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Hidden Monopoly, Offshore Money and a Clash of Interests in the Giurgiulești Port

ZdG debunked the hidden monopoly, an offshore company, and business interests, including those of a deputy of Moldova’s Parliament, in the Giurgiulești Passengers and Goods Port, operated by the Ungheni River Port. During the investigation, ZdG found that within the port, which is Moldova’s only access to the sea and is controlled by the state, only four economic agencies operate, all interconnected between them. 

They set the rules of the game and dominate a market, which is already under a monopoly. In recent years, the management of the state-owned enterprise has blocked any attempts by other companies to obtain the status of port agency, which would allow them to operate in the port. “There is no space for them”, claims the interim administrator of the port.

Meanwhile, a deputy entered the clashes in the port, addressing the National Anticorruption Center with a complaint about the irregularities in the activity of the state enterprise.

“The deputy, like the mafia bosses from the 90s, dared to give directions to the administrator on possible contracts that he should have signed, as well as the tariffs to be applied,” the administrator of the Ungheni River Port denounces in a letter addressing the Prime Minister. “These are lies,” the deputy replied.

Moldova’s only exit to the Black Sea, through the Danube river, is a strip of approximately 430 meters. The Giurgiulești Free International Port manages this access point to international maritime waters. The Port manages the 430-meter stripe through an investment agreement signed in 2004 between Moldova’s Government and the Danube Logistics, a private company. 

The Giurgiulești Passengers and Goods Port, on the waters of the Prut river, insures the state access to the Black Sea through the Danube river. The State Enterprise Ungheni River Port operates the Giurgiulești Passengers and Goods Port. 

The only state-owned port in the hands of a single company

The Giurgiulești Passengers and Goods Port is the only state-controlled port with indirect access to the sea. ZdG investigated the port, concluding that instead of developing the port and offering more opportunities and financial benefits for Moldova’s economic agents, the state created and allowed the enlargement of a monopoly business. 

In the summer of 2019, after a two-year break, the port obtained the right to load grains, making it more attractive and several agricultural companies claimed the right to export their products through it. Sheep owners need the intermediary services of the port agencies, who obtain the necessary approvals from the state institutions, such as the Naval Agency or the Customs Service, to enter the port, and load or unload goods or passengers. 

ZdG found that, for several years, Molincom Exim, Condaline, Vovicris-Com and Translogistic System, four-port agencies have been active as permanent representatives of the shipowners within the port. According to the administration of the state-owned enterprise, they signed the contracts in 2015.

Three of the companies have had the same owner. And the fourth company has links with the other three. Any attempts by other economic agents to obtain the status of port agency in the state-controlled port failed. Subsequently, those wishing to transport goods through the state-owned port should contact the above-mentioned four companies, which set the price, date and availability for transporting the products.

A one-year waiting line

The commercial director of Ivgre-Com-Met told ZdG about his experience with the port. 

“In June 2019, we tried to load our goods at the state-owned port and came to Mr. Medvedev, the port captain. We requested to load the goods in the port. He told us that we should submit a request. I wrote an official request, addressing the port administration. He took it and said that he documented it. In about five days, he called me to say yes, it is possible; we will load, as there is a gap in the schedule in a month’s time. However, a few days later, he wrote a letter informing us that there is no gap in the schedule to load the ship,” reports Daniil Șevcenco, commercial director of Ivgre-Com-Met.

He claims that the company he represents addressed to the four port agencies too, only to no avail. “There are only four companies in the port, everyone knows who they are and there is no way for any other agents to get in. I went to one of these companies. The company told me that it is possible to load our goods, but not now because it doesn’t have a place in the schedule. I asked the company when would it be possible, because the company might not have space at all. The owner told me that in a year’s time they will be able to upload my ship. I asked, what?! A queue for a whole year ahead? The company’s owner told me that now they have gravel, people, cereals, and many more to load.” 

“In fact, there was a free space. I, together with another person, asked in the port if the calendar was really full and we saw that it was not, more goods could be loaded,” said Șevcenco.

“I have been to many of the world’s largest ports, and there are no problems like here. People who want to load goods came, submitted a request, waited a few days and loaded. With us, it is impossible,” says the representative of the company Ivgre-Com-Met.

