Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Is Kazakhstani banking going to hell in a handcart?

I meant to blog about this as it crossed over the wires and dealing screens Monday:

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev said international rating agencies were biased against Kazakh banks

"Considering that Kazakhstan as a state provides substantial support to domestic banks, construction companies and small and medium business and also that the Kazakh economy is stable and on a firm footing, it's subjective to downgrade ratings," Nazarbayev told journalists in Pavlodar."I think that rating agencies have to consider that Kazakhstan is on a stable footing and will not allow any of its banks to go under," he said."I had already said that if such a situation continued, we would buy out shares of our companies themselves," he said, as cited by Interfax.

The global credit crunch, aside from effectively flooring Northern Rock has wreaked havoc in the Kazakhstani banking system. The Central Bank has pumped in liquidity and this has stabilized what otherwise threatened to be a run on a number of banks.

The picture is much prettier if you also caught how ATF Bank – being sold to Unicredit – had blatantly tried to screw its minority preference shareholders, to funnel all the money into the pockets of a few, very well-connected hangers-on from the Nazarbayev clan. You have to admire plucky little hedge fund, QVT, for sticking to its guns and demanding that ATF and Unicredit play fair: good luck to them! Unicredit seems to attract controversy when it buys these rinky-dink banks. In truth I wonder whether the real lesson we all should be learning here is that - contrary to abundant western-market opinion - Kakakhstan is actually as hopelessly inadequate, for real commercial rule of law, as the other 'stans.

Most of the domestic banking system is controlled either by the First Family, or by their mates, and, boy, have they screwed it up or what?

Today I read that Fitch ratings has followed where S&P have already trodden and have altered their Outlook across most of the KAZ banking sector from “Stable” to “Negative”. Most of these banks now have an S&P rating equivalent of BB-, which means not really good enough credit quality for their banks’ bonds to be bought by mainstream global investment institutions (but only specialist, high-risk funds).

What I think is interesting about the Nazarbayev quote is that, in effect, he says that the Government will guarantee the banking system. Now leaving aside issues about ‘moral hazard’, I have to say that maybe the ratings agencies have got it wrong. If oil-rich Kazakhstan will, as the President says, step in and rescue any bank, then surely the banks’ ratings should rise.

Conversely, it is the sovereign rating for Kazakhstan itself (already recently lowered by S&P to BBB-) which should be lowered again; because de facto Nazarbayev has just added all those banks’ debts to his national balance sheet.

Not, BTW, the brightest move in terms of sound financial economic management; but I suppose if you treat the banking system as being a personal plaything, like you treat the state as a whole…

Monday, 17 December 2007

Bolshoi round-up: weekend 14th- 16th December

These are the last of the Bolshoi performances I will see before coming back to Moscow after an extended Christmas / New Year break in Italy.

Ballet: Three one act ballets (14th December)

What unites these three one act ballets? I am not sure I have quite put my finger on it:

- Chopiniana – very elegant, if slightly stayed and ancient piece choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in 1908
- The Lesson – about which I have written before here – but startlingly different from the last time I saw it
- Carmen Suite – Triumphant one act piece set to, and abbreviating, Bizet’s masterpiece.

It might have been ‘love’ (eugh): unreal love; perverted love; love betrayed.

With one or two ‘break out’ exceptions, however, this was a rather bland, somewhat derivative, night from the world’s greatest ballet company.

Chopiniana is one of those pieces that, if you are bringing a visitor to Moscow who really doesn’t often *do* ballet, but wants to experience the Bolshoi, is perfect. It is beautiful, if a bit gratingly chocolate box-y. Selected quotes from the program essay follow:

“The distant past and the remote future are here united in an uneasy creative vision…neither the 19th nor the 20th centuries… [The 1900s were the] years of grace, the years of a happy interval in Russian art. These were the years when all bans and taboos – moral, ideological and other – which had hampered the development of the arts [in Russia], were relaxed…

“…as an artist [choreographer, Mikhail] Fokine belongs to the interval between two [Russian] epochs, the ‘technical’ 19th and bloody 20th centuries…”

Yep, that pretty much sums it up: a museum-piece (albeit a charming one), nice for tourists and ‘important’ to have seen; a box ticked. But Alexander Titov conducted the Bolshoi’s mélange of 8 Chopin pieces here rather well. Albeit that Chopin is not a composer I am able to get very excited about (sorry!).

