Yakunin Celebrates RZD Anniversary

MTYakunin entering his office. He said RZD's spending plans might be cut back.
At the end of a marble corridor lined with portraits of Soviet bigwigs, inside a small dining room styled like a Venetian palace, Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin celebrated the state company's fifth anniversary at its central Moscow headquarters.

With toasts to railway workers and women in an atmosphere of bonhomie, the event Wednesday evening marked five years since the Railway Ministry was spun off into a company in a bid to revive the huge, aging rail network.

But, as the financial crisis takes its toll, Yakunin told reporters at a briefing earlier in the day that the state-run rail monopoly, like almost all major Russian companies, is facing tougher times.

Although Yakunin said Russian Railways, or RZD, has no issues with its own liquidity as the world feels the credit squeeze, loans have begun drying up, and the company's ambitious investment plans could be scaled back by as much as 15 percent over the next few years.

In the current climate, the company has been forced to halt a sale of $7 billion of 30-year bonds, he said.

RZD recently had its plan to 2030 to pump over $500 billion into the rail network approved by the government.

Yakunin, an avuncular figure with graying temples, is considered one of modern Russia's titans of industry and a confidante of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. With strong links to the Orthodox Church and a resume that suggests a stint in the KGB, he also represents the most conservative "Orthodox Chekist" clan with links to the Kremlin.

While praising Mayor Yury Luzhkov's active support for South Ossetia, Yakunin said it had been proposed that RZD revive a Soviet-era plan to link up the railways of Russia and the separatist Georgian republic.

"Railway men don't just talk about infrastructure, they act to bring nations together," he said, when asked whether the project was more about politics.

In an interview published Thursday in Kommersant, Yakunin expounded on his views of the financial crisis, which he said sounded the death knell for liberal capitalism in the country and marked a sea change in thinking around the globe.

"Let's start together, with the whole world … to build and realize a new economic theory," Yakunin, who chairs a strategic think tank, said in the interview.

During the anniversary dinner, Yakunin drew upon on a wealth of anecdotes from his boyhood days.

Over dinner, he also exhorted his countrymen to lose their ingrained philosophy of blaming others for their problems and to seek solutions themselves.

However bad the situation becomes, Yakunin can draw on his experiences of living through the turmoil of the post-Soviet period, when he returned from a stint working at the Soviet mission at the United Nations in New York in the late 1980s to find his homeland in dire straits.

In the early 1990s, as St. Petersburg teetered on the brink of starvation, Yakunin asked new acquaintance Putin, then the city's deputy mayor, how he could be so calm. Unperturbed, an ice-cold Putin said not to worry and that everything would be solved.

And sure enough, Yakunin said, everything was OK.