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By John Helmer in Moscow

Depending on how fanciful you wish to be, the Flying Dutchman is either a reference to the nautical refraction phenomenon that makes phantom ships appear at sea, like mirages, in conditions of temperature inversion; or else it’s a tale of a half-mad Dutch sea captain, whose 17th century navigational ineptitude caused him to confuse his position inside False Bay, off the southern South African coast, and to be lost with all hands.

A lesser Dutch phenomenon that has been plying Russian waters since 1990 is the Moscow Times, a newspaper that was started, and is still run, by Derk Sauer (pictured); who offered it to Mikhail Khodorkovsky; and sold it another two times over through the late Leonid Rozhetskin. Some of the lesser, and some of the greater humourists of post-revolutionary Russian journalism got their first bylines into print there. But fun and fact are two different phenomena: as the Sauer crew peer from their poop deck, they have the bad habit of seeing their own vessel as much mightier than it is.

Take, for example, their paper chase over the past month after the story of the Arctic Sea, a 4,700-tonne lumber carrier, apparently owned by a Russian living in Arkhangelsk called Nikolai Karpenkov. No thanks to his informativeness, it is known that the vessel started its regular monthly voyage in July from Russia and Finland to Algeria, only to end up off the Cape Verde Islands, where the Russian Navy arrested it, its cargo, crew, and some extras. The last of these are now in a Moscow remand prison on charges of hijacking and piracy, to which they plead not guilty. Whether they tried to extract a price for the ship, the crew, or the cargo won’t be known until their trial, and for that you shouldn’t be holding your breath. The vessel itself comes from a line of ill-fated constructions from a Turkish shipyard that have demonstrated a knack for capsizing. Since it left the yard in 1992, the Arctic Sea has been traded in and resold even more times than the Moscow Times.

In public accountability for their doings at sea, it is well-known that the Kremlin, the Defence Ministry, Navy, and General Prosecutor can be as clumsy as Davy Jones. This in turn can inspire a great deal of mirage spotting. In the case of their recent involvement with the Arctic Sea, this has been put down to mystery cargoes of illicit drugs, arms, nuclear materials, spies — all considerably more valuable than logs; and in the dogdays of summer, more tantalizing to reveal in print. Which is perhaps the reason the Moscow Times thought it had spied another tantalizer when it led its front-page on Thursday with a tale from the very place from which the Arctic Sea had originated seventeen years ago. Turkey. Only this time, it wasn’t the lumber-carrier that had made port, but Mikhail Voitenko, a freedom-loving Russian journalist and apparently, allowing for temperature inversions on the Bosphorus, on the run for his life.

According to the Moscow Times report, published on the website on Wednesday, and then heading the newspaper’s print edition on Thursday, Sovfrakht Maritime Bulletin editor and writer, Voitenko, had been threatened over his coverage of the Arctic Sea affair, and had fled Russia. But this was a “hoax”, according to Sovfrakht spokesman Anastasia Plovskaya. She told Fairplay she had spoken Thursday morning with Voitenko, who was in Istanbul at the time. He had told Sovfrakht, his employer, that he had not made the statements attributed to him in the Moscow Times, and that he had been in Istanbul since September 2 on routine business. Sovfrakht — in the Soviet era, the central chartering agency for civil fleet and marine freight operations — bought Voitenko’s internet publication which specializes in the coverage of maritime accidents, casualties, port conditions, and the like. After selling, Voitenko has explained that he works for Sovfrakht.

The publication by Moscow Times reporter Anna Malpas claims Voitenko said in a telephone-call on September 2: “Some serious guys hinted to me yesterday or the day before yesterday. They advised me to return in three or four months.” The newspaper also reports asking Voitenko if he had been pressured to leave Russia, quoting his reply: “Yes, it was because of the Arctic Sea.” Malpas told Fairplay she was “totally puzzled” by Voitenko’s denial. She said it had been her idea to telephone Voitenko, trying him twice before he was able to speak in the early Moscow afternoon. It was Moscow lunchtime, Malpas claims, when he made the remarks the Times published within three hours. During the passage of that time, the reporter says she didn’t check on Voitenko’s claims, and didn’t speak with Sovfrakht. Twenty-fours later, when the Russian news agency Interfax started running the story of a call, with a similar message it had reportedly received itself from Voitenko, Malpas claimed the repetition corroborated the fact. According to Interfax, Voitenko had said: “certain influential people want revenge after the events surrounding the Arctic Sea.” Once on the wire, the story moved into the Norwegian maritime press, which captioned Voitenko’s story, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and led with the line that “media reports say.”

Malpas referred questions about the veracity of the story to news editor, Nabi Abdullaev. Asked to explain the apparent discrepancy, Abdullaev advanced the legendary Captain van der Dekken’s theory of navigation — one sighting proves position. “Whatever Sovfrakht says is fine with us,” Abdullaev told Fairplay. “It has nothing to do with what Voitenko said yesterday.”

After the publication by Interfax on Thursday, Sovfrakht said the report was false, adding “Voitenko was never pressed to leave Russia by anyone.” Voitenko himself is currently not responding to telephone and email messages.

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