The Lesson was much more interesting – conductor, Igor Dronov brought the Bolshoi orchestra to a new level – not least because I was expecting a disappointment. In the Bolshoi’s repertoire, sadly inevitably aging, enfant terrible, Sergei Filin *is* the maestro of this piece and usually no one else but him can really put it off.

Previously I have written that, danced by him, this piece was ‘Hitchcockian…darkly funny”. His relatively last minute replacement was Dmitriy Gudanov, and he danced and performed the role completely differently. There was nothing comic about it. It was psychologically brutal – we were witnessing child murder on stage – and almost harrowing to watch. More like snuff ballet. Above all, it reveals quite a lot about the unbreakable cycle and banal inevitability of human evil…

…and you thought ballet was just about pretty prancing!

While fans of Sergey Filin will say that piece forever belongs to him, the deeply tormented – and tormenting – performance of Gudanov is I think remarkable and very close to the origins of the libretto; based on the play by Eugene Ionesco. I quote from the program’s interview with controversial, veteran choreographer, the Dane, Flemming Flindt:

“This is serious dramatic material and there is no way its action can be beautiful.

“…the dramatic text has a socio-political colouring and implication. The dramatist [Ionesco] told me the action unfolds during the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Paris. The chief character [the ballet teacher] is a dictator-maniac, his assistant [the accompanist] the German people, while the little girls [pupils] who turn up, one after the other, are the victims of the occupiers, they are strangled by the maniac, who deprives them of life.” [The principal victim wears a startling yellow costume, so the link to the Holocaust is hard to miss]

Gudanov’s performance is faithful to this and I am not sure that, compared to Filin’s undoubtedly admirable rendition, isn’t the better for it. Seen in its raw literality it is quite hard to stomach; but absolutely riveting.

BTW: the audience rightly celebrated, above all, Irina Zibrova’s formidable and complex portrayal of the accompanist. Aristotelian in her tragedy, it was therefore tinged with our sympathy and thus a small, quiet triumph of a performance. Again, quite unlike Ilze Liempa (who normally partners this with Filin).

Neither partnership is necessarily ‘better’ than the other. They are incomparable which, in itself, is interesting.

The final one-act piece presented was Carmen Suite. This is good fun stuff and a well-chosen finale to an otherwise uneven evening. Ruslan Skvortsov, as José, was very good (and more exciting a dancer than other times I have seen him); but the star turn, as it should be, was Galina Stepanenko, in the title role.

Opera: The Tsar’s Bride (16th December)

Wow! What a performance. As a composer, Rimsky-Korsakov is hugely under-rated in the West and part of the reason may be that his operas are not ‘easy’ (it is amazing to think he has 15 to his name and the rarity with which the majority are now performed, a little sad). They are rich, musically dense and – while requiring some concentration – are as emotionally epic as the history they often depict.

Loosely based on a vignette of the life of Ivan the Terrible – and the tragic fate of one of his wives (a pretty long list that; Ivan the Terrible was as much a wife-killer as Henry VIIIth, without the latter’s boyish charm) - it is one of the three great quintessentially-Russian operas (IMHO). The other two in the canon, I would humbly suggest, are Eugene Onegin (not quite my cup of tea, Tchaikovsky opera) and Modest Musorgsky’s Boris Gudunov (which I love).

As is often the case in Russian opera, Act one was a bit of a trial (and a four-act opera, on a Sunday night, does require some effort on the part of the audience), but eventually the performance was a triumph. Some foreign visitors – who had perhaps booked ‘a night at the Bolshoi’ irrespective of what was on – clearly decided they found it all a bit much. Audience-wise, there was quite a disappointing attrition, from the ‘posh seats’ by the end of the evening. This is an opera-lover’s opera.

