May 20th, 2010

Hurdles Loom Large for Modernization

Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr./Bloomberg

Despite President Medvedev’s modernization initatives creating a Russian Silicon Valley, establishing of an international financial center as well as a new Russian identity, fundamental elements in the Russian economy and society remain broken. 

The recent spasms caused by the Eurozone’s response to Greece’s potential default have roiled global markets, erased gains for the year and pushed markets back levels from last fall. Russia’s stock market have followed suit and is now below its 200-day moving average. These global economic winds are difficult to manage as Russian IPOs continue to be delayed such as the $300 million RusAgro and the $200 million Strikeforce Mining & Resources (SMR).

However other IPO postponements can’t be simply chalked up to poor credit markets: Uralchem’s $600 million IPO was pulled after failing to meet ecological standards and Rusal, the first Russian company to IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, has fallen 31% from its IPO price, which is sowing doubts in foreign investors’ minds about the long-term profitability of debt-ladden Russian companies. It also doesn’t build investor confidence when Rusal’s CEO Oleg Deripaska gives himself a $70 million IPO bonus three months after Rusal’s IPO even as the stock continued its slide.

Russia’s infrastructure problems are well-known internally and externally, given Moscow’s predilection for putting politics ahead of economic concerns. In the latest World Competitiveness Yearbook 2010 from Swiss business school IMD in Lausanne, Russia’s ranking continues to decline in comparison to other BRIC countries despite its natural resource and higher GDP advantages. The Yearbook notes:

Russia is richer than it is competitive. Per capita GDP ranks 38th in the world, but its IMD ranking has slipped eight positions since 2007 to 51st—the lowest among the so-called BRIC countries. Among the main reasons: poor productivity and efficiency, weak management practices, unfavorable prices, and low marks for health/environment. Russia does a lot better in scientific infrastructure, fiscal policy, and international investment.

Attention was drawn to Russia’s lack of rule of law and corruption this week through the hunger strike of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and New York Times report on unsolved attacks on journalists who report on local corruption.

Khodorkovsky’s hunger strike sought to raise awareness that the legal reforms signed by President Dmitry Medvedev on April 7, 2010 are being sabotaged. The law, which resulted from President Medvedev’s efforts to halt abuses by officials of the criminal justice system from attacking legitimate businesses, and to make criminal law more humane after the death of Sergei Magnitsky, ordering that the courts can no longer use arrest as a pre-trial measure of restraint in cases involving allegations of certain economic crimes, including the alleged crimes in Khodorkovsky’s ongoing case. Through an intermediary, President Medvedev acknowledged Khodorkovsky’s plea and so ended the hunger strike.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 32 reporters have been killed since the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of perestroika and glasnost. As these unsolved persecutions show, corruption in Russia seeps down from above and spreads from below unchecked by any semblance of law or justice.

Khodorkovsky’s second trial continues to display the kind of “legal nihilism” Medvedev claims to end. Yuri Schmidt in today’s Wall Street Journal writes that François Zimeray, the French Ambassador for Human Rights visited the court last month, observed that :

“Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s resistance to being broken by the system has made him an icon for defenders of human rights.” He concluded that not just one man, but rather Russia’s future, is on trial.

For President Medvedev’s modernization to take place, much more needs to be done than creating fantasy technology and financial centers and redefining the national character.

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