Jason Corcoran in Moscow -
Businessmen, bankers and analysts gathered at the American Chamber of Commerce's 15th annual Russian investment conference on September 24 to bemoan the recession, rising inflation sanctions – and the lack of decent cheese after Western food was locked out of the country.
If some participants of the Moscow event were divided over coping and recovery strategies, the narrative of recent months and years offered one stock thread.
"We are tired of resets," Daniel Russell, president and CEO of the US-Russian Business Council in Washington, told delegates at the event in the plush Four Seaons hotel on Red Square. "State-to-state relations have hit their lowest point since the early 1980s. I don't see any improvement, but it's not a permanent state of affairs. For instance, we have worked together on Iran where we had a shared objective that Iran wouldn't produce nuclear weapons."
However, Russell can't foresee any loosening for six months and "beyond" in the sanctions regime enforced against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. And in the meantime, a few old Cold War ticks seem to have reappeared in the current tense climate. A former deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for relations with Russia, Russell said he recently attended a dinner hosted by his best friend in Moscow and spent the evening being harassed by half of the guests for "being a CIA agent".
The AmCham event attracted about 200 representatives from the business community in Moscow. Arkady Dvorkovich, the deputy prime minister, was a no-show and was replaced by Stanislav Voskresenskiy, the deputy minister of Economic Development.
American delegates, meanwhile, embraced one another and expressed surprise that some old friends were still in town, given the resurgence of anti-American sentiment after the imposition of EU and US economic sanctions on Russia last summer.
An opinion poll published by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center indicated that just over 80% of Russians have negative views of the US, a figure that has almost doubled in just over a year. But neither has the stance of the US made life easy for its business vanguard in Russia.
"We are stuck between a rock and a hard place," said Alexis Rodzianko, president of AmCham in Russia, who has weathered many crises in his former capacity as head of Deutsche Bank in Russia and head of private banking at Credit Suisse in Moscow. "I have asked the US administration whether they wanted to destroy us [the American business community in Russia], but they never give us a straight answer."
An American with Russian roots, Rodzianko first came here in the 1970s to interpret at the summit on arms-reduction between Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. But while usually the optimist, even he struggles now to put a positive spin on relations between the White House and the Kremlin.
Overturning the US apple cart
Dismay was also privately expressed about the Russian government's recent move to shut down the US Embassy's American Culture Center in Moscow after 22 years in operation. One delegate said it was particularly galling that Russia was driving out many American educationalists, whose work was not political and had been beneficial to so many young Russians.
In other judders to the expat landscape, Edward Crawley, a co-founder of Moscow's elite Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, is stepping down and returning home amid rumours of dissent at the institute.
And in July, American professor Kendrick White was pushed out of his role as vice rector for innovation at Nizhny Novgorod's Lobachevsky State University after a leading Russian TV host denounced his work as an unwanted foreign influence on Russia minds.
Deals are being scuppered by the poor state of bilateral relations, as evidenced by the recent decision by US oilfield services giant Schlumberger not to pursue a $1.7bn deal to buy a minority stake in Russia's largest driller Eurasia Drilling Company after being blocked by regulators. The deal, which was proposed in January, was bogged down over concerns that Eurasia Drilling's activities could be affected if sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine are tightened further.
Ksenia Yudaeva, the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), warned delegates that the economic downturn in Russia may also continue for several quarters.
The regulator is now bracing itself for volatility that is likely to follow a probable increase in US interest rates before the end of the year. "With regard to external risks, the probability of recurrence of episodes of significant fluctuations in the world, and as a result the Russian market, remains high," Yudaeva said.
Roll with the punches
But maybe it's now all about stamina and long-term conviction. As regulars on the circuit might have forecast, it was Chris Weafer, the oracle of Russia's capital markets, who struck a more upbeat note over proceedings. "The economy is surviving and the country's balance sheet is surviving," said the veteran expat investment guru. "The government has been adaptable by allowing the ruble to free-float. The situation is now stable and a big improvement from last year."
Weafer set up his own business Macro-Advisory to advise prospective investors looking to punt on Russia, and adapt and hopefully prosper was his take-home message to those doing business here, or who are looking to do so. "We changed our business model," he said. "Now, we are advising companies who are here and are looking for reasons to stay and to explain to them the specifics of what's going on."
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