Representatives of a Russian investment group in Piraeus this month have expressed their interest in making sizable investments in Greek companies. Sources suggest preliminary contacts have already been made with two firms through banks, though with no concrete results so far. The representatives of the Russian group, which reportedly invests in shipping, port infrastructure and ship construction, expect the next three years to be particularly positive for coastal shipping companies, where the focus of their interest lies. The same sources maintain that the Russians have made this choice following a significant reduction in the borrowing of the companies, which fell from $2.1 billion in 2002 to just $1.4 billion in the first half of 2006. The current trend points to a further decline in borrowing and an improvement of the companies’ financials, particularly their operating profit (EBITDA) and net profit, despite high fuel prices internationally. Of course, the fact that the Greek coastal shipping market is considered one of the most competitive in Europe is another key factor. The precise form of the possible Russian investment in coastal shipping remains unknown, as they may acquire a number of shares or a majority stake in companies. However, regardless of the outcome of the Russian moves in the industry, it is believed negotiations are already under way among companies aimed at exploring the possibility of cooperation, mergers or even acquisitions in order to boost their competitiveness and profits. Coastal shipping sources told Kathimerini that no announcement should be expected before June, by which time companies will have held their general meetings. A recent report by XRTC, the shipping consultant of French bank Natixis, suggested that an analysis of the 18 main coastal shipping routes in Greece showed that 13 (or 72 percent) met the competition requirements stipulated in the relevant 2001 law, as there were at least two companies serving each one. These routes cover the Cyclades, Northern Aegean, Crete and the Dodecanese, with departures from the ports of Piraeus, Lavrion and Rafina. Ferry fares on liberalized routes are set without state intervention.