Photo Gallery: The Shady World of Ukrainian Gas Deals

Foto: Konstantin Chernichkin/ REUTERS

A Stockholm Conspiracy The Underbelly of Ukrainian Gas Dealings

The agreement in early 2009 which restarted gas deliveries from Russia via Ukraine to Western Europe, was hailed as a success. But since Viktor Yanukovych became Ukrainian president in February, many of those involved in the deal have been arrested. Furthermore, the president's friends have profited handsomely while the state has lost a fortune.

The official address of the Lukyanivska pretrial detention center, named after the Lukyanivka neighborhood of Kiev and located just behind the Defense Ministry barracks, is Degtyaryovskaya uliza 13. It is a whitewashed brick building, complete with watchtowers and barbed wire, a blue steel door and a gray sliding gate. A harsh winter wind howls along the street, and the women waiting in front of the entrance with packages under their arms are shivering in the cold. The prison, a building that dates back to the 19th century, is one of the most notorious in Kiev. Although it was designed to house 2,800 prisoners, it is now overfilled with 4,000 men. One of the prisoners, Igor Didenko, says that it's horrible "to so much as touch a spoon or a cup here."

He was on his way to the dentist when he ended up in Lukyanivska. The 46-year-old is no longer the youngest, and on that afternoon his dentist was going to attach crowns to posts that had been implanted in his mouth. It was July 9, a Friday, and the weekend was about to begin in a summery Kiev, but before Didenko could mount the stairs to the dentist's office, he was lying on the asphalt in the middle of the courtyard.

Masked men had thrown him to the ground, tied his hands together and pushed him into a car. They were members of the "Alpha" special forces unit, an elite group within the Ukrainian intelligence service SBU. He was treated like a dangerous criminal when they took him to Lukyanivska, where he has now been imprisoned for almost six months.

There were petitions for clemency after his arrest. Filaret, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, put in a good word for him, as did Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president, three dozen members of parliament, businesspeople and scientists. But the petitions have been ignored.

'After My Blood'

Why was someone like Didenko so important to the government that he was arrested like some Mafia boss? Why does Didenko believe that it is possible "that agitated political groups are after my blood in prison," as he shouted into the courtroom from the caged area where he was being held during his arraignment? And why is Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister of Ukraine until March of this year, claiming that Didenko's arrest proves "that the country has fallen into the hands of criminal organizations?"

There is nothing particularly exciting about Didenko's biography. He was born near Vinnytsia in central Ukraine in 1964. He studied commercial information technology and eventually became a businessman. For more than a decade, he served as vice-president of Naftogaz, the large state-owned gas company, and even headed the company for a long time. He has a wife and children, and a house in Kiev's upscale "Golden Gate" residential neighborhood.

"Didenko was a respected professional, a manager," says Sergei Vlassenko, a lawyer and a member of parliament, who is working with Didenko's attorneys. "He wasn't a politician."

Nevertheless, the Didenko case is highly political. It reveals the inner workings of Ukraine: how some multimillionaires are using this country -- which many non-Ukrainians only associate with the TV images of brawls in parliament -- as a vehicle for their business deals; and how the legal culture of Ukraine, a country seeking European Union membership, is being increasingly undermined.

A Giant Budgetary Hole

Didenko's story is the tale of a major deal that has to be of interest to the West, because it suffers every winter as a result of turbulence in Ukraine, even though it has trouble understanding the underlying causes. The deal involves 12 billion cubic meters of natural gas, worth billions of dollars, and an arbitration award that has torn a giant hole into the country's budget.

Billionaire Dmitry Firtash, 45, is one of the lead actors in this drama. He is one of the most powerful men in Ukraine and has been successful in the gas and chemical business for years. Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, 41, also plays a leading role. He is a media mogul, a former economics minister and steel magnate who is sometimes referred to as the "Ukrainian Berlusconi." Khoroshkovsky is also head of the Ukrainian security service, an intelligence agency which also has policing and public prosecutor duties -- a total of 30,000 employees. Finally, Viktor Yanukovich plays a leading role. The 60-year-old is a former locomotive engineer and miner who was convicted in his younger days of participation in a robbery and assault before rising to become prime minister in 2002. Since February, he has been Ukraine's president.