Highlights (from the scribbles I made in my program):

- Irina Dolzhenko as the tragic Lyubasha – her forlorn arias in Act I (all the more impressive for being a capella) and Act II were incredible and unforgettable.
- Mariya Gavrilova as Marfa – the heroine and female lead – while perhaps a tad too old for this part, her arias in Act II and Act IV were show-stopping
- Leonid Vilensky as the wicked Bomelius (performed con brio and with some charm, as good opera villains should be)
- Act III is one of the most rousing moments in Russian opera you will witness
- Act IV – is that set borrowed from the current production of Boris Gudunov? – stood up well to its show-stealing predecessor; and belonged to Gavrilova.
- Alexander Titov – again conducting – shows he is still master of the Bolshoi’s traditional canon of work.
- Irina Rubtsova – one of my favourite Bolshoi principal soloists, I was disappointed she ‘only’ had the cameo role of Saburova. But her Act III solo was just *wow*.
- Vladimir Redkin, as Gryaznoy, gave a very strong performance in the male lead – especially in Act IV. He also gets a costume change for each act and thus enjoys perhaps some of the most sumptuous costumes male leads at the Bolshoi ever get to wear…even if a little like my (sadly long dead) nanny’s choice in curtain material.

No more Bolshoi now for me until my return to Moscow in mid-January (although I see the finalized repertoire for January is looking tired, as that artistically ‘dead’ month in January, in Moscow at least, often is). Worth seeing again though, I think, the current production of Tosca.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Highlights and lowlights – a week past

Very good moments:

Dinner with a chum I haven’t seen in six years, La Cigale du Recamier, Paris.

I love the food here and, although I am only in Paris about ten nights a year, I feel slightly boring that I insist I dine here for half of them; but this place *is* Paris dining for me. Although I have no writing talent, when I ‘cash out’, I plan to de-funge here and toil at my lite-weight, auto-bio. It is very post-modern, literary… but also comfy and I love the food and the wine list…

Guest: “have you seen la Comtesse [most gorgeously grand, and improbably good, if wildly eccentric, friend] she always asks about you…you used to vacation together… she used to say you would have made a lovely art historian…you know she sold the Rome apartment…to a Fendi sister…you used to go there together a lot, no?”

Me: “…She never got over the shock of Michael Portillo’s ‘coming out’; but her cousin in the Vatican is a friend of one of mine there… yes she did… we did…the downstairs is now the main shop in Rome [of a fashion brand]… we email occasionally – she hates email and says proper letters ‘maketh civilization’ and email cheapens us all – but we are having lunch New Year’s, in Rome, at her new place…”

Guest: “Why do you persist in living in Moscow? Come live in Paris. It would be much better for you… [we both do vaguely the same sort of work…I think mine is more interesting; he thinks it ‘no doubt envelope-pushing, but not quite the thing one should anchor oneself to]”

I think he used the phrase ‘envelope-pushing’ on purpose and not in a totally wholesome way. It is not true, BTW. About ‘envelopes’ and stuff… don't believe everything you read about Russia…

…Dinner started at 9.30 (ended before the Witching Hour though, because I had an 08.00 meeting). It began with vast apologies to Guest and maitre d’ both, as I was 45 minutes late ([in French, from the back of the hotel car]:

“Please send a bottle of Veuve to our table and ask him to order… the driver says I am ETA 20 minutes…so please take his order, and hopefully I’ll in arrive in time. I’ll have the fois gras and the soufflé with mustard sauce – you still do that yes? [they did] And your recommended Gigondas please; but please decant it*…sorry again!)

* our French place is hard by Gigondas, so I know what will be guaranteed He’ll like, so asking for it to be decanted is not pretension, just being practical (wine snobs are bores but inverse-wine snobs are immensely the more dreary, so get over yourselves).

We hadn’t had dinner, or anything other than a quick coffee at Heathrow, for six years. Now married, bred x two…committed to living in France…utterly happy. I envy him. He has matured: in comparison to him I see I haven’t matured. I am still a spoilt little boy. The curse of being an only child.

Guest: “So… have you exorcised all your Caribbean ghosts? We never thought that world was quite you. You should you come back to civilized Europe and all we [he really said this] stand for”

Me: “Actually, Moscow *is * civilized Europe, but I know what you mean… Haiti? Guadeloupe? Forgotten completely… Utterly forgotten.

“But I am not done with Moscow quite yet. I have something and someone there important to me. Things to do…goals… [etc]”.



Meeting some lovely friends at Bar des Amis on Wednesday night in London - I was briefly passing through the UK for a few hours – everyone’s children are growing up so fast. One friend – admittedly after second bottle of Nuit Saint Georges – I told ‘you and [wife] *must* come visit me in Moscow, I’ll be the perfect host and we’ll scoot up to St Pete’s and stay at my favorite hotel in Russia’.


