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By John Helmer in Moscow

Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of ports and shipping, Igor Sechin (image of Paris, centre), told Fairplay today he believes the best replacement for the storm-damaged Sochi cargo port is Kavkaz, on the Kerch Strait. Sechin confirmed that last week in Turkey he had spoken in favour of a new cargo hub to service the Sochi Winter Olympics construction, which is planned to require a 6-million tonne annual volume through the port until 2014, when the Games will be held. Through a spokesman Sechin also told Fairplay he believes Sochi should continue to be developed as a passenger port, and that after the Olympics, the cargo facilities should be converted to a marina for luxury vessels.

But Sechin has now clarified last week’s proposal for the new cargo hub on the Black Sea, the spokesman told Fairplay. In a special briefing, the spokesman said the Sochi cargo port at Imereti being built by companies owned by Oleg Deripaska is to close until repairs of last December’s devastating storms will be completed. Cargo which had been scheduled to be transshipped through the Imereti facility will be delivered to Tuapse, 80 kilometres up the Black Sea coast from Sochi, and to Novorossiysk, 200 kilometres to the north.

Sechin did not mean to endorse Turkish ports Samsun or Trabzon on the Turkish Black Sea coast, as Russian reports intimated from Istanbul last week, when Sechin accompanied Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on a state visit.

Sechin’s selection of Kavkaz, first disclosed to Fairplay today, means that state funds will be spent on dredging the harbour and roadstead, and readying new port infrastructure at Kavkaz, so that it can fill the new cargo hub role. Although the shallow-draught port has been reporting increasing cargo volumes this year, its current annual capacity is just 2.5 million tonnes, with vessels limited to the 5-metre depth at berth. Current cargoes are oil products and grains for export. Import processing is very limited.

Sechin’s spokesman said that by 2012, the new Kavkaz port, 320 kilometres from Sochi, will be ready for heavy cargo. After the Olympic Games are over, he added, Sochi will revert to passenger movement, and Kavkaz will take over as the cargo hub. “Deripaska’s cargo port will be completed and will be used for cargo transfer during the Olympics, changing its function afterwards,” the spokesman added. “At that time, Kavkaz will be the only cargo port.”

“Sechin ought to look at the map,” responds one of Russia’s most experienced fleet managers. “Kavkaz is restricted in the depth of the territory available for expansion, and in the capacity of the rail lines serving the port. If what the government wants to do is to get the Sochi Games facilities built, the best way is to increase the capacity of Novorossyisk. Or Temryuk on the Sea of Azov, in order to avoid the Black Sea storms. But dredging would be needed there.”

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