Igor Didenko is the final character of note.

The story began in January 2009. Only 12 hours into the new year, Russia had declared a gas war on neighboring Ukraine. On Jan. 1, at 11:48 a.m., Moscow time, the chief engineer at a compressor station near Kursk in western Russia closed a valve on a pipeline. His boss, the head of Russia's Gazprom Group, had ordered him to cut off the flow of gas to Ukraine -- in the middle of an icy winter.

The sudden shutdown of the pipeline didn't just affect Ukraine. Within a few days, the rest of Europe, dependent as it is on Russian gas -- some 80 percent of which is delivered via Ukraine -- likewise felt the squeeze. Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria reported a drastic drop in pressure, and Slovakia declared a state of emergency on Jan. 6. "The Kremlin is letting Europe freeze," the papers wrote.

Trying Western European Patience

The Continent had become accustomed to the Russian-Ukrainian gas wars, which regularly flared up in the dead of winter. But this time the conflict lasted almost three weeks, severely trying the patience of Western Europeans.

Once again, Moscow and Kiev had been unable to agree on a new delivery price. The Russians had demanded $450 (€344) per 1,000 cubic meters, while the cash-strapped Ukrainians felt that $235 was more appropriate. "You are taking millions of citizens in Europe hostage," a Bulgarian member of the European parliament shouted at Russian and Ukrainian representatives.

But a surprise ceasefire agreement was reached on Jan. 19. Then Ukrainian Prime Minister Tymoshenko had scored a coup in Moscow. She returned from a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with a 10-year agreement on future gas deliveries in hand. Putin's concession was a 20 percent discount on the global market price.

But two other documents, each with substantial appendices, were also signed in Moscow, documents that were long kept secret from the public. They applied to RosUkrEnergo, or RUE, the intermediary that had handled the gas deals between Russia and Ukraine until then.

RosUkrEnergo is the company that would put Igor Didenko in prison.

'Hanging from the Street Lights'

RosUkrEnergo's business model had been relatively straightforward until then: The company bought cheap gas from the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan and had Gazprom deliver it to the Ukrainian border, where the lion's share was sold at a favorable price to the state-owned Ukrainian company Naftogaz, and the rest to European customers at the global market price. The rest of Ukraine's demand for gas was supplied by Gazprom from Russian sources, again using RUE as the intermediary.

Everyone benefited from the arrangement. It allowed the Ukrainians to buy gas inexpensively, the Russians could claim to be charging world market prices, and intermediary RUE earned healthy profits -- extremely healthy, in fact.

RUE is a typical product of the early days of post-Soviet Eastern Europe, but also one of the most mysterious. Gazprom -- the Russians, that is -- owns 50 percent of the company. The Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash owns 45 percent, while a partner owns the remaining 5 percent. RUE is headquartered in the Swiss canton of Zug, while Firtash controls his shares through a company called Centragas Holding, with its offices on Schwindgasse in Vienna.

The intermediate gas trade is not very transparent, but hardly anyone doubts that a lot of the money involved disappears into Ukrainian and Russian pockets. But how much, and where does it go?

Firtash, whose father was a chauffeur and whose mother worked in a sugar factory, never attended university. Nevertheless, as he says himself, he has a "good nose" for business. His life as a "biznesmen" began after the fall of the Soviet Union, when he exported preserves to Central Asia. Several wholesalers made it possible for him to enter the gas trade, a "dangerous" industry at the time, as Firtash would later admit. Firtash says that he was acquainted with Semion Mogilevich, the presumed Russian crime boss who the FBI accuses of many offenses involving fraud.

