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Investors on guard as political risk returns to Russia

As tens of thousands of Russians take to the streets to protest against an allegedly rigged parliamentary election, investors are starting to wonder whether stabilnost is gone.

Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press/Dmitry Lovetsky/The Associated Press

For the 12 years that Vladimir Putin has been Russia's president or prime minister, he has ruled via an unspoken pact with the country's population: Leave the politics to us, and we'll create stability and economic growth.

Among the beneficiaries of that stabilnost, as it is known in Russian, were foreign investors, who finally felt safe putting their money in Russia after the country's wild 1990s.

Now, as tens of thousands of Russians take to the streets to protest against an allegedly rigged parliamentary election, and with Mr. Putin's planned return to the presidency next year suddenly in doubt, investors are starting to wonder whether stabilnost is gone.

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"We haven't had too much in the way of political risk in Russia for nearly a decade. So it's quite a shock to have it back," said Roland Nash, chief strategist at Verno Capital, a Russian investment fund.

"Investors often joked about the fact that we knew who was going to be president for the next 12 years," he said, referring to the assumption that Mr. Putin would win an election and then serve two six-year terms. "How many countries can you say that in?"

This attitude explains why stock markets were spooked to see the political situation suddenly thrown into question. Consider the journey Russia's main trading centre, the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange (or Micex), has taken over the past two weeks.

Its most-recent peak was 1,517.89 on Dec. 5, the day after a parliamentary election produced a State Duma in which Mr. Putin's United Russia party – popularly referred to as the "party of crooks and thieves" – would have a narrow majority.

The next day, thousands of protesters unexpectedly took to the streets of Moscow and the Micex dropped 60 points. That was the start of a plummet that saw the exchange lose 11 per cent of its value and bottom out at 1,349.96 on Monday, as investors took in a weekend that saw tens of thousands rally in the capital and dozens of other cities, yelling for a "Russia without Putin!"

For investors, the nervousness began in September, when veteran finance minister Alexei Kudrin was fired after he spoke out against a pact that saw President Dmitry Medvedev step aside so that Mr. Putin, currently prime minister, could run again for the job he held from 2000 to 2008. Under the deal, which struck many Russians as arrogant, Mr. Putin would appoint Mr. Medvedev as his prime minister.

Russia is expected to see a net capital outflow of near $85-billion (U.S.) this year, a flight many attribute to the political uncertainty.

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The Kremlin, after initially seeming bewildered by the protests, has started to reassert itself, declaring that the new Duma will sit on Dec. 21 and hinting that another opposition rally scheduled for Dec. 24 might be banned.

Investors, too, seem to be regaining their confidence; the Micex bounced back on Tuesday and Wednesday, closing Wednesday at 1,379.99. The ruble, however, has continued to slide, having lost almost 3 per cent against the U.S. dollar since Dec. 5.

Mr. Nash said there is hope among investors that the protests will spur some badly needed reforms. "There needs to be change in Russia. Russia's government and bureaucracy are inefficient and quite often incompetent. That's been a major barrier to sustainable medium-term growth," he said.

The big question now is how Mr. Putin will respond to the protests, which are expected to continue through the presidential election set for March. If he reacts by trying to address concerns of middle-class Russians fed up with corruption, that would be seen as progress. If he orders a crackdown, the outflow of capital will accelerate.

The political drama comes at a time when Russia is otherwise doing well, at least in macroeconomic terms.

The overall economy, which is still closely hitched to oil prices that are creeping back toward $100 a barrel, is forecast to achieve 4.8 per cent growth in 2011 (after a 9-per-cent plunge in two years ago when oil prices crashed).

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Inflation may look high at 6.1 per cent, but that would actually represent the lowest figure in the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. Unemployment is also on the decline.

Russia is also finally on the verge of joining the World Trade Organization after more than 18 years of negotiations. Final approval for Moscow's bid is expected to come during a three-day meeting that begins Thursday in Geneva.

But all of this suddenly doesn't seem to be enough to secure the stabilnost Mr. Putin had previously been able to guarantee the country.

"After more than a decade in which the Kremlin was rewarded politically for ensuring both stability and economic growth, it now appears that this formula is no longer sufficient, at least for some part of the population," economist Martin Gillman, a former senior representative of the International Monetary Fund in Russia, wrote in the Moscow Times newspaper.

"Investors will be wary if stability in the future can only be provided at the cost of a halt or reversal of the modernization agenda, which would inevitably result in economic stagnation," Mr. Gillman wrote.

The same newspaper reported that some Russian businesses were taking heart in billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's decision to challenge Mr. Putin for the presidency. While many in the opposition have dismissed Mr. Prokhorov's candidacy as a Kremlin-sponsored ploy to take the wind out of their protests, the business community seems to be welcoming it.

"It's positive news. It gives us an option to choose and may lead to actual change, innovation and greater productivity," the newspaper quoted the unnamed Russian head of a Fortune 500 company as saying.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kudrin, the former finance minister, has also mused about returning to politics and creating a liberal, pro-business party.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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