An offshore company in the state-owned port

ZdG obtained documents attesting that aside from the hidden monopoly of the four interconnected companies in the port business there is also an offshore company registered in Dubai. 

The representatives of the companies that export goods through the port claim that the port agencies, in addition to the official invoices, issue a payment account on behalf of Agro Factor company. The bank account of this company from Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, is opened in the Russian bank Sberbank, at its branch in Zurich, Switzerland. Agro Factor is an offshore firm with no information available regarding its owner. The name of the company does not even appear in the registers of UAE companies, making it practically impossible to find out its beneficiaries. 

ZdG obtained an invoice showing that an exporting company was going to transfer about 3,000 euros to Agro Factor accounts. The money was for several services allegedly provided by the Dubai company such as ship tax, administrative tax, anchor tax, registration of arrival and departure, toll fee, tug fee, information service charge or agency tax.

The company that makes money on the services apparently provided in Moldova has a website. However, we do not find information about any services or activities of the Dubai company in the maritime field, only information about agricultural products. Although it is registered in Dubai, a United Kingdom phone number is posted on the company’s website. ZdG called on that number several days in a row, but no one answered.

Contracts signed by the former administrator didn’t enter into force

Vladimir Medvedev is currently the interim administrator of the Ungheni River Port, which manages the Giurgiulești Passengers and Goods Port. In the autumn of 2019, after the change of government in Chișinău, the Public Property Agency, which runs the state-owned enterprise, announced the position of administrator vacant. Soon, however, they canceled the contest. At the beginning of November 2019, the agency management appointed Gheorghe Țurcanu, who had participated in the canceled competition, as the new interim administrator.

„When I came to Ungheni River Port as interim administrator, I found only four economic agents operating within the port. I thought it was not fair, and then, as interim administrator, I signed contracts with three other economic agents,” explains Gheorghe Țurcanu, who was interim director in November 2019. 

Thus, on November 15, 2019, Gheorghe Țurcanu signed contracts with three other companies that were to receive the status of port agencies. ILM Logistic, founded by Veaceslav Ioniță, economic expert and deputy in Moldova’s Parliament, Consideea, founded by Igor Macari and Port Agency Service, founded by Denis Dobrioglo, Leonid Karagheaur and Sergei Raevski are the three companies that had to become port agencies.  

However, none of the contracts entered into force. The representatives of the three companies, who avoided discussing with ZdG on this subject, also confirmed the information.

Unfair competition

Vladimir Medvedev, former and current interim administrator of the Ungheni River Port, returned to office on November 21, 2019, following a court decision. He claims that the three contracts signed by his predecessor are not valid, because they did not apply the stamp of the company. In addition, Gheorghe Țurcanu was registered in the Public Register as interim administrator only on November 20, 2019, later than he signed the contracts.

“There are no legislative impediments and I think it is not fair to have any kind of restrictions, to limit the opportunity to conclude contracts with other economic agents, as it is an unfair competition. Other agents’ willingness to conclude contracts is sure to benefit the port. It will increase the revenues of the port and develop both the port and its infrastructure,” says Țurcanu.

We asked Țurcanu about the payments that are made on the company’s accounts in Dubai. He stated that he did not know about them while he ran the company.

“I did not hear from the employees about these taxes. People from other state enterprises asked me about the taxes. I really don’t know and when I don’t know, I can’t confirm,” told us Țurcanu. 

The four companies related to each other

Marcelian Pîrlog has been the owner of three-port agencies while the fourth company operating in the port has links with the other three companies. Ruslan Baciu currently owns and manages Molincom-Exim; Iurie Cecan and Marcelian Pîrlog registered the company in April 2015, each owning 50 percent of shares. Ruslan Baciu represented both founders since the founding, and in July 2019 he bought their shares.

Anatolie Balan manages Condaline, but the same Marcelian Pîrlog is the founder, owning all 100 percent of shares. The company has the legal address in an apartment in the Ciocana sector of Chișinău, which belongs to the Gheceanu family. ZdG previously wrote that the family offers, at a cost, legal addresses for companies in the buildings it owns.