An Eight Hour Debate

Both then Prime Minister Tymoshenko and Gazprom had a strong interest in moving Firtash, a man with a closely cropped, gray beard, out of the profitable gas business. Even though the Russian monopoly Gazprom was his partner in RUE and had been collecting substantial profits in the lucrative sale of gas to Western markets, it was in an awkward situation in early 2009. The profits it had been earning on gas exports had declined sharply. Gazprom needed money, but Firtash owed the company $1.7 billion, for gas that Moscow had already delivered but that the oligarch was keeping in storage in Ukraine, with the intention of exporting it to Poland and Romania.

During the Jan. 19 negotiations in Moscow, Tymoshenko and Putin agreed that RosUkrEnergo had to go. The heated debates went on for eight hours, but by the end of the meeting the negotiators had indeed found a way to eliminate the middleman: Gazprom would transfer RUE's debts to Naftogaz, which would then pay Moscow the $1.7 billion. In return, Naftogaz would receive access to the 11 billion cubic meters of gas that Firtash's RUE was keeping in Ukrainian government storage tanks. Under the agreement, the governments in Moscow and Kiev would conduct their gas dealings directly with each other in the future.

The so-called "KP-PChG" agreement, together with its appendices, was such an elaborate deal that the heads of the two companies involved, Alexei Miller and Oleg Dubina, both had to sign it. But the stress of the last few days had taken its toll on Dubina, who had a heart attack and was hospitalized. As a result, the deputies of the two men signed the agreement instead: Gazprom Deputy CEO Valery Golubev and Naftogaz Deputy Chairman Igor Didenko.

The documents were not published, and only later did it become clear that Gazprom had structured the deal on its own.

While the pecuniary benefits of the deal were important to Gazprom, Tymoshenko was more interested in what it could do for her politically. Firtash was the most important financial backer of opposition leader Viktor Yanukovich, her biggest rival. She hoped to be able to drain his biggest source of funding, which she described as a "large feeding trough, the shadow treasury of all of Ukraine's presidents." Elections were around the corner, and both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich were eager to capture the presidency.

A 'Questionable Character'

The Ukrainian prime minister, Russian Prime Minister Putin and the Western Europeans all celebrated the agreement with Moscow. Even the US Embassy, which described Firtash as a "questionable character," wrote in a cable to Washington that the elimination of RUE could introduce "transparency and accountability" into the gas trade.

The US Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks reveal what a devastating blow the deal was to Firtash, and how furious it made him. He met several times with US Ambassador William Taylor, who, in his reports to Washington, wrote that Firtash believed that the new gas agreement between Tymoshenko and Putin was "criminal" and the "most stupid contract in Ukraine's history." According to the ambassador, Firtash would have supported Tymoshenko's immediate arrest. Taylor's dispatch notes that the oligarch told him that if anyone else had signed such an agreement, "he would have already been hanging from the street lights."

Other Tymoshenko adversaries, like Yury Boyko, energy minister in the opposition's shadow cabinet and a former member of the coordinating council of RUE, called the agreement a "betrayal of national interests." They insinuated that the prime minister had generally accepted a price that was too high for future gas deliveries from Russia, had kept the transit fees too low and had agreed to unacceptable payment arrangements -- all with the goal of eliminating Firtash.

There were also direct threats. Tymoshenko told SPIEGEL that Naftogaz deputy chief Didenko had received threatening calls from Kiev while he was in Moscow, attending the negotiations, warning him that he would "do time" if he signed the agreements. Tymoshenko stressed that Didenko "merely carried out my instructions."

Arbitration in Stockholm

The most exciting chapter in the drama surrounding RUE and the 11 billion cubic meters of gas began on March 24, 2009. Firtash and his backers were determined to exact revenge, and they wanted to regain control over the gas. Firtash had already filed nine complaints in Ukrainian courts, but now he turned to the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.

The Institute, at Jakobs Torg 3 in Stockholm, is almost 100 years old and considered one of the most renowned arbitration courts worldwide. The Swedes accepted the case, but needed time to process it. All parties involved issued their statements. Firtash felt that the Moscow deal was illegal because of certain clauses and previous agreements that were still valid, while Naftogaz and the Ukrainian government defended it as legal. The outcome seemed open. The Ukrainian government, however, felt confident that it would win the case, because Naftogaz, and not RUE, had paid for the gas.

