Second, it limits the applicability of a number of existing labor laws, effectively legalizing slavery. As the Confederation of Labor of Russia (KTR) declared in their statement on the subject, “The potential for runaway importation and recruitment of cheap labor, undermining the national labor market, and leading to a decrease in wages and legal guarantees in the area of labor relations, and an increase in the level of unemployment among the population, has been legally enshrined in the Russian Federation.”

The government could not care less about the fortunes of workers during the crisis, and it does almost nothing to hide it. How else can we account (to cite just one example) for Mr. Topilin’s proposal to deny free health care to all informally employed and unemployed people not registered with an employment bureau?

In light of the foregoing, the Kremlin’s actions aimed at reconciliation with the liberal opposition also become intelligible, as do unexpected initiatives to put the “against all” option back on voting ballots. The authorities fear that public discontent will grow and want to channel it in a direction that presents no danger to the ruling elite. Whether this political maneuver succeeds depends in part on the willingness of leftist political forces and trade unions to win over public opinion and make the fight against austerity measures as much of a mobilizing factor as it has been in Greece, Spain, and other countries facing the consequences of the capitalist system’s crisis.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of deviantart.net