Alexandru Maximov manages Translogist Sistem, another port agency from the state-owned port. The same Marcelian Pîrlog, ex-owner of the company Molincom-Exim and current owner of Condaline possesses 90 percent of the share capital of the company. The company is registered, similar to Condaline, in a building belonging to the Gheceanu family.

Vovicris-Com is the only company with the status of port agency, which, at first glance, has no direct connection with Marcelian Pîrlog. However, ZdG found that this company is also registered in a building belonging to the Gheceanu family, the one that hosts the other two companies that officially belong to Marcelian Pîrlog. Nicolae Dimitrachi, the administrator of Vovicris-Com, is also the administrator and founder of other companies, one of them, DB Translogist, having a similar name to that of the port agency Translogist Sistem, in which Marcelian Pîrlog holds 90 percent of the shares.

Hidden monopoly

Marcelian Pîrlog avoided discussing with us about the hidden monopoly at the only state-owned port to which he contributes through the companies he manages. Contacted on his mobile phone, Pîrlog initially denied that it was he on the phone, and later he did not answer the phone and messages.

Ruslan Baciu, who manages the company Molincom Exim, claims to be legally active, and blames the authorities for obstructing the development of the port.

“I offer services to everyone, without advantaging anyone. I do not make monopolies. I have been working there for five years, since the time when there was nothing there but total corruption. We brought a large number of ships and cargo to a state-owned enterprise, and now someone is trying to get in the way. I complained to the ministry, the National Anticorruption Center, and the Prosecutor’s Office. I asked to end up using the Ministry of Economy or the Naval Agency to impede me… We still try to develop something and we are not allowed. We keep trying to make local investments, do the dredging (removal of mud from the river) – we are not allowed,” says Baciu.

Asked about the offshore company Agro Factor and the money that goes into its accounts in Switzerland, Baciu states that he does not know the owner.

“I do everything correctly. My invoices or so-called proforma invoices go from my company either to ship owners or to exporters. I do not know what they do next with them, because the shipowners’ logistics chain is long. I got angry myself: what do you do with my invoices? I am a resident. I have everything paid on the inside. I do not know what they do next – sell them, resell them, to which company. I do not know what this company is,” says Baciu, who refused to accept a meeting to discuss in detail about his activity in the port.

The owners of three-port agencies about the monopoly in the port

Alexandru Maximov, administrator of Translogist Sistem, another company that has the status of port agency in the state-owned port, states, “Translogist is not involved in the so-called monopolies you talk about. As administrator, I do not participate in any monopoly, whether it is there or not, because I do not have much activity there. What monopoly can it be? I do not know any monopoly. The activity in the port is not the main occupation of Translogist. We are a logistics company that does not carry much of its activity in the country; it rather deals with international logistics.”

Alexandru Maximov avoided answering the question of why the company he manages has its legal address in an apartment belonging to Sergiu Gheceanu, similar to Vovicris-Com and Condaline.

“You are asking me nasty questions now. What matters what the legal address is …? Why do I have to answer the question? If you want to learn from me something I would rather not tell you, you should formulate your question so you can catch me. I do not answer such questions as to why I chose this or that legal address or what my activity in the port is.”

ZdG tried to talk to the directors of the other two companies that are active in the state-owned port. Anatolie Balan, from Condaline, told us that he was abroad and could not discuss it with us at the moment. A similar answer came from Nicolae Dimitrachi, manager of the company Vovicris-Com.

How the state enterprise explains the monopoly in the port

We went to the Ungheni company headquarters to discuss with the administration of the Ungheni River Port. There, we met Marina Polasek, the company’s financial manager, who claims that only four companies are accepted in the port because there is not enough room for other companies. 

“We are talking about the Goods and Passenger Port, which has 128 meters – one berth (a place for a ship to stay in a port for loading and unloading). If we talk about Galați or Reni, there are around 60 berths there. After all, if you have an apartment, how many people can you rent it? It is the same. We have some capacities contracted and no more than 365 days in a year. There is no more room,” says Polasek. She avoided answering other questions, recommending that we talk to Vladimir Medvedev.

On the way to the state-owned port, we spoke on the phone with Vladimir Medvedev, the interim administrator of the Ungheni River Port. He put forward the same arguments as his subordinate did while discussing the subject of other economic agents’ access to the port.