To be chanted, to a piano piece by Philip Glass:

“I hate BAE 146s
I hate BAE 146s
I hate BAE 146s
I hate BAE 146s
BAE 146s hate them,
yes I most certainly do”

For inspiration, herewith a piano piece composed by Philip Glass… swoons

Anyway, BAE 146s! Scariest freakin’ engines noises on the air-borne planet. And I really don’t like ‘yanking and banking’ that low over Southern London – all too reminiscent of:

When you are *that low* over London city tower blocks…it is horrid… did I say the Orly – London City airport by Air France was useful? Poke out my eyes! The noise the tiny-weeny engines make as they rev down for descent. Loathsome.


In London, at my usual (really I suppose pretty regular) hotel, they don’t charge me for any of my bar bill, “you’re family sir, welcome back…is it cold in Moscow?...”

Oh. But the meetings all this travel was for? Apparently my bosses think I did good. The meetings were easy Compared to all the flying: I am going to have to go back on the tranquilizers when I fly this much again…

Thursday, 13 December 2007

A la recherche du temps perdu

Ever since I lived in the DOM and, indeed, rather surprisingly did a thing for a while (on loan from someone, seconded to someone else) in Haiti, I have always had a soft spot for Air France.

In 2002, I crossed the Atlantic 19 times with them. Epically comfortable, at the front of the plane, it was like a monthly+, Michelin-starred lunch-date at 40,000 feet.

There used to be an Air France flight that left Miami – jolly early, 06.55? – and went, like a bus, down les Antilles; first to Port au Prince, in Haiti, before Guadeloupe, Martinique and Cayenne. I wonder if it still does? Miami I used to go to – for R&R – about every 4-6 weeks.

On landing in Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture ‘International’ Airport, for post-9/11 security reasons, everyone had to de-plane, and I will never forget the strutting, sexy (I was younger, thinner), *assuredness* as I ‘turned left’ – entering Haiti – as discount tourists all gawped at me, as they turned right (in transit to a holiday Isle).

True, they and I knew Haiti was relentless and unforgiving chaos. But they were going on, to calmer islands further south, to drink lame cocktails at some sub-Sandals hotel (those most Weybridge of resorts). While I, on the other hand, was doing stuff, meeting my gun-packing, chauffeured Hummer waiting outside the airport. These were literally the best days of my life: I never earned so little, or lived so much.

Today I was passing through Paris Orly Ouest to fly Paris-London City (for a grand total of 16 hours: I fly to Kyiv tomorrow).

Bizarrely, this itty-bitty – but jolly useful – flight uses the same gate-suite as the Air France flights to Cayenne, Fort de France and, the airport for the island that was my base for 2 ½ years, Pointe à Pitre en Guadeloupe.

I have used these gates several times since my Caribbean posting – Air France uses them to fly to Morocco, which I have done several times since living in the FWI – but this afternoon, as I was flying to London (for a 16 hour trip mostly spent at in an investment bank), they were boarding the main daily flight to Guadeloupe.

And I was engulfed in a wave of warm, humid and slightly noxious *nostalgie*.

My colleagues with me, laughed. My English became more obviously Frenchified – i.e. in an accent that, for Francophone English speakers, was more easily understandable. I was engulfed.

Stealing a moment away from my colleagues (including my boss) I called my mother. I set the scene. “You miss it, darling. Of course you do. I miss the winter sun there, but I do not miss, darling – and every day I am grateful – that you decided to come back. I don’t think you were ever cut out for [that life]...”.

Gwada-French has a distinctive accent, the one, now, with which I speak French (as Parisians never fail to remind me) and, hearing it all around me at Orly airport today, was almost unbearable.

I have now the most interesting life I have ever had – the work I do in Moscow is some of the most intellectually and professionally…blah, blah… but when reminded of what I had, and who I shared it with, in Haiti and Guadeloupe… sighs. In Paris today I met worked with someone with whom, wonderfully, I collaborated 10 years ago. They have aged better...

So now I know why Proust was such a preternaturally miserable git. Temps definitely perdue

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Modern life...

