Sunday, June 24, 2007

Diplomacy failed, business will succeed : What next for Russia?

With Russia's diplomatic rockets having not reached their goal of getting Russia's concerns about European rearmament across, the remaining question is "what now?"

On June 15th, the only true remaining obstacle to US ABM deployment in Eastern Europe was overcome, a consensus within NATO over the US "defense" system was reached. Russia lost its only remaining bargaining tool - a split opinion in Europe over the deployment. The same day it became clear that Russia's proposals to redefine the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty (CFE) which so far has only been ratified by Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, went down the drain. Russia's plan to substitute the US ABM deployment in Europe with its Azerbaijan base in Gabala has been de-facto rejected in its proposed version. The marginal hope that remains is President Putin's scheduled meeting with his US counterpart on July 1-2 in Maine. But marginal is too optimistic a word for that meeting.

Russia's diplomatic proposals find little support and Russia's concerns find little compassion. One of the reasons is that the "camp" which Russia is positioning itself against consists of a perpetual number of allies with intertwined defense/political/economic interests. Russia on the other hand is in most cases left by itself. And no matter how much it claims to be a superpower, it must take a major divisive issue such as Iraq to bring together separate European nations into a temporary "diplomatic alliance" with Russia, presumably against the US. And even then, as we saw, the United States has the upper hand.

Russia's only competitive advantage, its natural resources, on the other hand have been giving Russia economic prosperity and influence despite any military or political alliances in the world. And so far the business aspect of Russia will be the only factor that will back its attempts to influence and shape the world around it to ensure the protection of its national interests.

Just the past week highlights this scenario very clearly. The recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum was followed by the long-awaited sale of TNK-BP's stake in the massive Koykta gas field (with reserves on par with natural gas reserves of Canada) to Russian Gazprom. And as with an earlier "forced" sale of Royal Dutch Shell's stake in Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom on claims of "environmental damage", the executives of the British oil giant seemed undeterred by the deal. The worst BP could have faced was a forced sale of its stake in the TNK-BP joint venture which accounts for a fifth of BP's oil reserves.

On Saturday Russia's Gazprom and Italian energy firm Eni signed a memorandum of understanding on the possibility of constructing a pipeline under the Black Sea to supply natural gas from Russia to the EU. The most paradoxical statement made during the signing was that of Italian energy minister Pierluigi Bersani, who claimed the project "strengthened energy security in Europe". This is despite the multitude of talks within Europe aimed to diversify its energy sourcing away from Russia in fear of it cutting off supplies motivated by political tensions.

And yet another side of Western business leniency toward the harsh realities of doing business in Russia came up on Sunday, when PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) withdrew ten years worth of auditing opinions on the now bankrupt Yukos oil group, whose ex-chief yuppie oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky resides in jail for fraud. Revoking ten years worth of audit work is an unprecedented practice, and has not been repeated even by the auditor of Enron and WorldCom Arthur Andersen, despite the audit team's conviction in intentional wrongdoings in audit procedures. PwC's actions now give international validity to Russia's prosecution for dismantling the oil firm for accusations of fraud.

Business activity in Russia has defied any political developments and criticism toward Russia in the Western world. Thomson Financial rated Russia number three in the world for the amount of capital raised through IPOs, closely trailing the US and China. Russia's primary trading platform RTS, was ahead of New York's Nasdaq and the NYSE in the amount of capital raised in IPOs. With the price of oil predicted to head only upward due to a now constantly prevailing excess demand for energy resources, and with the world economy able to digest such high energy prices preventing potential drops in demand due to excessively high prices, the macroeconomic situation for Russian energy companies flush with cash resembles heaven or something close to it. For Russian companies outside the oil & gas industry a government flush with cash from oil revenues is a great supporter to have as well.

Business then is the only force Russia has. And classifying it as a force does not mean it must be used to bully. Creating intertwined business interests between Russian, European, American, and Asian conglomerates ensures a consensus based approach to problem solving between those countries where business ties are highly linked. In the medieval times a king would marry his offspring to foreign royalty. Now, the protectionist feelings in many of the world's major economies have translated that principle into cross-border ownership of major corporations.

The recent tie-in of Russia's Basel with Canadian Magna International, Norilsk Nickel's attempts to purchase Canadian LionOre, Aeroflot's desire to expand into the European airline industry through a stake in Alitalia, and finally Gazprom's tentacle-like pipelines sooner or later will integrate the Russian economy fully with that of the West. The prerequisites for such a scenario are the limits to protectionist behavior of the Russian government only to strategic sectors and only if it is warranted for a country's national interests and not for the corporate interests of the Russian company (think Gazprom). Creating a continuously stable environment at home is another. Yet the promotion of Russian business expansion is one of the few routes Russia has left to secure a dominant position for itself in the world.

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