“In our port, the berth is 128 meters long. The Danube Logistics has 800 meters on the Prut river, and only one operator and nobody cares. We have four operators, where can I fit the others? As long as there were no cereals, no one addressed. Now, that the law on cereals appeared, for which we struggled for three years, they all came. Moreover, they came with the so-called protection, not that simple. Do you think this is so easy for me? They came with the deputy Labuneț and they demanded to be registered. These so-called protectors are still after me,” Medvedev argues, accusing the Socialist deputy Anatolie Labuneț of pressure.

Asked about the fact that the four economic agents in the port are, in fact, connected to each other, and three of them have had the same owner, Medvedev said that he is not interested and does not check the founders and the connections between them. 

“Do you think I’m the National Anticorruption Center or the Security and Intelligence Service? I work with these people and nothing else interests me. I have four operators. Where they come from and with whom, I am not interested. They bring income to the port and that is all the business is over. I just work with them. Which monopoly? I do not know about it and I am not interested. If you have any proofs or they have some suspicions and they can prove, then sue those companies. This is none of my business … I am neither the National Anticorruption Center nor the Security and Intelligence Service. The company comes with a proposal and if I like their proposal, I work with the company and if I do not like it – I do not work with them,” Vladimir Medvedev reasons his position.

“There must be order and discipline everywhere. This is what I am trying to say. As for those who come to bring only disorder, as they do now … They want to show they are an authority because they have so-called protection, but their protection does not interest me. I told them that I did not work with the bandits,” the manager of the company says. 

Hidden interests of a deputy in the state-owned port

In early February, Vladimir Medvedev addressed a letter to Prime Minister Ion Chicu, as well as to Anatol Usatîi, Minister of Economy and Infrastructure, to Ludmila Guzun, Democratic Party deputy, elected in the Ungheni constituency, and to the Public Property Agency. Medvedev, as administrator of the Ungheni River Port, claims pressure on him. In that letter, he talks about the interests and direct involvement in the activity of the port of the deputy Anatolie Labuneț, representative of Moldova’s Socialist Party.

Medvedev claims that, in the summer of 2019, Igor Zaharia, the Director of the Naval Agency, would have insisted on a meeting with his friend, the deputy Labuneț. 

“At the meeting, this deputy, in the presence of Igor Zaharia, similar to the mafia chiefs of the ’90s, dared to give orders to the administrator regarding possible contracts that he was to sign. The same Labuneț was to decide the tariffs to be applied. Medvedev declared to the deputy that he would not be complicit in the influence-peddling of the high dignitary and that he would not sign acts that could damage the enterprise and the state budget.

As a result, the deputy Labuneț developed an enormous interest in Moldova’s naval transport, especially in the Ungheni River Port. His interest grew to the extent that he sent parliamentary inquiries to this institution on occasion of the faults of an engine belt of a floating unit,” states the document submitted by the Ungheni River Port.

The same document claims that the deputy Anatolie Labuneț is the owner of a tugboat, named Moneron. The tugboat has been within the state-owned port for about two years and during this period it will have accumulated a debt of over 12,300 euros (240,000 lei) in the form of taxes and port services. 

In the document submitted by the Ungheni River Port to the state institutions, Vladimir Medvedev revealed several abusive actions of the Naval Agency decision-makers, which prejudice the state budget. There is no mention in this document, however, of the hidden and accepted monopoly within the Port that lasts for years. 

The documents consulted by ZdG, as well as Anatolie Labuneț’s CV, confirm that he has interests in the field. Labuneț, a mechanical engineer, worked for over 20 years on maritime commercial vessels until 2014, when he became a deputy. 

In addition, according to the declaration of assets, Labuneț owns shares in the Navigation Company Neptun-M, managed by Carolina Lipskaia, Oleg Lipskii’s daughter, a party colleague with Labuneț. 

“The company operates from 1991-1992. It is almost dead, but it owns a passenger boat on the Danube, a little one,” said the deputy Labuneț.

ZdG obtained several documents from the Ungheni River Port, which show that Evghenii Labuneț, the deputy Labuneț’s brother, who has lived for many years in Canada, is the final beneficiary of the ship Moneron, earlier mentioned in the letter.