My life-planning seems to have crunched a gear. Having spent all weekend working in the office (albeit enlivened by a great evening at the Bolshoi Sunday), the rest of the week is now looking pretty horrendous.

I am about to leave for the airport to Paris (two meetings on arrival, from about 6pm local time, interviewing people for jobs here in Moscow as it happens). Then, on Wednesday, an early morning, lengthy and important meeting before flying from Orly – a much easier airport than CdG – to London City airport, for a crucial (and likely to be very lengthy) meeting there.

My working day will begin about 08.00 Paris and end about 20.00 London (or 23.00, my body will think, as I will be running on Moscow time). NB: yes, I would have preferred to Eurostar – anything to avoid flying – but central Paris, to the City of London, is definitely quicker (in the middle of the day when Eurostar-ers clearly like a long lunch) to fly Air France to City airport. That’s City airport: go to Heathrow and your scheduling will be screwed (and you might have well as crossed the channel by steam ship).

Thursday and I am on the 08.00 BA flight to Kyiv; hopefully landing in time to go give a speech at a conference (I would have cut this, but apparently we’re sponsoring and I can’t get out of it). After the sponsors’ reception, I will head straight to Kyiv station for the overnight train to Moscow. With a fair wind we will have cleared first the Ukrainian and then the Russian border posts by about 01.00 Moscow time and then I can then sleep before the 05.30 wake up and arrival into Moscow shortly thereafter, early on Friday morning. And a full day of meetings.

When I started in my career, and decided I wanted it to be as international as could be, business trips tended to be ‘fly out the night before, dinner (sampling local culture), meeting, local networking lunch, afternoon flight home’. Now it’s five countries in four days and subsisting on airport food. Moreover, in the days before email – I am that old – business trips were rather decorous uninterrupted, thought-provoking affairs. These days, one has still to carve out 6-8 hours a day processing email traffic. It is what you do now, in airport lounges, on planes and, yes, even in the backs of taxis and before grabbing a few hours’ sleep. This is progress apparently.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Medvedev’s posse or Team Putin: which is real?

Commenting on a recent post of mine, Archie asks why I am besotted with the Team Putin concept. Why not the idea of ‘new President, new power elite’? Well today, on the news that 1st Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev (Chairman, also, of Gazprom) is to be Anointed by His Hand, and succeed to the Federal Presidency, it seems a good moment to suggest an answer to that question.

‘Team Putin’ I think explains why VVP is giving up the Presidency, and wanted United Russia so badly to have such a big majority in the new Duma (with him as its Godfather); and someone who has always been pretty obedient - Presidential-nominee Dmitri Medvedev, for instance - as successor President. It is worth recalling that in 2005 Medvedev was trying to force the merger of his Gazprom with Sergei Bogdanchikov's Rosneft. He didn’t get his way and quite meekly accepted Sechin / Bogdanchikov’s thwarting Gazprom’s ‘mega-oil’ ambitions so that Rosneft, and not Gazprom, feasted on the lucrative carrion that was Yukos.

I think it may be time now to go back to that old idea of Gazprom merging with Rosneft - creating the world's most powerful energy company - with VVP as its Chairman. Put Rosneft and Gazprom together and you create a Mega-Oil & gas firm whose reserves are so vast, the mere Big Oil firms (ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell, Total) look puny in comparison. So vast that you’d league table Gazprom-Rosneft like a country…like Saudi Arabia... A business truly worthy of VVP's retirement.

Ironically this will have achieved, through Gazprom and with VVP at its head, *exactly* what Mikhail Khodorkovsky was trying to do, with Yukos wealth. Except this time it will be the nationalization of democracy, consistent with what I mentioned here, rather than the privatization of the constitution as an oligarchs’ plaything.

This would explain recent Rosneft machinations very easily. Not, though, Bogdanchikov being pushed out (as CEO) and Igor Sechin in, as I wrote last week. But Bogdanchikov - whom you will recall personally, fiercely opposed the original deal to merge with Gazprom - sacrificed to allow Sechin in – not as a real CEO – but just to ensure a giant merger deal with Gazprom passes through; a last act on behalf of the boss he has so loyally served, VVP.

Needless to say, these are both publicly traded companies - well, yes I concede the market's reaction will be interesting - but damn if that wouldn't make Rosneft stock look a steal right now...

