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Monday, July 28, 2008

Russia's Crony Statism

An Editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

By now, the jilted investor in Russia is a bear-bites-man story. No one who puts serious cash in Vladimir Putin's realm, not least in its flush gas and oil fields, can be surprised to find himself fleeced, run out of town, jailed in a Siberian gulag or worse.

So let's not shed many tears for the latest oil major brought low in Russia, BP. The British company got into TNK-BP—a 50-50 $7.6 billion joint venture with four Russian oligarchs—presumably, with eyes wide open. The initial blessing of Mr. Putin—then president, today prime minister—made the obvious risks easier to swallow. For a while, business was gangbusters, with profit in 2006 alone at $6.6 billion. Then the same old thing happened: Someone in Russia wondered, Why share the spoils with foreigners? And BP found itself defenseless in the wild east.

To make a long story short, BP is losing TNK-BP to another Kremlin-backed forced expropriation. The usual tricks were used. The tax and labor authorities, the police and the courts launched no less than 14 probes of BP, forcing out its expatriate staff from the country. The last man left—TNK-BP's CEO Robert Dudley—had his work visa pulled and on Thursday fled Russia for an undisclosed location, citing "sustained harassment of the company and myself." He says he'll run the company from abroad. Sure. BP officials pretty much admit the game is over.

If the past is a guide, BP will be forced to cede control of TNK-BP to a Kremlin-owned energy giant such as Gazprom or Rosneft. Mr. Putin has pushed aside other big players once considered untouchable, in his quest to Kremlinize oil and gas wealth. Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos—then Russia's biggest and best-run oil company—was broken and its founder sent to Siberia. BP's Russian misery has good company abroad, too; Total, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and Amoco, before BP's acquisition of it, all stumbled in Russia.

Mr. Putin coined the phrase, "dictatorship of the law," and in the early days many investors endorsed his authoritarian policies as a path to stability. It turns out that something other than mere "stability" is emerging in Russia.

Local tax authorities and health inspectors are a power unto themselves, extorting large businesses (as in BP's case, directed from above) or free-lancing on their own against the medium and small. Their victims are mostly Russians, who won't be able as easily to conclude their property isn't safe and pack up and take their businesses, and jobs, elsewhere. No matter how much money there is to be made in Russia these days, it ultimately doesn't count for much the day a boyar or simple chinovnik decides to take it away.

The steady erosion of the rule of law in Russia is a distressing sign of the times there. Mr. Putin complains of not getting proper respect from the West. Forcing the president of a major Western oil company to literally flee Russia earns respect in no one's land.

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