Taking Stock / Nyet Worries, Be Happy

MOSCOW - On the first morning of the World Economic Forum special convention in the Russian capital last month, it transpired that the Russian banker Alexander Slesarev had some unhappy clients.

Anonymous attackers armed with Kalashnikov rifles fired on his armored Mercedes as he was traveling with his loved ones outside Moscow. The banker and his wife Natalia were killed on the spot. Their older daughter Elizaveta was badly wounded and died on her way to hospital, while the younger daughter survived. As the assassins had sprayed bullets at the car, a priest and nun driving in the next lane were also killed.

Slesarev, 37 at his death, had been a well-known figure in Russian financial circles. In the early 1990s he had been a taxi driver and sold flowers on the side. In a decade he had become one of Russia's richest men. He set up a series of businesses, most importantly banks, by virtue of his excellent relations with the Kremlin. How excellent these relations were is shown by the fact that in the last election, he was one of the most generous backers of President Vladimir Putin.

But in the spring of 2004, his banks Sodbusinessbank and Credittrust Bank became embroiled one right after the other in scandal. The Russian central bank yanked their banking licenses for allegedly laundering the proceeds of crime. Depositors withdrew their money in a hurry, and Sodbusinessbank went belly-up.

When in Rome

If the World Economic Forum had been taking place anywhere else, the brutal murders of a banker and his family would have grabbed the spotlight. After all, the distinguished economic forum, which convenes once a year at Davos, Switzerland, lists among its members some of the world's biggest bankers, businessmen, industrialists and investors.

But the conference was in Moscow, and in Russia, slaughtering businessmen has become routine. Slesarev's death didn't cause any of the Russian businessmen or the visiting dignitaries of global commerce to miss a beat. At the end of the first day, the organizers didn't blink before releasing an announcement that the conference had opened on an upbeat note.

No doubt about it, if you are a foreign investor who managed to enter the Russian energy or commodities market and didn't find yourself forced out by the government or its clerks, you have good reason to be optimistic. If you are a clerk in one of the countless arms of Russian government, ditto. In some cases, these reasons to be optimistic are solid as gold and lie cozily in some Swiss bank account.

Even if you're a Russian citizen who spent most of your life under the Soviet heel, you may have reasons to be optimistic. But if you are a visitor looking at Russia through the prism of Western values, you feel confused, at best. At worst, you feel distraught. Russian billionaires who are becoming increasingly involved in Israel's economy and business world pass before your eyes, alongside Israeli investors who are taking a new interest in all things Russian.

In today's Russia, everything begins and ends with the price of commodities, ores and minerals, and mainly, oil. OPEC makes the headlines and the West is obsessed by the Arabs' petrodollars, but Russia is the world's second-biggest oil power, second only to Saudi Arabia. In 2004, Russia's oil production was 460 million tons or 12 percent of the global total, more than the production of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait together.

Russia also boasts tremendous amounts of natural gas, which is increasingly replacing oil as a source of energy. In 2004 it was the world's biggest producer of natural gas, producing 215 billion cubic meters, or 26.5 percent of the global total. That is more than double the production of the next country in line, Canada.

The tremendous appetites of India and China were responsible for much of the spike in oil prices. In the space of seven years Russia morphed from a country on the brink of disaster to a country with world-beating foreign currency reserves. In 1998 the Russian government declared bankruptcy, but in the last three years tax revenues have skyrocketed, mostly deriving from exports of oil, natural gas and commodities.

To understand how oil prices have impacted Russia, remember that in 1998, the year of the financial meltdown, global revenues from oil slumped, too. This year Russia's revenues from exporting oil stand to reach $120 billion, six times the figure for 1998.

"The entire Mendeleev periodic table of elements is there in the Russian soil," boasts a local businessman. "As long as the global economy grows, as long as Indian and Chinese demand persists and as long as oil doesn't fall below $30 or $40 a barrel, the Russian government has nothing to worry about. Do you hear anybody suggesting that oil might fall below $30, at least in the space of the next five years? I don't. That's why we're optimistic."