Moscow ballet: round-up from the last month

Sunday night I was lucky enough to see Nadezhda Gracheva dance the title role in Giselle: as it turned out very lucky indeed. Giselle is one of the things for which the Bolshoi is most famous. Nadezhda Gracheva is my age (she is 38!!) and she is a goddess. Technical perfection and so emotionally acute, as to twist and yet simultaneously make your heart soar. She made me cry twice. And I don’t give a shit if anyone reading this thinks that makes me a mincing girl-boy. Needless to say, there are just a handful of nights at the Bolshoi in Moscow, the city that raises ballet to the apogee of human artistic achievement like no other, which you never want to miss. Tonight was one of those nights. I stayed for all five encores.

In the face of such genius, don’t overlook equally veteran principal soloist Andrey Uvarov: at that age [Gracheva’s partner obviously can’t be too young] to leap so high; to be so strong and so elegant is literally heroic.

Hats off, also, to Vyacheslav Lopatin: so often a ‘character actor’ in the Bolshoi cast, tonight I think he was like a new man – in the ‘peasant pas de deux’ – and the ‘home crowd’ (us regulars) knew it and we made the rafters of the Bolshoi New Stage rock, in our congratulations to him!

If only for the Bolshoi Facebook group, I wanted to trot through some other opera and ballet highlights recently. And celebrate one of the real privileges of living in Moscow: the world-beating liberal, musical arts on daily offer here.

I mentioned here that I had seen the Bolshoi’s newish Le Corsaire (about which arts Moscow was very excited, but the night I saw it I was exhausted and consequently under-whelmed, I must see it again) and the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Carmen, which was a total triumph.

I had been planning, with fidelity, to review the things I have seen in Moscow opera and ballet, but – boring of me I know –my job has been sucking the life out of me recently …er….I have been busy, and I have struggled to blog regularly.

At huge expense, I had front-row seats for ‘Kings of the Dance’ at the Bolshoi on 28th October. At its best, ballet is an ensemble experience so - as recorded by critics in the USA – I was initially uncomfortable with the idea of four male soloists showing off for the evening.

It is my practice to scribble notes on the program – my opera glasses have a discreet night-light – of performances I see. The ones I scribbled of act one were…um…quite vituperative.

Kings of the Dance is an American construction clearly devised for the YouTube generation and for audiences who like regular doses of television to lighten otherwise ‘difficult’ evenings of pure performance. It starts with a ‘home video’, on a huge screen, of the four performers. It is twenty minutes long. Forgive me but (a) I do not go to the ballet/opera and wish I had been to the cinema and (b) it has to be said that just as actors are often foolish talking about ‘their art’ (and are better viewed actually acting), nothing is so certain as to turn one off ballet than to sit and watch a movie of dancers say how inspired they are and how wonderful it all is. Terribly insipid and, alas, vapid. And outrageous. After a twenty minute video, there were only 18 minutes of live dance before the interval – remember some people had paid $300 for their tickets. Audience-reaction-wise the performers were in no doubt ‘it was not going well’.

The Russian (home-grown) of these ‘Four Tenors’ of dance was Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and either reader of this blog might recall I am not a fan of his campy prancing. I wish he had retired two years ago.

But tonight – and I have never seen this happen at the Bolshoi – he stumbled and fell. Muscovites love Tsiskaridze and the groan of despair was huge and heartfelt. I have no wish to rub his nose in it and can therefore happily say that the way he picked himself up and, at the end, defied anyone to give him less than a standing ovation, as he strutted off the stage – like a Roman Emperor - was, in truth, an extraordinary, memorable moment. The guy is a star, even if I am not a fan, it must be admitted. And stars have balls and enormous self-belief. So I owe him my salute, if only for that one moment.

This being Moscow, this US show had to have a greater than usual Russian content – because, naturally, one cannot have Moscow audiences believe that Russia is anything other than the Alpha and Omega of ballet. And I thank the producers for it. We were treated to the always cheeky Sergey Filin and the moody-but-brilliant, Ilze Liepa, perform ‘the Lesson”. Hitchcockian menace combined with genuine comedy, this piece (choreographed by Flemming Flindt, music by Georges Delerue) is just genius. And terribly funny, in a dark sort of way.