Then the government changed hands in Kiev.

Tymoshenko's rival Yanukovich who the Orange Revolution six years earlier had deprived of the office of president, which he was convinced he would win, became president in February 2010, even though only one in three Ukrainians voted for him.

An About Face in Stockholm

What a triumph it was for Tymoshenko's rivals! Oligarch Firtash, who the Americans believed was one of the key financial backers of the new president, was suddenly part of the inner circle of the powerful in Kiev. Many of Firtash's associates were appointed to government posts. Two of his friends, Yury Boyko and Sergei Lyovochkin, the 38-year-old son of a general, became energy minister and the president's chief of staff, respectively. His confidant Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, owner of the Inter media empire, for which Firtash owned a purchase option until recently, was made head of the state security organization.

With Khoroshkovsky's help, Yanukovich had ministers and top officials in the former government arrested. But nowhere was the purge as radical as at the state-owned Naftogaz, where the entire management team was replaced. Didenko also left the company, "of his own will."

The new president needed only a few months to gain control over the executive, the majority of the parliament and most of the judges, who were already corrupt. The "ancient human instinct of fear has to be activated to a much greater degree again," said his prime minister, who replaced the hated Tymoshenko after her election defeat. Ukraine was on its way to becoming an authoritarian country again.

At this point, things began moving quickly in Stockholm as well. Naftogaz now reported to the Yanukovich administration, which meant that the two parties facing each other before the arbitration court were no longer enemies but friends. In fact, they were one and the same party. On the one side of the table, the de facto representatives of Firtash, Yanukovich and Boyko were negotiating in the interest of RUE, while the Ukrainian government was on the other side: Energy Minister Boyko, representing President Yanukovich, with both men closely tied to Firtash. The case had turned into a farce.

A Catastrophe for Ukraine

It ended on June 8, 2010 with a clear verdict: the Swedes ruled in favor of RUE. The state-owned Ukrainian gas company was to return the disputed 11 billion cubic meters of gas to Firtash's RUE, as well as another 1.1 billion cubic meters of gas as compensation for lost profits.

RUE asked to be paid the cash equivalent of the 12.1 billion cubic meters, and demanded the market price for the gas, not the special price of $1.7 billion to which Gazprom had once agreed. Based on RUE's calculations, the value of the gas had suddenly tripled to $5.4 billion.

This is a catastrophe for Ukraine. If Kiev returns the gas, the country will no longer have enough for the winter. If it agrees to pay the several billion dollars, the government will have to pay Naftogaz's debts. But Kiev itself is broke and has survived on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans since the worldwide financial crisis began.

But why did Naftogaz suffer such a clear defeat in Stockholm, especially after the initial prospects for the state-owned company were not considered half bad? The Swedes are refusing to comment on the issue, citing the confidentiality of arbitration court rulings. The Yanukovich government also refuses to make any statements.

The Commercial Interests of an Oligarch

SPIEGEL has since been able to review copies of the Stockholm decision. A passage on page 4, under item 4, reads: "Although 'Naftogaz' initially claimed, during the course of this arbitration, that the procurement of the 11 billion cubic meters of gas was sufficiently justified from a legal standpoint, it now states that this was not the case." In a different passage, Naftogaz suddenly admits that this gas "belongs to and has always belonged to RUE."

As dry as these sentences sound, they are also incredibly explosive. It now becomes clear why the new leadership did not publish the arbitration court's decision: Naftogaz, despite being in a difficult financial position, reversed its legal position by 180 degrees after the change of government in Kiev. The company itself pushed the Stockholm court to reach a decision that was unfavorable for Ukraine. Besides, as SPIEGEL has also learned, Naftogaz removed the names of the relevant Gazprom officials from statements. The Russian company, which had facilitated the January 2009 deal, was hardly even mentioned in the proceedings.

