Opinion: The deathly risks of doing business with Russia

In the evening of 20 October 2014, the first snow fell in Moscow. CEO of one of the world's biggest oil companies, Total, Christophe de Margerie had a meeting in the residence of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to discuss future investment in Russia.
De Margerie's plain in Vnukov Airport
De Margerie's plain in Vnukov Airport
© AFP/Scanpix

Several hours later he boarded a private plane in Vnukov Airport. Visibility was merely 350 metres. During take-off, his little Falcon jet scratched a snowblower with its wing and crashed. The time of the accident was 11:57 PM Moscow time, all four passengers onboard were killed.

The crash happened not in any ordinary airport - Vnukov serves Russia's highest officials and visiting foreign leaders, the crème de la crème of Russian oligarchs pay a fortune to station their jets there.

It is yet another sign that the country, enthralled in the "Crimea is ours!" euphoria, is actually falling apart. In another eloquent incident, one October night a burglar ripped out an ATM machine in the Russian State Duma building, supposedly one of the best-guarded places in Moscow.

Christophe de Margerie was one of Putin's most influential friends in Europe. He started a career at Total at the age of 23 and spent four decades with the company. His remarkable facial hair earned him the nickname "Big Moustache". His real name was not aristocratic. When his mother, who came from the Taittinger family, remarried, Christophe took his stepfather's name.

Oil and gas above everything else

M. de Margerie was a relentless profit seeker. In 2006, he was charged with corruption linked to the UN's Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq. The charges were dropped eight years later due to insufficient evidence. After 2008 oil embargo on Iran, de Margerie's Total was fined USD 400m for giving 60-million-dollar bribes in exchange for oil contracts in Iran.

He was close with the military dictatorship in Myanmar. When his company was building a pipeline across the jungle, the government sent four battalions to help provide free labour, forcing local peasants and fishers to work in the construction. While non-governmental organizations were urging Total to stop feeding the dictatorship, de Margerie claimed the company was creating jobs.

Total would contribute USD 450m a year in taxes to Myanmar's oppressive regime, which was ostracised by most democracies, and helped the country ensure a steady stream of income from gas which accounted for 30 percent of its exports. When confronted with questions about aiding a criminal regime, de Margerie would say that one has no business in how governments spend their tax money.

Total had so much weight in French politics that Paris kept opposing the European Union's common position on Myanmar. Due to France's pressure, in 2004 the EU crossed out gas and oil from its economic sanction list for Myanmar to protect Total's interests.

It was a similar story after Russia's annexation of Crimea. De Margerie claimed that sanctions only pushed Russia closer to China, pointing to the Power of Siberia pipeline contract. It has emerged now that the contract has not even been signed yet. According to Big Moustache, Europe should give up plans to decrease dependence on Russian gas and concentrate instead on ensuring secure supply.

Christophe de Margerie
Christophe de Margerie
© Reuters/Scanpix

Despite Russia having shattered Europe's entire security system to pieces, de Margerie said last summer: "Russia is a partner and we shouldn't waste time protecting ourselves from a neighbour." After a Russian missile downed the MH17 passenger plane with almost 300 souls in Donbass, de Margerie continued to insist that Total would not pull out of Yamal project,a 27-billion-dollar investment that might double Russia's share in the global LNG market.

Russia's most VIP airport

Ironically, the Kremlin's best friend died in the most important airport of his investment haven. Russia has been leading world statistics of aviation accidents with human casualties. According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the chance of getting killed during a domestic flight in an economically developed country is one out of 8 million, in a developing one, one out of 0.5 million.

Vnukov Airport is a joint-stock company, most of its shares are held by offshore owners. Until recently, one of them was Genady Timchenko, a close friend of de Margerie and Putin's and one of the people in the EU's and Washington's blacklist. According to the Russian media, the airport's biggest shareholder is the country's richest man Alisher Usmanov.

However, it seems, the airport's prestige and stinky-rich owners have failed to ensure proper order and security, much like in the rest of the country. Developments in Russia increasingly follow the laws of the criminal-corrupt system that is falling outside the control of even the system's architects. Chaos is encroaching on their own back yards, interfering with most ambitious plans. M. de Margerie had been working on a strategy of how to double carbohydrate production in Russia by 2020, but was killed in the airport where Putin keeps his own jet.

A year and a half ago, a state commission said that Vnukov did not have enough monitoring equipment and recommended to install additional locators. The airport did purchase the system, but received an incomplete set: instead of two antennae, there came just one. Someone must have decided to save a buck or two and the rest just kept silent. On the night of the accident, the snowblower vehicle on the runway might have been missed by radars due to the missing antenna. The system can monitor airplanes, while snowblowers appear merely as tiny 1-millimetre dots on screens, according to a Vnukov dispatcher. Sub-standard contact between the dispatchers and airport service vehicles prevents from properly checking safety for manoeuvres.

Pandemic accidents and burglaries

The first publicly-named potential culprit was a drunk driver of the snowblower, a version readily accepted by international media. It emerged later, however, that the driver had a heart condition that prevented him from consuming alcohol. The revelation came too late, however, for the fast-paced news cycle and Russia had managed to divert attention from discussions on corruption-induced chaos as the main factor behind the accident. Not only was the driver detained by police, but so were dispatchers and the airport's chief engineer. A 23-year-old dispatcher intern was subjected to interrogation so intense that she had to be taken to hospital after fainting. But it couldn't be helped - the incident enraged the man at the very top, so there will be as many scapegoats as need be.

But there are limits to how much scapegoats can solve. Over the last seven years, there have been six emergencies at Vnukov. A stray dog entered a runway; two planes collided on land, a poorly-maintained private plane fell down during take-off due to icing, to name a few.

Chronic burglaries are another problem at Vnukov. Last summer, two masked armed men stole a bag with 20 million roubles at the arrivals terminal. In 2012, robbers disguised as policemen took 75 million roubles from collectors in the departures terminal.

The most impressive heist, however, took place in 2009, after a landing of a plane from Dagestan. Two passengers collected their luggage straight from the aircraft and boarded a minivan. But then an Audi A8 blocked its way 100 metres from the VIP terminal and armed masked men took the bags with 44 million roubles. Apparently, the Audi had passed the security because it was sporting counterfeit plates of the Moscow mayor - security staff had been too intimidated to stop the car for fear of inconveniencing a VIP.

Importance of choosing a right runway

Any security failings that Vnukov Airport might be guilty of it more than makes up for on the ideological front. Last summer, it funded a campaign in Moscow to mock Western sanctions on Russia. The campaign handed out free T-shirts with slogans like "Topol (Russian intercontinental ballistic missile) fears no sanctions" or "Sanctions? Don't make my Iskanders laugh" (Russian short-range ballistic missiles, possibly deployed in Kaliningrad). The initiative must have earned the airport the untouchable status.

Christophe de Margerie's death brushed away all his previous pleas not to be afraid of Russia or doing business with Moscow. Apparently, the manually-handled state cannot ensure safety for even its closest friends. Notorious MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky reacted to news about the crash with a cynical remark: "Well why was he flying so late?"

In the end, de Margerie was killed by his own credo that one can do business with whoever can make one rich, while the rest is immaterial. A Russian snowblower on the path of "Big Moustache" invites to reconsider - one's choice of a runway is not immaterial.

Putin posthumously conferred a state decoration on his Western advocate, possibly hoping to attract new ambitious parvenus to step in, forgetting that their predecessor's death in the mess that is modern Russia was a rule rather than exception. There are always those who think that warnings are not addressed to them.

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