June 23rd, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looks through 3D glasses at an exhibition at the economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Saturday, June 19, 2010. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Just a few weeks ago Putin was front and center with his visits to Istanbul and Paris, negotiating foreign policy disputes over UN sanctions against Iran. He even made comments about his tandem leadership with Medvedev that Kremlinologist have interpreted to mean that Putin as no choice but take over the reins in 2012, lest Medvedev actually execute his modernization plans by reducing 160,000 bureaucrats and nearly 300,000 policemen. Of course not all of these government employees have profited from Putin’s rein at the helm but they benefit from the existing “old” system (“budget inefficiency and a resource-based economy” as Arkady Dvorkovich, Medvedev’s top economic advisor put it.)

What a difference a few weeks make.

This week President Medvedev is visiting Silicon Valley to drum up support for a Russian Silicon Valley in Skolkovo outside Moscow. Despite a more promising outlook for Russia’s growth this year, in order for Medvedev’s modernization to be realized, laws must be enacted and enforced.

Another hinderance to Medvedev’s efforts is widespread corruption in the country, equivalent to a third of the country’s GDP annually. The death of Sergey Magnitsky while in pre-trial detention hangs like a cloud. Today, Magnitsky’s business partner Jamison Firestone released a video documenting what the government officials who are responsible for Magnitsky’s death are doing with their ill-gotten fortunes.

Beyond the Magnitsky tragedy the Khodorkovsky trial is a symbol of the lack of property rights in Russia and is costing Russian companies a risk premium as foreign investors demand greater compensation for this political risk.

Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the Los Angeles Times that:

The road to a Russian Silicon Valley starts not in California, Mr. President. It begins with unlocking the door to Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s jail cell.

This is a critical time for Russia’s development as an emerging market. It remains to be seen if Medvedev’s modernization initiatives will be allowed to proceed and allow Russia to develop in an ever crowded global economic playing field or will the presidential election of 2012 reaffirm the Kremlinologists prediction that Putin will rein in liberalizing efforts and lead Russia down the path of increased centralization in government and government oversight of business and trade.

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