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Paying the price for Russia’s ‘loveable rogues’

Times Online
The Times
July 26, 2008

Paying the price for Russia’s ‘loveable rogues’

Russian stocks are in freefall, spooked by threats of anti-trust inquiries by Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, falling oil prices and the chicanery over TNK-BP. Foreign investors have been patient optimists, preferring to turn a blind eye to the mounting chaos in Moscow while keeping a steady gaze on commodity price indices. Yesterday, they lost their bottle and began to sell – and the selling may continue. It is a reminder that reputations built over several years can be lost in a day.

The irony is that among those who will suffer badly from the sell-off are three individuals whose activities provoked a major cause of the loss of confidence: Mikhail Fridman, Len Blavatnik and Viktor Vekselberg. Their successful effort to evict Bob Dudley, the BP-nominated head of TNK-BP, has undermined a bull run fuelled by petrodollars and little else.

It is important to understand that the three oligarchs are looking for a profitable exit – they want their money offshore. They have clamoured for bigger dividends from TNK-BP. A Eurobond prospectus issued by Renova, the holding company for Mr Vekselberg’s assets, said that the group would seek to diversify away from Russia and from its oil and metal assets. Cash from TNK-BP, some $18 billion over five years, has flown out of Russia. Mr Blavatnik has built a chemical empire in Europe and America, buying Basell, the world’s biggest olefins business, from Shell and BASF. Mr Vekselberg has taken over Swiss engineering firms.

Investors in Russia should not forget the cash cow was a political gift. Tyumen Oil, the TNK half of the joint venture, was sold by President Yeltsin to his friends for a song, some $800 million in 1997. It has since been spitting out dollars at a fantastic rate, funding not just investment outside Russia but providing respectability and adulation in high places. Mr Blavatnik is on the Board of Dean’s Advisers at Harvard Business School. Mr Fridman is on the advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank.

For years, the notion of oligarchs as loveable rogues has held sway, akin to America’s early robber baron capitalists. However, the latter built their businesses from scratch – Rockefeller created Standard Oil. Tyumen Oil was an outrageous gift and as the RTS stock index tumbles, one wonders when these not very loveable men will return the favour.

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