In November 2019, Evghenii Labuneț issued a power of attorney on behalf of the company Marine Engineering to represent his interests in relation to this tugboat. Veaceslav Macaidenco, who ran for Parliament on the Socialist Party lists in 2011 and 2014, is the founder of Marine Engineering and presently manages it.

A conversation between the tugboat owner and the Ungheni River Port administration

The tugboat stations within the state-owned port since June 2018. In August – September 2018, the port completed the repair and painting of Moneron.

In December 2019, Vladimir Medvedev announced the company managing the Moneron to honor the payment obligations as quickly as possible. The company registered debts of approximately 11,300 euros (221,000 lei) at that time. The port announced to the company that it will not enjoy privileged taxes, as requested in November 2019 in an appeal addressed to the Ungheni River Port.

“Please take into consideration the fact that Moneron is a tugboat that sails under Moldova’s flag and it enters the Prut river by carrying out a cabotage trip.  It carried out all border and customs formalities for such trips and, in accordance with international practice, should be subject to a privileged pricing regime,” the company that manages Moneron requested.

The National Anticorruption Center checks the activity of the Ungheni River Port and the Naval Agency

Recently, the interests and businesses of PPMG have come to the attention of the National Anticorruption Center, which confirmed that it has in operation materials, targeting the activity of the port. 

“The investigations were initiated following a deputy’s request, as well as a request from a port agency to the National Anticorruption Center. Currently, the activity of both the Ungheni River Port and the Naval Agency of Moldova is being verified to identify committed irregularities in administration,” the institution said in a reply.

ZdG found that the deputy who addressed the National Anticorruption Center is the same Anatolie Labuneț, elected on the Socialist Party list in 2014, and later re-elected in 2019. The deputy mentioned that the accusations brought by Vladimir Medvedev were false. Labuneț states that Moneron, to which the port administrator refers, belongs to his brother, and he has no attribution to it.

“I filed my application to the National Anticorruption Center after some companies addressed me complaining that they cannot operate in the port. The statute of the deputy provides that he must react urgently in case of any violations,” the deputy states. 

“I know about that monopoly from the port. I do not know who is behind. They say it is Plahotniuc, but I have no evidence,” says Labuneț.

„I am not a shipowner. It is my brother’s ship. Why cannot my brother own a ship? Are we in the times of Bolsheviks? Shall a brother respond for the other or a father for his children? My brother is a foreign citizen and he does not live here. My brother manages the ship. I wrote to Medvedev beforehand. My brother’s lawyer will go to court and let the court decide,” the public servant stated. 

He denied that he had met with Vladimir Medvedev in the summer of 2019 and put pressure on him: “These are lies.”

As for the alleged friendly relationship with Igor Zaharia, the director of the Naval Agency, the deputy Anatolie Labuneț said that it does not influence the activity of the two. 

“I am not friends with him. He is the director of the Naval Agency. When there are two people, one deputy, and the other director, they cannot be friends. We are well acquainted. We worked together in 2003-2004, and he is a very, very good specialist, unique in Moldova. There is no one better in Moldova. He is the only one now who has the power to fight with this mafia,”  Labuneț praises the current director of the Naval Agency.

The Naval Agency Director commented on the situation in the port

In his turn, Igor Zaharia, director of Moldova’s Naval Agency, says that the deputy Labuneț gets involved in river navigation because he is a sailor by profession and has training and experience in the field. As for the meeting during which, in his presence, Labuneț will have given Medvedev directions, Zaharia says that these are aberrations. 

“They have known each other for a long time and they could meet whenever they wanted. I mean, there were meetings in my presence too … I don’t know if Mr. Medvedev mentioned it, but he often had different problems and addressed Mr. Labuneț for help. Mr. Labuneț also attended a meeting in Ungheni to defend the interests of Mr. Medvedev’s company. But such discussions, as reported by Mr Medvedev, did not take place,” says the director of the Naval Agency, referring to Medvedev’s letter to Prime Minister Chicu.

“Mr Medvedev is constantly complaining, evoking some strange arguments. There are so many irregularities there. As soon as the Naval Agency began to request compliance with the simple rigors of navigation safety and to make an entry-exit order in the port, suddenly this process of slandering began,” Igor Zaharia retorted.