Vladimir Putin spoke at the the Russia Calling! investment forum organized by state-owned VTB bank today. It was awesome.
Here’s basically what happened. After some two hours of boring, number-studded speeches, the room rustle-rustled when the man they — hell, we — had all been waiting for. He mounted the stage, plopped into the white leather chair and instantly assumed his classic sprawl-legged slouch, belt buckle a-gleaming. He then read a boring speech prepared for him by VTB and it was one he seemed not to have been familiar with. Then, after a speech by Morgan Stanley guy who could not get the slide-changing clicker to work (in front of VVP! Nerves!), it was time for Q&A.
And that’s when the fun began.
Someone asked about a corrupt court decision — said to have been worth some $300 million — and Putin, who tends to say nothing about the extremely independent Russian judiciary — promised to look into it. Someone asked about the privatization of a chunk of VTB. Someone asked about Gazprom’s market capitalization.
Then a lady got up, and asked Putin to address the fact that, “all the investors I meet with have big concerns, and they see that when the [Russian] government enters [into a deal/holding/etc.], the share price falls to nothing.” The conference, after all, was partly to convince foreign investment to come back to Russia, which it hasn’t really done since many billions fled in the fall of 2008.
Putin tried to convince her that that was not the case, that they sold out of enterprises like that for money. That the arrival of companies like Transneft (state oil transport concern) was good for them.
Lady: “Are they scared of you?”
Putin: “There’s no need to be scared of us.”
Then the lady brought up Yukos and the whole room froze. “There’s no meeting that goes by,” she said, “where investors haven’t asked about it.”
“Yukos is a special case,” Putin thundered, suddenly losing his jokey, back-slapping demeanor. He was pissed. Seriously, seriously pissed.
There are people in that company, Putin said, that “are responsible for murder. There are corpses hanging on them. Can you imagine a head of security that would order murders by his personal iniative for the company’s benefit?” he nearly shouted, referring to the case of Vladimir Petukhov. “I have a hard time imaging that.”
“It was proven by a court,” he added. (It — or at least Khodorkovsky’s role — wasn’t.)
Putin hates talking about Yukos. What was an attempt to bring a challenger to heel has gone a little awry, as Khodorkovsky’s sophisticated PR campaign — now joined by banished investor Bill Browder — has done significant and largely irreparable damage to Russia’s image with investors. Hungry as they are to make a quick buck on the volatile Russian economy, examples like Browder’s and Khodorkovsky’s do make them shudder and wonder, am I next? And Putin, who wants the money and the boom-era grandeur to come back, hates that people still remember MBK. His last attempt, during his August road trip, to pretend he simply hadn’t heard of the second Khodorkovsky trial made him look ridiculous. So now, he returned back to what he pulled during his last call-in show: rage.
The crowd was silent. They may have been intimidated and awed by his presence before, but now they were cowed.
Putin yelled a bit longer, before offering to drop the matter — “вынести это за скобки” — and he moved on to another favorite subject matter: needling Ukraine, represented on stage by the muscly, brainy, awkward Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Sergei Tigipko. He began explaining all the ways Russia was economically better off than Ukraine, which was making “problematic” financial decisions.
Asked if he had any parting thoughts, Putin said, “Ukraine gets money from the IMF, and we’re an IMF donor.”
Then VTB chairman Andery Kostin wished Putin a truculent and soppy happy birthday (tomorrow), and it was time for lunch.