Sberbank oil analyst Alex Fak was fired on May 21 after he published his second controversial report highlighting the fact that two top stoligarchs, businessmen close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are profiting from $93.4bn worth of gas pipeline construction contracts to the detriment of state-owned gas behemoth Gazprom’s profitability.
"Dear all – I was dismissed today for writing the recent report on Gazprom. What took them so long, you ask? Bureaucracy, paperwork, a vague hope I could yet be reformed..." Fak wrote in an email to clients.
Fak, who worked as a reporter for bne IntelliNews at the start of his career, highlighted Gazprom is involved in three giant pipeline projects: the Power of Siberia (Sila Sibiri), Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream, which will cost the company a total of $93.4bn, Fak said in the report he co-authored with Anna Kotelnika.
Fak objected to the deals, saying that investing in pipelines does not yield high margins, and notes that "we find the decisions of Gazprom very clear once we assume that the company is managed in the interests of its contractors, and not for extracting commercial profits," as cited by RBC business portal.
The deals to build the pipelines have been awarded to Stroygazmontazh, which is owned by Arkady Rotenberg, a childhood friend of Putin’s, and Stroytransneftegaz, which is half owned by Gennady Timchenko, another close Putin associate, and his family. Both men have been included in the US sanctions on Putin’s friends.
Sberbank CIB head Igor Bulantsev explained to RBC that Fak was fired because his work was “unprofessional” and violated both “internal policies” and ethical standards.
This is the second run in Fak has had with senior Kremlin managers of state-owned assets. Last autumn he nearly got fired for publishing a report "Rosneft: We Need to Talk About Igor", referring to the power company’s CEO Igor Sechin. That report was critical of Sechin, who Fak claimed was building an empire with little regard to the profitability of the company. After Rosneft complained, the report was withdrawn and reissued with the offending sections removed.
The whole scandal is reminiscent of the 1990s when head of research at UralSib Erik Kraus was famously sacked for saying: “We need to remove the ‘former’ from the moniker former-bandits at Sibneft,” in a report critical of corporate shenanigans at the oil company controlled by Roman Abramovich. The investment bank issued a very similar press release explaining its decision to remove Kraus, a well known commentator. However, the bank forgot to remove the reply-to email address in the mail out which showed the original text was written by Sibneft’s PR team.
Everything in Fak’s report is public knowledge and in theory his report should not have been controversial, but state-owned Russian companies remain allergic to open criticism and use their considerable clout to quash criticism, even if that hurts their image more than the actual report in question.