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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far East Seamen May Face Arrest in Business Feud

Twenty seamen face unemployment and even arrest upon their return to Vladivostok on Wednesday - pawns in the ongoing management war at their embattled shipping company, Vostoktransflot.

Led by Captain Igor Tkachenko, seamen from the ship Titovsk flew to Moscow on Tuesday on the way home to the Far East after being at sea for 10 months. While they were gone their company underwent changes that could cost them their freedom as well as their jobs.

"My wife told me on the phone that I will be arrested when I come back to Vladivostok," Tkachenko said during a layover in Moscow from Calcutta, India.

The saga began in June, when a district court in Vladivostok ruled that the chairman of Vostoktransflot, Anatoly Milashevich, had gained control of the company illegally. The court replaced Milashevich with Vostoktransflot's former director, Viktor Ostapenko.

Immediately upon resuming his post, Ostapenko ordered the Vostoktransflot fleet to disregard contract obligations and return to port, but only four of the company's 38 ships actually did so. Instead, most of the captains continued to follow Milashevich, ignoring orders from Ostapenko to return to Vladivostok.

For the past two months the Titovsk - a cargo ship that carries fish meal to Asian ports - has been receiving two conflicting sets of orders: one from Milashevich's team, which fled to Cyprus after the June court ruling declared his takeover illegal, the other from Ostapenko.

Tkachenko said that Ostapenko sent radiograms "every seven hours" instructing the Titovsk to drop its contract and carry out another job. "They were absurd," Tkachenko said, adding that many of the messages - which he did not answer - carried threats.

According to Tkachenko, one said: "You are hijacking the ship together with the crew - a violation of Article 211 of the Russian Criminal Code, [which carries a sentence of] from four to eight years. Are you thinking about what you are doing? In your situation you must shape up and communicate."

"Can you imagine how I felt about that message on a stormy sea?" the captain said.

"When the problems started I was scared," one member of the Titovsk's crew said. "I have a child at home to raise. And none of the crew believed that Ostapenko would pay us if we do what he ordered."

The crews had reason to mistrust Ostapenko - the man who served as the shipping company's director until Milashevich, general director of the Moscow-based investment company Partnerstvo, obtained a majority share and took over its management in August 1997. Under Ostapenko's previous tenure, the company ran up $96 million in debt and went for months without paying its employees. Once Milashevich took over, the company - the largest shipper of refrigerated products in Russia - managed to pay off half its debts and turn a profit of $170 million in 1998.

Now that their contract obligations have been fulfilled, the seamen's future employment is uncertain. One crew member said his wife had informed him that he and his colleagues aboard the Titovsk had already been fired.

However, an Aug. 3 decision by an arbitration court in the Far East may give the Titovsk crew hope. The court overturned the decision to remove Milashevich from his post, declaring that he did not assume control of the company illegally. Nevertheless, Ostapenko still heads the Vostoktransflot office. In protest he called for employees of Vostoktransflot to declare a hunger strike to get the head of the arbitration court dismissed - a move, Tkachenko said, that is not likely to rally much support among the company's disgruntled workers.