Russian businesses’ aggressive moves into Europe coordinated with the state

Vladimir Evtushenkov, Vagit Alekperov and Oleg Deripaska are not just three of Russia’s most powerful businessmen but are also close associates of President Vladimir Putin. They are also said to have undertaken a challenging task: to make Russia a powerful trading nation. Evtushenkov controls 62 percent of the Sistema group which dominates Russia’s telecommunications and information technology sector. A few months ago, he acquired a majority stake in Intracom Telecom. Alekperov is CEO of Russian energy giant Lukoil, which is said to be negotiating the acquisition of a significant minority stake in refiner Motor Oil. Deripaska has not visited Athens yet, but is the person behind the creation of the largest aluminium producer in the world through the merger of Sual into Rusal. Greece is one of the playgrounds of the Russians’ recent strategy of expansion into European markets. The era of «leisure investments» by tycoons such as Roman Abramovich, who acquired English soccer club Chelsea, and Evgeni Shvidler, like Abramovich an investor in Sibneft, who acquired the Chateau Thenac winery in France, is now in the past. Today the Russians are moving methodically and, many insist, along with the Kremlin’s direct involvement. Their direct investments in foreign countries exceeded $100 billion in 2005 and first-quarter figures from 2006 show a 50 percent increase compared with the same period in 2005. Listings of Russian groups on West European bourses often make newspaper headlines: The latest example is Rosneft, one of the partners that will build and operate the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline. Rosneft’s IPO drew $10.4 billion in capital. Before Intracom approached Sistema (through a former Siemens manager, it is said), the Russian group had already established a presence in Central Europe. Lately, it has made acquisitions in Lebanon and Turkey. Evtushenkov’s flagship company is Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), Russia’s biggest mobile telecommunications company with 35 million subscribers. Evtushenkov’s presence extends into sectors as diverse as electronic equipment and real estate. For this reason, many believe that Sistema’s presence in Europe will not be limited to Intracom Telecom. Indeed, when he arrived in Athens to sign that deal, Evtushenkov said that he might be interested in OTE, at the right price. However, the government plans announced last week are not compatible with the Russians’ plans: A Western European strategic investor appears more likely. Before engaging in talks with Motor Oil, Lukoil had appeared as a likely partner with the Latsis Group’s Petrola in the acquisition of a stake in state-controlled refiner Hellenic Petroleum. In the end, the latter absorbed Petrola. A week before Alekperov arrived in Athens, accompanying Putin, it was announced that Lukoil had entered into a partnership with Slovenian firm Petrol to jointly manage a network of gas stations in the Balkans – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Lukoil already controls refineries in Romania and Bulgaria. In 2005, it spent over $500 million in expanding its gas stations in Asia, Europe and North and South America. The Russians are very aggressive in their approach and, a few days ago, the Europeans were surprised to find that Vneshtorgbank (VTB), a Russian bank, had acquired a 5 percent stake in European aerospace company EADS. EADS first confirmed the deal and then denied it. Given the Russians’ strategy, they are likely to invest in any sector in Greece’s industry or services. At present, they are battling to enter into more advanced Western European economies but have not lost interest in the Balkans: Quite the contrary, they are already a power to be reckoned with in the region.