Moscow, Feb. 29 (RFE/RL) - The prospect of a Communist
victory in Russia's June presidential election has wracked the
nerves of many, but the worst case of the jitters can be found, not
surprisingly, in the country's business community.
For many investors, both Russian and foreign, the mood has never
been so bleak. "Western investors are in a trough of despair," says
Bernard Sucher, managing director of Russia's top brokerage house,
Troika Dialog. He told RFE/RL in an interview that both Russian and
foreign investors are no longer assuming that "things will work out."
As for himself, he was even more candid: "I was more optimistic
bunkered down in my kitchen when the tanks were attacking the
parliament in '93."
But Sucher, like all of those interview in Moscow last week for this
report, says a victory for President Boris Yeltsin does not
necessarily guarantee a rosy picture for business leaders. He says
there will be no good outcome in June, regardless of whom wins,
because backtracking on economic reform is already happening. Sucher
summed up the mood of many by saying Yeltsin is still favored as the
lesser of two evils: "He's the devil you know."
Even so, many business leaders voiced concern about Yeltsin's recent
policy changes in economic reform. Their first disappointment came as
Russia's privatization architect, Anatoly Chubais, resigned last
month after coming under heavy criticism. Chubais and the business
community had long shared a mutual understanding and respect.
Other setbacks followed, culminating in Yeltsin's pledge last week
to pay back-wages to state workers, and raise pensions and student
stipends at the cost of some four billion dollars. While many
acknowledged the hardships Russians have suffered during the reform,
they predicted that such steps could spark inflation, a collapse of
the ruble and overall economic chaos, to the detriment of ordinary
Russia has tended to attract high risk money from investors who, in
the words of one observer, "checked their fears at the door" and rode
out waves of political instability to pile up huge profits. But now
that may be changing.
The uncertainty surrounding the presidential election has
apparently caused many investors to adopt a "wait-and-see" approach.
"It is more difficult now for companies entering the market than for
those with an established presence," says Carl Johaneson, who heads
CIS operations for the global consulting and accounting firm, Ernst &
Young. He told our correspondent that some of his clients, which
include companies like Coca-Cola and Hershey's, are watching the
situation closely, but are not extremely anxious. Still, he says, new
investment tends to be put on hold.
His views were confirmed this week when the deputy head of Russia's
State Property Committee, Alfred Kokh, said that most privatization
had been put on hold until after the presidential election. Kokh
said the political uncertainty had driven investors away, pushing
down the price of shares and making it less profitable for the
government to sell stakes in state enterprises. He added that fears
of re-nationalization had also scared off many investors.
Those fears were revived when Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said
this month that Russia's top banks and energy companies
should be re-nationalized. His statements follow the formation in the
communist-nationalist-dominated Duma of a special committee to
examine what it calls the "negative results" of privatization, and
the possible re-nationalization of companies that were privatized
under the government's controversial loans-for-shares program.
While most business leaders dismissed talk of re-nationalization as
more rhetoric than reality, some were clearly worried about the trend
towards questioning privatization.
Re-nationalization, even if it occurs in a limited form, could hit
the banking sector the hardest. "We're not worried about being taken
over," says Gina Knight, a board member at OPM, a medium-sized
Russian bank. But she told RFE/RL that there are worries about a
shake-up of the banking sector, if just some banks are taken over by
the government. New regulations, she says, could force smaller
institutions out of the market.
Critics have charged that a privileged handful of banks has
profited enormously from the government's privatization program,
while others have been left out in the cold. Knight says a victory by
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov is unlikely to abolish such
favoritism. On the contrary, she says, a communist presidency will
probably continue the "double standard," but with new players. In
other words, she says, "it's someone else's turn to get a piece of
Exactly what a Zyuganov presidency would look like, say market
analysts, is about as difficult to figure out as Kremlin politics
were during the Brezhnev era.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Michel Camdessus
brushed off the threat of a communist victory while in Moscow last
week to seal a new 10,200-million dollar loan to Russia. He said a
new Russian government would see the realities of the country's
economy, and maintain the conditions set under the loan agreement.
"Otherwise," he said, "our support will be interrupted."
At Renaissance Capital, another top Russian brokerage house, young,
smartly-dressed Russian traders were busy last week watching the
stock market plunge and then surge with news of the IMF deal. But
unlike Camdessus, they have little choice but to deal with whomever
holds the top job in the Kremlin after the June election.
One equity trader, Nikolai Klekovkin, says Zyuganov made a good
impression on investors at last month's World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland. But he says there are serious doubts in the
business community about whether the Communists really understand how
the current Russian economy works, and how fragile it is.
"I'm optimistic," says his colleague Dirk Damrau, who heads research
at Renaissance Capital. But he says the biggest challenge to economic
reform could come from regional communist party leaders, who would
inevitably become more powerful with a Zyuganov victory. Damrau says
local Communist Party officials tend to take a hardline on economic
reform, frightening the business community with talk of
re-nationalization and hostility toward foreign investment. As he puts
it: "Even if you have three or four Communist leaders saying what the
West wants to hear, the bulk of the Communist party here stretches
across a wide (political) spectrum just because of the regional
structure of the country."
But Damrau predicts that Russia, under a communist or non-communist
government, will continue to, in his words, "muddle through,"
backsliding on economic reform, but moving forward, step by step,
toward economic stablity.