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Car Crash Thrusts LUKoil Into PR Nightmare

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A television screen grab of the crash that killed Sidelnikova and Alexandrina.

LUKoil, the country's biggest private oil company, faces a public relations nightmare after one of its vice presidents was involved in a car crash that killed two people and has ignited a storm of protest about a possible police cover-up.

Bloggers are seething over what they interpret as insensitive comments made by the company about the accident, while some have called for a boycott of LUKoil gas stations and a popular rapper has written a song declaring that the vice president, Anatoly Barkov, will go to hell.

Barkov, 62, sustained minor injuries in the accident.

What exactly transpired on Feb. 25 remains a matter of speculation, but this much is undisputed: Barkov's heavy Mercedes S-500 sedan collided head-on with a Citroen C3 hatchback carrying prominent gynecologist Vera Sidelnikova, 72, and her daughter-in-law Olga Alexandrina, 35, during morning rush hour traffic on Leninsky Prospekt in southern Moscow, killing the two women.

Police immediately blamed the Citroen for the crash, saying it had illegally pulled into the oncoming lane and hit the Mercedes.

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Alexandrina

The case looked as good as closed until the victims' relatives appealed to journalists for help after running into a brick wall with the police and LUKoil's slow and heavy-handed response angered the public.

“The public started to react to this accident when people understood that they had been manipulated,” said Sergei Kanayev, head of the Moscow branch of the Russian Federation of Car Owners, a public group that says it has found three eyewitnesses to the accident.

Kanayev told The Moscow Times that two of the eyewitnesses were driving ahead of the Mercedes and saw it swerve into the opposite lane and hit the Citroen.

He said he would only disclose their names to representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office whom he planned to meet Friday.

“The people have agreed to talk, but they need assurances that they will not be in danger,” he said.

Fear about discussing the accident might be understandable because the police have shown little enthusiasm about pursuing an investigation. Kanayev said that even though two people had died, police only opened an investigation two days after the accident.

Moskvichka.ru

Sidelnikova

The police later explained to reporters that there was no investigation to open because the presumed guilty party had died in the accident and the victim, the LUKoil vice president, had escaped with minor cuts and bruises.

A public outcry began to swell as Moscow radio stations dedicated hours of debate to whether the accident showed that the notoriously corrupt police were little more than a force to protect the country's strong from ordinary citizens. The crash quickly became the most-discussed topic in the Russian blogosphere.

Fueling the anger, LUKoil spokesman Dmitry Dolgov declared to the Life News news wire on the day of the accident that the oil company would not offer any compensation to the family of the women even if Barkov was found guilty. He added, though, that Barkov might decide to assist the relatives with his own money.

LUKoil had kept tightlipped about the accident. It issued an official statement Tuesday in which Barkov expressed his condolences to the family of the victims and said he interested in a “full and objective investigation of the accident.”

Barkov also called for eyewitnesses to come forward.

A LUKoil spokesman declined to comment Thursday evening, saying he was not authorized to discuss the issue.

It is unclear whether Barkov or his 51-year-old driver was behind the wheel at the time of the accident. The driver was not injured.

Barkov's duties as vice president include overseeing LUKoil's security department, leading observers to believe that he has close contacts with law enforcement agencies and perhaps a background in law enforcement or the security services himself. His official biography on LUKoil's web site makes no mention of that. It says he has worked at LUKoil since 1993.

Relatives of the victims smelled a police runaround. Several of them rushed to the scene of the accident on Gagarin Square on the day of the crash but said police refused to give them an accident report, which they had a right to obtain by law, the relatives said in an open letter to the media. Attempts to meet with the police officer assigned to the accident the next day failed. It was then that the relatives appealed to journalists for help.

Journalists and bloggers soon began to poke holes into the official version of events, noting that the Citroen had been headed away from the city center on the side of the road nearly devoid of traffic during morning rush hour, and it be more logical if Barkov's Mercedes, stuck in the clogged lanes headed toward the city center, had illegally pulled into the empty oncoming lane to beat the traffic.

The seemingly simple way to resolve the question of who was at fault would be to review the videotape from one of the many surveillance cameras lining Leninsky Prospekt, a major thoroughfare that President Dmitry Medvedev and other top officials use to travel between the Kremlin and Vnukovo Airport. The Federal Guards Service, which protects the country's leaders, said there were no cameras pointed at the scene of the accident, RIA-Novosti reported.

But the lawyer for the family of the victims, Igor Trunov, said Thursday that there were three cameras near the crash site — one belonging to the Korchma restaurant, one run by the police and one operated by the Federal Guards Service — and the footage on them would be critical to the case. He said he has not managed to view the footage yet.

He said he was facing an upward battle in his attempts to access documents related to the police investigation.

“This is a violation of legal procedures. They must provide the materials to us,” Trunov said.

A Moscow police investigator told The Moscow Times that the accident was under review and "witnesses are coming to testify." He refused to provide additional information, citing the ongoing case.

What longer-term impact the accident might have on LUKoil's reputation remains unclear.

Some bloggers have called on drivers to boycott LUKoil gas stations, although Kanayev said the Russian Federation of Car Owners was not advocating any boycott.

Anger over the accident has spilled over into popular culture. Rapper Ivan Alexeyev, aka Noise MC, produced a song called "Mercedes 666" in which he sings that Barkov will burn in hell together with Denis Yevsukov, the Moscow police officer who killed two people in a supermarket shooting rampage last year.

Alexeyev defended his decision to write the song even though Barkov's guilt has not been proven in court.

“If I had not paid attention to the situation with very sharp and concrete steps, everything would have been covered up already,” he told Radio Liberty this week.

He said he learned about the accident from a female friend who knew the victims.

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