There can be no other conclusion: Viktor Yanukovich, the president of Ukraine, served the commercial interests of an oligarch with whom he has close ties -- at the expense of his own country. And, in doing so, he also did Moscow a favor.

Sergei Vlassenko, the lawyer and parliamentarian, calls this "cynical." He is sitting in the bar of the Riviera, a four-star hotel in Kiev's historic Podol district, looking out at the banks of the Dnieper River. "What is the guarantee that the same thing won't happen again tomorrow, in another case?"

Facing Imprisonment

Vlassenko has drawn a diagram of the empire of Dmitry Firtash onto a yellow paper napkin. The drawing resembles the tentacles of an octopus. "Firtash's profits from the Stockholm affair are likely to be immense," he says. To divert attention away from this process, says Vlassenko, Firtash's friend, security chief Khoroshkovsky, launched an anti-corruption campaign that solely targeted leading members of the previous orange government. In addition to former Naftogaz deputy chief Didenko, his main accountant, the head of the Ukrainian customs agency and other government officials were arrested. Two former ministers were also arrested, and the former head of the Interior Ministry is under supervision. Criminal action was initiated against former Prime Minister Tymoshenko on Dec. 15, and she was forbidden to leave the country. Five days later, Tymoshenko was charged with misuse of state funds, and she too could now face imprisonment.

The conclusion is unavoidable that these charges and arrests constitute political payback. "Didenko was charged, under Article 191 of the Criminal Code, with misappropriation of assets on a large scale," says Vlassenko with a bitter smile. "That's absurd. Last year a Kiev court ruled that Didenko had acted legally in Moscow. Now, after the change of government, the court decisions are of course different. Now he is even expected to suffer for the fact that the government has to pay for the deal between Naftogaz and Gazprom."

The meeting at the Riviera took place at the end of October. On Nov. 24, Ukraine's highest court upheld the Stockholm decision. On Dec. 6, oligarch Firtash announced that he had repaid his debts with Naftogaz and Gazprom and, in return, had received the 11 billion cubic meters of gas plus the additional 1.1 billion cubic meters, which the Stockholm court had awarded him as an "injury award." Firtash claims that he has since sold all of the gas to Gazprom, although he has declined to specify the price.

Experts have calculated that the Ukrainian government lost about $1 billion in this process of shifting 12.1 billion cubic meters of gas back and forth. Firtash, however, is raking in a huge profit at current prices. The 12.1 billion cubic meters are now worth $3 billion. The oligarch denies that Ukraine came up short in the deal, and that the gas reserves are no longer sufficient for this winter.

The Kiev newspaper Kommersant disagrees, writing that half of the 24 billion cubic meters currently being stored in tanks is now gone, corresponding to about a quarter of annual requirements. This, the paper writes, creates the risk of an energy collapse.

Didenko, for his part, remains in Lukyanivska Prison. A Kiev appeals court extended his pretrial detention on Dec. 9. What is happening here, says Didenko, is "a political trial in the interest of dirty economic groups." He could face several years in prison.

The following Letter to the Editor was received by SPIEGEL ONLINE International in response to the above article:


The judgment and award made by the Arbitration Institute at the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce ("Tribunal") in the case brought by Rosukrenergo (RUE) against Naftogaz for the theft of 11.1bcm of RUE's gas, were based solely on the overwhelming weight of evidence against Naftogaz. The reasons for the award are clearly set out in the full and detailed written judgment given by the three eminent international arbitrators who specifically stated that their "position is supported by the evidence before the Tribunal".

The confiscation of RUE's gas was therefore illegal

Naftogaz's pleadings were all presented to the Tribunal before the presidential election and therefore before there was a change of Government.

It is unfortunate that the article made unfair insinuations and drew unfounded conclusions against Mr. Dmitry Firtash. Mr. Firtash's only concern throughout this process has been to defend his commercial interests through the application of the rule of law.

Robert Shetler-Jones
CEO Group DF

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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