The four Kings danced together in a Christopher Wheeldon piece, ‘For Four’. Hmm…Americans and Brits think he is the Damien Hurst of ballet. I must have lost the plot because actually I think his work artistically suburban, in a wannabe-GQ way.

In the US première of this confection, the star turn had been Ethan Stiefel dancing Fosse’s ‘Percussion IV’. Evidently, Russians and Brits are culturally united because we both thought this 90210 of dance rather silly (but in the US, rather over-excited ballet critics call him ‘Apollo’). Yes he is pretty, but real ballet-lovers really aren’t interested in that sort of thing; no matter what tabloid caricature might have you believe.

One stand-out moment of amazing brilliance though: Johan Kobborg – from Denmark (and I keep reminding myself I must go to Copenhagen to see the Royal Ballet there) – did an amazing piece, The Faun (choreographed by Tim Rushton, music by Debussy). In my scribbled program notes it says: “…best solo ever seen…mesmerizing…technically brilliant…raunch” (LOL).

Spain’s Angel Corella was also featured. But I struggle to understand why.

As part of its ‘Dance Inversion’ ballet festival, the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko hosted the Portuguese National Ballet’s ‘Pedro & Ines’ (I saw the 18th November performance). This famous – if you are Portuguese – medieval tale is part Romeo and Juliet and part Eloise & Abelard.

This was quite unlike anything we ever see in Moscow. It was a small, dark jewel of a work: like a nineteenth century necklace made of jet. Both darkly glamorous and also deeply mournful, it was intelligent, challenging and very worthwhile to witness. And surprising. It is not often that one gets to see the romantic leads, literally, dance in a pool of water (the splashing was beautifully lit), nor have I ever seen necrophilia ever so movingly portrayed. It was dramatically dark and was a perfect Russkie-Iberico mix (choreographed by Olga Poritz).

16th November, I was at the Bolshoi again for the Shostakovich ballet, ‘The Bright Stream’. The orchestra was on top-form (courtesy I think of conductor, Pavel Sorokin, who I think is a real maestro). My program notes highlighted Andrey Merkuriev (I am a fan), Ruslan Skvortsov – no great actor, but well-suited for this part – and Yekaterina Shipulina. The comedic role danced by Irina Zibrova was also a highlight. But I think the best performance was Kseniya Pchelkina – incidentally an unusual Russian surname – as Galya, the schoolgirl. Bright stream is that wonderful, if very rare, night at the theatre: a comedy by Shostakovich.

19th November and for the 3rd time this season I saw the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko’s ‘Chaika’. I l.o.v.e. this ballet. There was a slightly worrying opening when the otherwise excellent (and convincingly impetuous) Kostya (danced by Dmitriy Khamzin) handled Veleria Mukhanova (dancing the role of Nina) rather like a leg of lamb in Smithfield market. Opening nerves, I think, and he later truly excelled…he is a hugely talented young dancer and each performance I see of him is better and better: definitely a long-term talent to watch.

If is fashionable to direct Chaika (the Seagull) in a slightly Oedipal context these days, at least in the theatre. This ballet is no exception. Tatiana Chernobrovkina, as Irina, Kostya's mother, milked every cent out of that idea. And hers was a delicious performance. As I have said before, this is one of the most invigorating ballet productions I have ever seen and I just love how fresh and vital it is.

2nd December and, back at the Bolshoi, I enjoy another viewing of ‘Night of American Ballet’. I always try to go whenever ‘In the Upper Room’ is on (the Bolshoi has performed this one act piece eight times (?) and I have seen four of them).

Technically, this collection of three one act ballets is a is a ‘celebratory evening of 200 years of US-Russian diplomatic relations’ and a celebration of ‘American ballet’ (sic). Yeah right. The program is incredibly political and a huge bitch-slap towards American ‘Kulture’; but done in a hugely subtle (and therefore pas trop Sovietique way). The inner-truth, da vinci code-like (LOL), is in the program notes (along the lines of “there may be lots of ballet in America, but it is a land devoid of soul, culture and all the ballet there is stolen”).

Act one. Serenade. Music by Tchaikovsky, choreographed (1934?) by the Frenchman, Georges Balanchine. Um… this is a celebration of American ballet? Terribly dull, BTW, I am so over Balachine.

