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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Owners of Ukraine's Gas Trader Revealed

Gazprom's Izvestia newspaper announced with a flourish Wednesday that two Ukrainian businessmen, Dmytro Firtash and Ivan Fursin, were the beneficiaries behind the mysterious other half of RosUkrEnergo.

Citing what it said were excerpts of a PricewaterhouseCoopers audit of the secretive gas trader, the newspaper named the men in a front-page article written in a sarcastic, anti-American tone that attempted to link them to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

The audit named Firtash and Fursin as the owners of Centragas, a company that owns the 50 percent of RosUkrEnergo not owned by Gazprom. Centragas is held by Austria's Raiffeisen Bank for beneficiaries who had refused to be named.

Centragas confirmed Izvestia's report in a statement late Wednesday, saying Firtash owned a 90 percent stake in Centragas, and Fursin a 10 percent stake.

Firtash is director of the Cyprus-based investment company Highrock Holdings, as well as board chairman of Estonian fertilizer factory Nitrofert, according to anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness. Fursin owns an Odessa bank and a movie theater, and is also president of a branch of Highrock Holdings, according to Izvestia.

Izvestia said Highrock was owned by Semyon Mogilevich, a Ukrainian-born businessman wanted by the FBI and reputed to be a major figure in organized crime.

The revelation came after Gazprom had for months redirected inquiries about RosUkrEnergo's ownership to Ukrainian officials.

Yet the article appeared to raise far more questions than it answered -- in particular, about the timing and motives behind its publication.

Written under the name "Vladimir Berezhnoi," the article attacked the U.S. Justice Department, which was reported last week to be investigating RosUkrEnergo's then-unknown beneficiaries.

"The internal problems of their own country, evidently, have long since been resolved (the only thing left is to execute the terrorist Moussaoui), and thus they have the time and desire to meddle in other people's affairs," the Izvestia article said.

Several staff members at Izvestia contacted by telephone Wednesday identified Berezhnoi as a freelance writer.

But a source at Izvestia said on condition of anonymity that Berezhnoi did not exist, and that the article had been written by an Izvestia staff member under a pseudonym after a Gazprom representative showed him the PwC audit.

A search of Izvestia's archives revealed no other articles published under the name Vladimir Berezhnoi, and a Russian-language Internet search revealed no articles in other publications written by a journalist of that name.

Galina Zhukova, a member of Izvestia's editorial staff, asked that questions for Berezhnoi be submitted to her by e-mail, and said that Berezhnoi would reply the same way if he chose to respond.

Questions submitted by e-mail had not been answered by late Wednesday evening.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov confirmed that Gazprom had possession of the PwC audit of RosUkrEnergo, though said he could not comment on how Izvestia had seen it.

He also said the revelation of Centragas' beneficiaries in no way changed Gazprom's position.

"We have already said that our partner in the project is Raiffeisen, and that all other questions should be directed to the Ukrainian side," Kupriyanov said. "As for our part, we've always been open and transparent."

A PwC spokeswoman confirmed that the company had audited RosUkrEnergo but could not provide details.

Earlier this week, Raiffeisen said it would likely withdraw from the arrangement under which it holds 50 percent in RosUkrEnergo once the beneficiaries came forward, according to a report published Tuesday on the web site of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.

"I am assuming Raiffeisen will withdraw once the true owners have introduced themselves in public," Herbert Stepic, head of Raiffeisen International, said Monday.

There has been much speculation about Firtash's possible connection to RosUkrEnergo. A report published this week by Global Witness, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for its work tracking corruption in the natural resources sector, noted that Firtash had registered and was closely associated with Eural Trans Gas, another secretive gas trader that served as the immediate predecessor to RosUkrEnergo.

"It obviously clarifies who these people are," Tom Mayne, a researcher at Global Witness, said by telephone from London. "What we still don't understand is what these men bring to the table."

Mayne also said the revelation would likely increase pressure on Yushchenko to explain why RosUkrEnergo had been given exclusive rights as Ukraine's gas trader.

Many observers have questioned why the trader was being employed at all, rather than having Gazprom sell gas directly to Ukrainian gas monopoly Naftogaz Ukrainy.

The Jan. 4 deal that ended the gas standoff between Russia and Ukraine has been a major bone of contention between Yushchenko, who has denied any knowledge of who is behind RosUkrEnergo, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his erstwhile Orange Revolution ally.

Tymoshenko has accused Yushchenko of concealing his knowledge of RosUkrEnergo's beneficiaries, while Yushchenko has fired back that critics of the trader only want it replaced with their own favored company.

Yushchenko's spokeswoman could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

The Ukrainian government will make official decisions regarding the gas trader only after the PwC audit is officially published, Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov said Wednesday, Interfax reported.

"We have signed contracts, we are satisfied with the price. ... Ukraine will work and consume gas, just as agreed," Plachkov said.

Izvestia sought to stress purported links between Firtash and the Ukrainian president, saying Firtash was friends with former presidential aide Alexander Tretyakov. It also related Ukrainian media reports that Firtash had endeared himself to the president by flying Yushchenko's American relatives to Kiev for his inauguration.

But Ukrainian political commentator Boris Pogrebinsky said the links were tenuous. Firtash's arranging the flight is "the only information known to me from any source making some connection" between the two, Pogrebinsky said.

Pogrebinsky also said that while Tymoshenko might seek to use the information as a way to press her case to regain the prime minister's job, there would be little public reaction in Ukraine -- even if Yushchenko were publicly linked to Firtash and Fursin.

"But the public doesn't react harshly to indications of corruption. This is far too complicated a matter for the general public," Pogrebinsky said.