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Russia: Insurance Business Boldly Faces Risks

  • John Helmer



Moscow, 5 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - Yegor Vishnevsky is the supervisor of Russia's dominant cargo insurer. If anyone knows what happens to the cargoes that are lost or stolen every day in Russia, he does.

There was the case, for example, of the 49-wagon train, loaded with Russian aluminum, which managed the two-week journey from Siberia safely, only to disappear once it had crossed into Lithuania, never to be seen again. Vishnevsky says, "the Baltic states are a horror zone. Gangs there are expert in diverting trains, stealing the cargoes, and breaking up the cars, so you never learn what happened."

The Russian railroads can be just as bad, he acknowledges. "I remember the mystery of a full train that was carrying goods from China. It was lost somewhere in Siberia. No one knows where, but it just disappeared from the rails. Gone forever."

Russia's airways and roads are also a mystery zone for shippers and their insurance companies. Not long ago, a helicopter carrying 200 kilograms of gold - about five-million-dollars worth -- from a remote mine in Magadan region popped off air-control radar screens, without warning. It never reached its destination. It apparently didn't crash. Presumably, it was stolen.

Truckers who drive into Russia try to avoid hijacking by forming convoys at border crossings, and hiring local police as escorts. In a replay of the North Atlantic submarine war of almost 60 years ago, wolfpacks of thieves wait by the roadsides. As the convoys motor by, the thieves try to maneuver their cars between the trucks, slowing them down, and picking off stragglers. These are then stopped. The drivers are either forced to pay protection money to continue, or they lose their trucks entirely.

"A lot of drivers are killed," says Vishnevsky. "It's quite a risky profession."

Vishnevsky is Vice President of Ingostrakh. Based in Moscow, with a worldwide network of affiliates, the company once had a monopoly on insuring the entire trade turnover of the Soviet Union. This lasted until 1993, when cargo premium income topped $100 million. Now privatized, and facing competition inside Russia and from abroad, Ingostrakh is still the leading insurer of cargo, aviation, and maritime risk.

To help cope with organized larceny and fraud, Ingostrakh, whose business today is 70 percent export, 30 percent import, has built up an investigations division that is known for its toughness. "We have a reputation on the market," Vishnevsky claims. "It's dangerous to try to defraud us."

After paying out more than $3 million in claims to importers whose cargoes were intercepted and stolen just before delivery, Ingostrakh tells importers and forwarders what they must do to stop document fraud. According to Vishnevsky, "in our investigations, we found insiders at the import companies who tipped gangs off, and gave them false documentation, so that drivers could be fooled into unloading consumer goods at the wrong destination." A bigger problem than theft and fraud for insurers like Vishnevsky is the unwillingness of Russian shippers to insure their cargoes. This is partly a hangover of the Soviet era, and partly the result of lack of cashflow. In November 1996, the Russian government amended the tax law to allow companies to claim insurance expenses as tax deductions up to one percent of their turnover. But in Russia's cash-short economy "that's not enough to cover the variety of risks a normal American or English company covers," notes Vishnevsky.

He describes low cargo insurance rates in the American market as a competitive problem for Russian insurers. Ingo in New York, headed by George Uryuzhnikov, writes coverage for some shipments in the chicken trade, a major North American export to Russia. The Moscow company also insures Coca Cola's warehoused goods and shipments within Russia.

Vishnevsky says Ingostrakh's advantage for westerners trading with Russia is that it "takes the mystery out of Russian risk."
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