MOSCOW - Izvestia, a respected Russian daily, reported Wednesday that it had discovered that two Ukrainians effectively owned a share of a controversial joint natural gas distribution venture with Russia.
Trader Rosukrenergo was the key company in a deal to end a bitter price row between the former Soviet neighbors early this year, but its ownership structure has remained unclear.
The sole supplier of Russian and Central Asian gas to Ukraine is 50% owned by a subsidiary of Russian energy giant Gazprom and the other 50% is held by Austria's Raiffeisen Investment.
Izvestia cited an audit report for the period from July 22, 2004 to December 31, 2005 prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers that named Ukrainians Dmitry Firtash, Kiev Arsenal soccer club owner, and Ivan Fursin, owner of commercial bank Mistobank and a core shareholder of the Odessa film studio, as RosUkrEnergo beneficiary owners.
"Precisely these two not very well-known...Ukrainian citizens are the company beneficiaries," the paper said.
According to Izvestia, Firtash, who also represents the Budapest-based Eural Trans Gas Co. in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, and lives in Hungary, holds 90% of the Ukrainian share portion in the enterprise. He reportedly has strong connections with Ukraine's political establishment and business elite.
Fursin owns 10% of Ukraine's 50% in Rosukrenergo. Fursin and his bank are known in Ukraine for an attempt to seize a shoe factory in Kiev. He also ran for parliament in March as member of People's Party, which failed to overcome the 3% threshold to take up seats.
Izvestia questioned why it had taken so long to clear up the ownership matter, which has been vigorously debated in the Russian and foreign media, as the information was available for all those interested.
"It is unclear why the truth has not come to light for so long," Izvestia said.
The paper cited The Wall Street Journal, which reported earlier this week that U.S. justice officials had opened investigation into the company, which they said was opaque.
Izvestia's inquiry dismissed a Wall Street Journal prediction that the investigation's results could prove harmful for Russia, which is pushing its energy security concept in 2006, when it is holding chairmanship in the Group of Eight developed nations, and might add to Europe's concerns about Gazprom's plans to acquire European energy assets.
The Russian paper said Europe had nothing to worry about as Rosukrenergo, which also supplies gas to Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Estonia, had been honoring its commitments to the European consumers, whereas transparency concerns should be addressed to Kiev.