Recently, the media published materials of a criminal case on the imitation of a terrorist group activity at the PJSC Togliattiazot’s chemical plant in 2017. Now we are reporting interesting new details of this truly incredible story.
Let us remind you that in 2017, law enforcement agencies made a search at ToAZ and found a charged RPG-18 Mukha rocket launcher, parts of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and extremist literature hidden behind ceiling panels in the office of MSA-Stroy LLC, a contractor working at the plant. Despite the fact that a lot of criminals and corrupt officials always tried to work their way into ToAZ, the existence of a terrorist underworld at a guarded secured facility seemed to be something completely unthinkable.
However, a year later, in January 2018, Sergei Sokolov, the former head of Boris Berezovsky's security service, Valentin Gonastarev known among a small group of certain people as "fixer", Ruslan Milchenko, head of the Analytics and Business information center, Oleg Antoshin, ex-head of the ToAZ security service, and his Deputy Alexey Alekseev were arrested. They were charged with planting weapons and explosives on the territory of the plant (article 222.3 and article 222.1.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation). However, as recent publications in various electronic media show, not all commentators were able to figure out the motivation of the organizers of this pseudo-terrorist show.
Let us remind you that in June 2015, the court arrested 100 % of shares held by the ToAZ majority shareholders. This was a part of investigation of a criminal case of 87 billion rubles fraud, in which the main shareholder of the enterprise, Sergei Makhlai, who has been living in the United States for more than 25 years, was also involved. By 2016, Sergey Makhlai was already well aware that ToAZ had become a toxic asset for him, a criminal case of large-scale fraud was initiated on undeniable grounds, which sooner or later would be taken to court, and he would have to answer for all the financial scams that he had with he pulled with his accomplices at the plant. Therefore, he began to actively look for ways to sell his stake in ToAZ to someone, who would agree to purchase it. Earlier, in 2015, he tried to come to an agreement with the ex-president of Kalmykia Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was supposed to pull the strings in the highest quarters of government, help terminating the criminal case investigation and, accordingly, lift up the arrest of the majority stake, and then buy it out. But soon Ilyumzhinov realized what kind of story they were trying to drag him into and withdrew from the deal.
In early 2016, Makhlai summoned the then head of the ToAZ security service Oleg Antoshin to the United States to assist in finding other potential buyers of ToAZ, who would help with the termination of the case and release of the arrested shares. Through his acquaintances, Antoshin contacted Valentin Gonastarev, who had specific connections in law enforcement agencies, and introduced him to Makhlai. The case materials show that Gonastarev named three businessmen he knew who were interested in the asset and had sufficient funds to buy it — Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Alexey Khotin and Roman Trotsenko. Makhlai said that he was ready to sell his shares for $1.3 billion, provided that the buyer could get rid of the criminal case. Gonastarev made a preliminary agreement with potential buyers that he would persuade Sergei Makhlai to reduce the price of the stake to $800 million, and for that, he bargained a "premium" of $100 million for himself. In the end, none of the named potential buyers had enough administrative resources to terminate the criminal cases, in which Makhlai was involved, or perhaps, having estimated the real chances, they never got down to business. One way or another, the deal for the sale of the majority stake in PJSC Togliattiazot was crumbed.
At the stage of negotiations between Sergei Makhlai's intermediaries and potential buyers, information about attempts to sell ToAZ shares became known to Vladimir Makhlai, Sergei Makhlai’s father, the former president of Togliattiazot Corporation, who decided to intervene in order to disrupt the deal and regain control over ToAZ. Once he was the “red director” of ToAZ, then its main owner and manager, until in 2011 his son Sergei dismissed him from all offices and gain control of his plant's stake by deceit. Then the mass media became aware of Vladimir Makhlai’s letters to the governor of the Samara region Vladimir Artyakov, in which he asked to punish the "greedy scoundrels" who stole "his" plant. “Children ate up my offshore companies and kicked me out of trusts,” this is how Vladimir Makhlai described his expulsion from ToAZ.
Anyway, Makhlai Sr. decided to seize the moment, change the team of top managers appointed by Makhlai Jr. and regain control over ToAZ. To this end, he contacted Boris Berezovsky's former bodyguard, Sergei Sokolov, whom he had known from the time he met Berezovsky before his departure to the UK. Sokolov and Gonastarev moved in the same circles and therefore it was not surprising that they turned out to be familiar to each other. Vladimir Makhlai also involved the head of the security service Oleg Antoshin to this task as a person having direct access to ToAZ territory.
Vladimir Makhlai understood that some extraordinary and high profile event could scare away potential buyers of "Togliattiazot".
Together with the other three men (Gonastarev, Sokolov, and Antoshin), Makhlai Sr. developed a plan to simulate a terrorist attack being prepared at Togliattiazot, which was supposed to look like a real preparation for a terrorist attack. The idea was realized in 2017, when the law enforcement agencies of the Samara region, acting based on a purposeful tip, found weapons and extremist literature hidden in the territory of ToAZ's contractor MSA-Stroy LLC. This plan also solved the problem of discrediting the current management team of ToAZ, which was unable to provide even basic protection of the plant perimeter from the terrorist infiltration, not to mention everything else. Then Vladimir Makhlai intended to replace the top management of the plant with his own people, who would help him regain control over the enterprise, which he always considered his brainchild.
