I quickly learned that the two men jointly owned a furniture company in Odessa, Ukraine called Nika Mebel. The company started a website around June, 2013, that retailed furniture it made in its own factory. Within a few months it added furniture imported from China and Malaysia. On the site the company described itself like this: “Continuous improvement of technological equipment and staff training helped us grow into a large furniture manufacturing company in Ukraine…. Over a 15-year period of time, we managed to make ourselves known on most of the territory of Ukraine, as well as beyond its borders.”
In an affadavit filed in 2017 as part of her effort to have her husband declared legally dead, Tatiana Chustrak stated that:
“In the court session it was established that the applicant’s husband was engaged in private business, namely, with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, had a shop for furniture production.
March 02, 2014, a man, along with a partner, went on a business trip abroad. The purpose of the trip was to visit the international furniture exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and on March 8, it was planned to fly to Beijing Airport, China, and then fly to Guangzhou, China, where an international furniture exhibition was also planned. According to this plan, the relevant tickets were purchased.”
I hired researchers in Ukraine and asked them to reach out to Dmitriy Kozlov, the manager of Nika Mebel. I figured that he’d have detailed knowledge of the trip, because according to Nika Mebel’s filings he was the only person authorized to operate the company apart from Chustrak and Deineka — in effect, for years after their disappearance, he was Nika Mebel.
My investigators reported back to me:
“We reached Dmitriy Kozlov (+38 050 246 70 73) and today I spoke to him myself.
He referred he is busy to meet but agreed for a brief talk by phone.
1. He knew Oleg Chustrak and Sergey Deineka for around 20 years.
2. Trip of Oleg Chustrak and Sergey Deineka to Malaysia and Beijing in 2014 was part of their usual routine – they were attending furniture exhibitions there two times per year, in autumn and spring, for around 5-7 years.
3. The reason of attending was to be aware of industry trends and market; they also negotiated small volumes of furniture import: 3-4 containers per year. However that did not go through Nika, it was arranged some other way. Dmitriy is not aware how; he was production director of Nika and did not participate much in other parts of the business.
4. In Malaysia, Oleg Chustrak and Sergey Deineka had some guide who met them at those events and guided them through exhibition and factories there. Dmitriy does not know his identity because he was not much involved in that part of the business.
5. In 2014, trip plans of Oleg Chustrak and Sergey Deineka were impacted by events in Ukraine and some troubles with crossing borders and visas. That somehow changed their usual simple route Ukraine-Malaysia-Ukraine and made them to visit Beijing. Dmitriy knows that from conversation with both of them, but was not aware of further details.
6. After their flight disappeared, their wifes were dealing with all formalities. Dmitriy remembers they showed him video of boarding provided by Malaysian airlines; both Chustrak and Deineka were identified as being boarded at the plane.
End of statements.”
It occurred to me that if the men really had a long-standing business importing furniture from Asia, there should be paperwork documenting their imports and customers who can confirm their dealings. The researchers checked and reported back to me:
“We source export and import information from customs statistics. Our information for 2013 and 2014 is incomplete due to customs reformation, but analysts stated there is no import or export operations for subject neither in first 6 months of 2013 nor in first 9 months of 2014.”
They pointed out, however, that the absence of documentation might be a result of Chustrak and Deineka hiring another firm to carry out the importation.
Regarding the statement that Chustrak and Deineka “were impacted by events in Ukraine and some troubles with crossing borders and visas” and had to change their itinerary as a result, I have seen no evidence that events occurred that might have required them to fly to Guangzhou via Beijing instead of directly. As far as I have been able to tell China had not changed its visa requirements for Ukrainians at this time.
According to the Ukrainian business registry, Chustrak and Deineka did not have any other business apart from Nika Mebel. Their web store only came online in mid-2013. At the time of their disappearance, Nika did not have a physical retail location, nor even a landline. So how were they selling these containers of furniture, and to whom?
I reached out to Amelin Svyatoslav, a successful Ukrainian furniture entrepreneur who definitely did run a furniture factory and retail web site: Mebelok.com. Since he was demonstrably in the same business niche that Nika had claimed to be, I figured that he would know whether Nika passed the sniff test. I asked him, “Would you have any speculation as to what type of customer their factory might have been making furniture for, before they started selling directly to the public?” He answered:
“In fact, 95% of the Ukrainian furniture market is offline. The customers of these small shops are mostly people who live within walking distance of the store. Only big players like Mebelok.com can sell furniture over the Internet throughout Ukraine. Small operators cannot now compete with big players in Internet. Therefore, companies such as Nika rent a small area in local furniture shopping centers and «are waiting» for their client.
Judging by the fact that this company had its VAT payer certificate revoked on 20.12.1999, they worked with individuals, and not with companies.”
Of course, I knew that in fact at the time of their disappearance Chustrak and Deineka did not have any physical retail presence.
I asked Svyatoslav his overall impression of Nika. His reply:
“Unfortunately, it was not possible to find out any detailed information about this company. Neither our suppliers, nor colleagues from the Association of Furniture Manufacturers of Ukraine have been working with this company.”
After Chustrak and Deineka disappeared, Nika did obtain physical retail space; it started selling furniture from booths within furniture shopping centers of the kind Svyatoslav described. My investigators called around to the shopping center operators and adjacent retailers, but none was willing to talk about Nika. When they reached out to the current proprietor, she said that they had nothing to do with Chustrak and Deineka, and said that if we could not provide an invoice with the official business number of Nika Mebel, but would have to use another entity instead.
This is as far as I’ve gotten in this project. Going forward, I would like to further explore anyone who might have had business dealings with Chustrak and Deineka that would shed light on their reasons for traveling to Asia. It’s hard to prove a negative, but the lack of evidence supporting the narrative that they were longstanding furniture importers merits doubts about the explanation given for their being on the plane.
And if it turned out that they were indeed definitely not on the plane for the state reason, that would raise a further question: Why was a website created mere months before their trip that created the impression that they were retailing imported furniture? Were they expecting that for some reason they might attract attention in the near future and wanted to create a misleading impression of what they were up to?
UPDATE 3/7/21: It occurs to me that, even if Dmitry Kozlov somehow didn’t know the details of the furniture-importation business, Chustrak and Deineka’s wives surely would have. Yet in her petition to have Oleg declared dead, Tatiana Chustrak makes no mention of any such separate business. The document states:
“The husband was engaged in private business, namely, along with his friend and business partner, Deineka Sergey Grigorievich, owned a shop for furniture production.”
Nothing about importing or retailing. So not really an explanation for why they would be on that plane.