By John Helmer, Moscow
The last time President Vladimir Putin publicly criticized Oleg Deripaska, chief executive of United Company Rusal and Russia’s most indebted man, it was at Pikalevo, Leningrad region, in June of 2009. Putin tossed his pen at Deripaska, told him to sign a back-pay agreement, and demanded his pen back. Referring to the failure to pay wages to the town’s alumina and cement factory workers, Putin told Deripaska: “Why has your factory been so neglected? They’ve turned it into a rubbish dump. Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival? Why was no one capable of taking decisions?..you’ve made thousands of residents of Pikalevo hostages of your ambition, your nonprofessionalism and maybe your greed. Thousands of people. It’s totally unacceptable.”
The pen-tossing and televised chastisement of Deripaska were followed by substantial new state bank and budget funds to cover Deripaska’s payouts at Pikalevo. In September, after everyone had taken their summer holidays, Deripaska claimed Putin hadn’t meant what he seemed on camera to be doing. “The problem”, said Deripaska, “was that the reality of the meeting event and the picture, which was transmitted by the television channels, did not coincide. This was a simple case of editing. Actually, everything went in another way. What happened at the meeting was very productive; the decisions taken to revive manufacture have been implemented.”
Asked whether the Pikalevo problem could have been settled “without the intervention of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin”, Deripaska replied; “I think, yes. Someone with personal interests wished to manipulate the situation. Who? — I do not know.” Putin’s intervention was, he added, “a dangerous precedent”. Here’s  that story in the larger context of the time.
On Monday of this week Putin was on an inspection visit to the Sochi Olympic Games site, when he attacked the owner and operator of the Sochi airport. That’s Deripaska — but Putin didn’t name him. Noone else at the meeting did either. Were they all pretending?
If the President or his men had googled  the question, who owns and operates Sochi airport? They could not have been in the dark that the answer is Deripaska.
Another click  to Basic Element, the Deripaska holding, would have established, not only that Sochi International Airport is Deripaska’s, but also that “Basel Aero is committed to renovating the airports’ infrastructure and introducing up-to-date technologies to ensure the best quality service for its customers.” On top of that, Putin might have been reassured to read that “one of Basel Aero’s major projects is the modernisation of Sochi International Airport ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.Basel Aero has equipped the airport with a new state-of-the-art passenger terminal and is currently constructing a new boarding bridge and VIP terminal. Between 2012 and 2014 Basel Aero also plans to renovate the airport’s cargo terminal and to construct a new terminal to serve government flights. As a result of these efforts, Sochi International Airport will serve 3,800 people every hour during the Olympics, in full compliance with International Olympic Committee standards. Basel Aero’s growth strategy also includes the development of Krasnodar International Airport into a major aviation hub for southern Russia. Basel Aero also places a strong emphasis on increasing the efficiency of its operations and expanding its geographic footprint.”
When it comes to Putin’s footprints, were those his on Deripaska’s neck this time round?
The Kremlin transcription  of Putin’s session on September 16, plus the photographs, reveal that Deripaska wasn’t present. Instead, Putin was briefed by Dmitry Chernyshenko, an advertising executive and head of the organizing committee for the Olympic Games. Unaccountably, the Kremlin’s English version  of what was said stops short of revealing what Chernyshenko and Putin had to say about Deripaska. Translating from the Russian version , this is what was said:
“Chernyshenko: …Today, the first exercises were held in the main operations centre. We have seen cases that are related to the closure of the Sochi airport due to weather conditions , the aftermath of a storm, damage to heating networks.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Who controls the airport, by the way?
Chernyshenko: Sochi Airport is operated by Basel-Aero, a private company.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Is there anybody who is controlling what is happening at the airport?
Chernyshenko: Of course. In the near future, in October an international certification has been scheduled for IATA (the International Air Transport Association), which must confirm as stated in our bid-book the airport capacity for 3,800 passengers per hour.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: The capacity needs to be provided at a high quality level. For quality of service an airport must be good. Who watches this?
Chernyshenko: Airport and training activities are included in the comprehensive plan of preparation for the Games . And the State Commission on the upper level of control.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: I can tell you that there are already complaints about the quality of passenger service. Because of this, you should think and make proposals. What will be in the future is a separate subject, who should watch and monitor the quality of what action the private company [Basel- Aero] took and has been undertaking. But we need the company to perform according to the requirements that apply to work of this kind. And I want to know who will work on this, who will monitor the quality of services provided. I’m sorry I interrupted you. But this is tied to the preparation for the Olympics today. But in the future it is necessary to watch.”
When Putin addressed Deripaska at Pikalevo three years ago, his Russian diction was pithy, unmistakeably clear. This time his syntax is complicated, the meaning garbled and evasive on the key point Putin claimed not to know – who is responsible for the quality of service at Sochi Airport.
Chernyshenko’s report on testing the readiness of Deripaska’s constructions at Sochi is a guarded reference to the failure of Deripaska’s harbour works in December 2009  when a high-speed wind storm of the kind that is well-known on the Black Sea coast wrecked piers and berths, and demonstrated that Deripaska’s construction company had failed to anticipate or guard against storm damage.
According to Chernyshenko’s reply to Putin, “we are certainly aware of the problems that arose with the reception of passengers. Already now the arrival and departure function is operating for the organizers of the Games; together with the owner various events are being conducted in order to provide maximum comfort and safety for our passengers.”
Over what ought to have been a simple matter both Putin and Chernyshenko were almost tongue-tied. Putin omitted to ask, and Chernyshenko omitted to explain why the owner of Sochi International Airport, aka Deripaska, could be relied on to solve the problem of passenger service in the terminal, after the local airline he has also owned and operated, Kuban Airlines, recently collapsed into bankruptcy . The circumstances of that were explained this way  by the company. In May the Krasnodar region’s transport prosecutor announced  that he was investigating allegations that the bankruptcy was rigged. Basel-Aero was asked to comment on the President’s criticism; it has not replied.