For the then general director of ToAZ Vyacheslav Suslov, the conspirators developed a special plan, truly worthy of a low-grade detective. Suslov was to be accused of raping an underage girl. The plan almost worked. The future 17-year-old "victim" was brought from Ukraine. A car of the same make and color as Suslov's car was purchased, identical license plates were made. According to the scenario, a twin car with a minor in the passenger seat had to travel along such route that it would be registered by the city's video surveillance cameras, drive towards the forest belt, where the act of violence would "take place". The girl would then have written a statement to the police, her hair would have been planted into Suslov's real car, pornographic files with the participation of minors would have been uploaded onto the director's computer – and that would have been it, the criminal case with 100% evidence would have been ready. Suslov was saved only by chance – shortly before the appointed day, Suslov changed his car.
At the behest of Makhlai Sr., heads of two contracting companies Magomed Shishkhanov, head of MSA-Stroy LLC, and Turkish citizen Bulent Özdemir, manager of Tarsu, also got into the orbit of the campaign to discredit the ToAZ management and had to be removed. Vladimir Makhlai knew well that Shishkhanov and Özdemir played important roles in the withdrawal of ToAZ's profits through their companies, although he did not know for sure whether they were stealing money mainly for themselves or withdrawing funds to Sergei's offshores. One way or another, the unrestrained robbery of the plant, which he still considered his own, was not to Makhlai Sr.'s liking. It also seemed a "lucky" coincidence that Shishkhanov was Chechen by ethnicity, and part of the planted extremist literature was published in the Chechen language.
With Shishkhanov and Özdemir, Gonastarev's group did a little better than setting up the "rape" for Suslov. Although it was not possible to plant a weapon in Shishkhanov's car, the conspirators had corrupted a local police field officer who broke the locks for them so they managed to get into Shishkhanov’s office and organize a compromising arms cache behind the ceiling. Therefore, the weapons and extremist literature found during a search in their offices or cars had to look convincing enough for the public and law enforcement officers to believe in the penetration of ToAZ by the ISIL banned in Russia. However, in the end, they have never mislead the law enforcement agencies; all the participants in the fraud were arrested and prosecuted in accordance with the laws.
Thus, both Vladimir Makhlai and his son Sergei failed to achieve their main goals. Sergei continued — unsuccessfully though — to try to terminate criminal cases against himself, using bribery and other methods. Trying to achieve his goals through corruption, Sergei Makhlai freely used his Togliattikhimbank, through which money was withdrawn, laundered and cashed out for corruption needs. At the moment, both Makhlais, along with a dozen other suspects, are involved in criminal cases of organizing a criminal community and participation in it (article 210.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation), non-payment of taxes on an especially large scale (article 199.2) and giving bribes on an especially large scale (article 30.3 and article 291.5).
By the way, while investigating a criminal case on organizing a criminal group, law enforcement agencies found that in 2015, on the personal instructions of Sergei Makhlai, the chairman of the board of Togliattikhimbank Alexander Popov tried to bribe judges of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation of $1.2 million. On January 26, 2020, a criminal case was initiated against Popov for giving a bribe, and in December 2020, the court began to hear the case on the merits.
The criminal case of large-scale fraud, which had been preventing Makhlai from selling the arrested shares of ToAZ for several years, ended in 2019 with a conviction in absentia for both Makhlais and three of their accomplices. They must compensate for the damage caused to Togliattiazot and its minority shareholders more than 87 billion rubles.
Vladimir Makhlai eventually succeeded in displacing the ToAZ management team, but the new general director Dmitry Mezheedov, who placed loyal people in all key positions, turned out to be even greater “evil”. The cunning corporate manager Mezheedov was much better versed in various illegal schemes for withdrawing money than the computer geek Suslov, so he managed to both strengthen the old channels for withdrawing profits and organize new ones, through which the withdrawal of money to Makhlaev offshores continues. Even after the court's verdict in the fraud case, the theft of proceeds from ToAZ's export operations, which formed the basis of the criminal case, continued, albeit on a smaller scale. Yet, under Mezheedov, schemes for withdrawing profits through fictitious construction contracts, contracts for freight, repairs, consulting, purchases of material and technical values from affiliated suppliers at inflated prices and other scams reached an unprecedented heyday.
In the rich criminal history of the Makhlais’ empire, corruption, embezzlement, the withdrawal of funds to offshores through shell companies, and even crimes against the person have long been a part of their activities. Now, this long list will be expanded with such an unsightly crime as imitation of a terrorist attack aimed at state foundations.
However, no matter what other insane and shameful steps the Makhlais decide to take to avoid liability and save the loot, it is impossible to deny the impressive progress that law enforcement agencies have made in the fight against crime that has entrenched in the plant and related assets since the early 1990’s. Law enforcement officers continue their successful struggle to eradicate organized crime in Russia. The example of the investigation of criminal cases against the owners of Togliattiazot shows that one of the last criminal strongholds of the 1990’s in Russian business will sooner or later collapse, and those guilty of the long-term robbery of ToAZ will ultimately be punished as they deserve.