06/17/2015 17:28 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 01:12 EDT

Blacklisted in U.S., Russian Railways head boasts of Canadian connections

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - One of the most influential members of Russia's business elite says the reason he's not on the Harper government's sanctions list is likely that Canadians, unlike others, are not "masochists."Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful head of Russian Railways, made the comment Wednesday to The Canadian Press at an event ahead of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which formally opens Thursday.The former United Nations diplomat turned business tycoon has been sanctioned by the U.S. in retaliation for Russia's annexation of Crimea, but not by Canada.Yakunin was asked whether his business relationships, particularly with Montreal-based train manufacturer Bombardier Inc., have shielded him from being blacklisted by Canada in the same way Washington has done."I suppose Canadians are not the same masochists, like, you know, Europeans," he said at a dinner involving news agency heads from around the world."This is jokingly answering your question. I consider that I am known enough in Canada as a promoter of the idea of collaboration."Yakunin repeated earlier statements that suggest the international sanctions regime, which is up for renewal with the European Union in a few days, hurts Europe just as much as Russia.He was blacklisted last year by the U.S. as part of the Obama administration's widening efforts to retaliate for Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.He is one of at least two Russian businessmen with close ties to President Vladimir Putin who have been excluded from Canada's blacklist. The other is Igor Sechin, the head of Russia's state-owned energy company Rosneft, which owns about 30 per cent of an Exxon Mobil Corp. oilfield in Alberta.They are not allowed to travel to America and their assets there have been frozen — something Yakunin described as "illegal."Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson has described Canada's regime of sanctions against Russia as being among the toughest in the world when it comes to the Ukraine crisis.Opposition New Democrats have repeatedly asked why both Yakunin and Sechin have been allowed to continue their business dealings free of consequence, especially with fighting in eastern Ukraine mounting as summer approaches.Yakunin's business ties with Canada run deep, he suggested, underlining his close personal friendship with Bombardier CEO Pierre Beaudoin, describing him as "family" and someone he "likes very much and respects very much."Throughout their association with the Montreal-based rail and aircraft giant, Yakunin said, the Russians have sent a steadfast signal that has made an impression beyond the business world."We never let down our partners. We were always protective of our partners," he said."And I suppose that is also the factor, for the Canadian government, despite the close linkages with the American government, the American administration."Bonbardier and Russian Railways have a long-standing joint venture producing railway signals.The CBC reported in May 2014 that, according to the register of lobbyists, Beaudoin had six meetings with government officials as the initial sanctions regime was being developed.At the time, a spokeswoman for Bombardier told the broadcaster that the company maintains "a wide-ranging dialogue with the Canadian government on a broad range of issues."Yakunin's interview comments came against a backdrop of international tension and intrigue leading up to the economic forum, which Putin is hosting.Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is expected to attend the conference as the European Union debates what to do about the country's inability to make a payment of 1.6 billion euros due to the International Monetary Fund at the end of the month.That could lead to Greece being forced out of the eurozone — something Yakunin characterized as a huge mistake that could lead to the collapse of the single-currency union.