Insight: Riddle persists of Ukraine gas deal that never was

Thu Dec 6, 2012 6:08am EST
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By Richard Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) - It was hailed as a historic $1 billion deal marking a major step towards ending Ukraine's reliance on imported Russian gas.

But the ballyhoo had no sooner died down after the signing of the gas terminal deal than the alleged Spanish partner disowned it and the mysterious outsider involved vanished, leaving Ukrainian officials humiliated and embarrassed.

The deal at the center of the high-profile signing ceremony on November 26 had seemed to tie in Spain's Gas Natural Fenosa (GAS.MC: Quote) as the main investor in building a liquefied gas (LNG) terminal on the Black Sea Coast - a strategic project for which the former Soviet republic has long been looking for foreign support.

But, to the surprise of Ukrainian officials including Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Yuri Boiko, the country's powerful fuel minister, who both attended the ceremony, the Spanish energy company swiftly denied joining any consortium.

In the ensuing confusion, attention focused on the identity - and role - of the Spanish-speaking man who had signed on behalf of the company - a bald figure with a tufty beard who was well-known as a middle-man in deals between Spanish companies and Ukraine.

He was identified by Ukraine's state investment agency - whose chief Vladislav Kaskiv was co-signatory of the agreement - as Jordi Sarda Bonvehi, who Reuters has learned is a 43-year-old ski instructor-turned-businessman from the Barcelona region.

But Gas Natural said Bonvehi did not work for the company and, in a statement on November 28, suggested it might consider taking legal action.

Bonvehi himself slipped away after the ceremony, left the country and his whereabouts are unknown although he was said to be in Spain last week.   Continued...

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov (L) and Energy Minister Yuri Boiko (2nd R) talk as Vladislav Kaskiv (R), the head of Ukraine's state investment agency, and a man the state investment agency identified as Jordi Sarda Bonvehi (2nd L) sign what the government said was an agreement to build a liquefied natural gas terminal in Ukraine during a meeting in Kiev in this November 26, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Stringer/Files