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Putin’s spokesman called a question about this stolen gas pipeline ‘slander.’ Two months later, the police are investigating.

Meduza
Ddp / INTERTOPICS / Vida Press
November 8, 2017

The website Fontanka publishes an investigative report about Gazprom’s construction of a 100-kilometer-long (62-mile-long) gas pipeline in Priozersk, outside St. Petersburg. According to financial records, the project’s contractor, “Omega,” completed the work back in 2014 and received 1.7 billion rubles ($25.8 million, according to the current exchange rate). Journalists later discovered, however, that only the first of four sections was ever finished: just 40 kilometers (25 miles) of pipeline. In September 2017, Omega declared bankruptcy.

December 20, 2018

At his annual marathon press conference, Vladimir Putin fields a question from 47news.ru journalist Viktor Smirnov, who complains that “a pipeline in Priozersk was stolen a couple of years ago” worth 1.8 billion rubles, but police still haven’t opened a criminal investigation. The president promises to look into the situation.

The exchange between Smirnov and Putin

Putin: I don’t understand. Someone dug it up and dragged it away, or what?

Smirnov: No, it was never installed, but the paperwork was all in place. So it’s kinda like it exists, but not.

Putin: So the money was allocated, but there’s pipeline?

Smirnov: Right. And no criminal proceedings, either.

December 23, 2018

Immediately after the press conference, appearing on Rossiya 1 network television, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says Smirnov’s comments constitute slander. “Nobody laid any pipeline or got any money for it — it’s still planned for the future. There’s a normal process in place for the gas infrastructure development of Russia’s regions. [Gazprom head Alexey] Miller has reported on this multiple times to the president. [...] In essence, you could call this slander,” Peskov says of Smirnov’s remarks, adding that the Kremlin should consider additional restrictions to guard the annual press conference from “non-journalists” who use the forum to lodge “personal complaints.”

December 26, 2018

Gazprom officially confirms to the BBC that 1.7 billion rubles was paid for the construction of a gas pipeline in Priozersk, though Omega finished only one of the four sections. The company says work on the remainder of the pipeline was suspended deliberately, because of changes to the design of the gas supply infrastructure. But the BBC also uncovered a memo describing the results of an internal investigation that says of the second 30-kilometer pipeline section: “No welded pipeline was found.”

January 10, 2019

March 6, 2019

Interior Ministry investigators launch a large-scale fraud case against Vitaly Ermolaev, Omega’s CEO, accusing him of citing false pretexts for dividend payments, fictitious loan agreements, and unfounded payments to affiliated companies that allowed him to withdraw funds from Gazprom that cost the corporation more than 800 million rubles ($12.1 million) in damages. According to 47news.ru, police have not yet detained Ermolaev, who is reportedly a notorious St. Petersburg motorcycle gang member. Ermolaev has been named as a suspect in at least two suspended felony cases, one involving gunfire at police officers last July and another case involving unpaid wages to Omega staff.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock