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Kremlin Control over Economy to Grow during Crisis

Today the Lex column at the FT points toward the massive redistribution of assets happening in Russia as a result of the global financial crisis, and the routing being experienced by a number of the country’s most wealthy oligarchs (Oleg Deripaska had to give up his stake in Hochtief). However, unlike the 1998 Russian financial crisis, the government appears set to dramatically extend its influence over the economy.

Even so the Russian rout is triggering a redistribution of assets as some oligarchs are forced to sell assets to repay loans or meet margin calls. This time however – unlike Russia’s infamous 1995 loans-for-shares scheme and 1998 financial crisis – the state is set to increase its influence over the economy, continuing the Putin-era trend. First, the Russian government has channelled extra liquidity through state-owned banks Sberbank and VTB. Some $50bn has been earmarked for Vnesheconombank, a third state bank, to help companies refinance debt. That in effect gives the Kremlin the power to choose the winners and losers. Second, Russia’s state-controlled or state-loyal energy companies could also benefit. Vagit Alekperov, president of Lukoil, says his company, as well as Gazprom, Rosneft, and TNK-BP, have all asked for slices of the Vnesheconombank credit – though none has crippling debt. The money, he says, will help the companies develop and “have money to buy assets”, which happen to be extraordinarily cheap right now. Don’t count out Russia’s oligarchs – state or otherwise – just yet.