Then we saw the hugely mournful ‘Misericodes’ (choreography by [Englishman] Christopher Wheeldon, music by Arvo Pärt; an Estonian! Wonderful music actually, although a shockingly poor trombone soloist in the orchestra hid the fact well). Now, among serious ballet lovers, the jury is definitely out as to whether Christopher Wheeldon is a genius or an arse. Me? I am still deciding.

But the Bolshoi ballet notes leave no room for doubt in their propaganda: “…like the royal court for the long-awaited miraculous birth of [a] Princess…[t]hey rocked this ‘Wheeldon’ in its cradle, they [the American ballet establishment] played with it, gave it toys and were certain it was a genius though the infant has not yet managed to create anything brilliant. They loved it, they forgave it, they laid their hopes on it. This became the élan vitale of the trade union of American ballet critics…This story is therefore more interesting as the trade union of US ballet critics is made up of mostly ladies and young women with problems in their private lives [read: lesbians]”. Hysterical! [extract from the official program essay by Pavel Gershenzon].

“They preach feminism and Marxism,” like, it sniffs, they have nay the real idea, “they hate children and independent men”. You couldn’t make this shit up!! You have to admire the sheer brass balls of post-Soviet, Putinista Russia. Because here, as ‘twas ever thus, art is politics, is culture is war by another means).

The evening ended with Twyla Tharp’s, ‘In the Upper Room’. I cannot describe how much I love this work; his music, the young Bolshoi soloists’ performance. For the duration it is just me and them on stage, tunnel-vision-like, and I am conscious of nothing else. Fantastic!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Four YouTube videos watched today

I think this is the best issues-spot ever done by (a) any oil firm and (b) one of the best corporate issues-spot e.v.e.r. (I kind of love it and everything Chevron is doing on

That made me laugh a lot today (I found it at SixtySecondView, the best PR blog in Europe). What follows is the antidote:

And, finally, an extraordinary comment piece from MSNBC. I don't think you would see something like that ever on Russian TV...

Team Putin - and butterflies broken upon wheels...

For some time we’ve been advising clients that “it doesn’t matter who becomes the next President”; nor, indeed, whether “VVP decides to become Prime Minister after his term ends” (personally, I still would wager not). Why have we been so cavalier? Well, for some time we’ve been talking in terms of ‘Team Putin’. And Team Putin is now firmly entrenched everywhere you would need. Result? Political and economic stability, no macro policy changes, business-power elites left intact (no more Yukos-type oligarch collapses)...blah, blah...

That’s what we’ve been saying.

I wonder whether the issue isn’t more complicated now?

Elitny Russia has been watching, if not with slackened jaw, then certainly with a discreet sparkle-in-the-eye and mild acid-reflux, two apparently connected issues. The Oleg Shvartsman debacle and the apparent crashing and burning of the President of Rosneft.

Until a week or so ago, it is doubtful if even his mother gave much thought to the business dealings of Oleg Shvartsman. But then he gave an interview to Kommersant (link to ENG version) and, boy!, did that change.

The interview seemingly lifted the lid off of a whole scam by Kremlin-insiders, Putinisti-to-the-bone to be sure, but ones likely to be losing political power after VVP’s term ends May 1st next year (the election, as was recently confirmed, will be 2nd March).

What was remarkable about the Kommersant interview was how brazen was the thinking behind the ‘velvet re-privatization’. Some excerpts follow:

“It is very impressive for a little-known company. So, do you own or manage it all?”

“Both. Yet, it is much intertwined: we are closely affiliated with some political figures, and we manage their assets. We are related both to the presidential administration and to its power bloc...

“The true ownership structure is not disclosed, isn’t it?”

“There are various off-shores, in Cyprus and other countries...There are individuals among them, all relatives, from FSB or SVR.”

“What are other political connections involved?”

“...our colleagues from FSB decided there should appear an organization which would bend, bow, torture, and impose social responsibility on all sorts of Khodorkovskys…”

“A kind of ‘collective wringer’?”

“Right. It has all power ministries among its trustees: the Defense Ministry, the Emergency Situations Ministry, and the Interior Ministry. However, executives and directors changed because there were conflicts and feud. For instance, someone would press down a major businessman. He would make a phone call or two, and everyone would say: “Stop, wait”. So, it became clear the instrument isn’t working, because every tycoon has relations with the same power agencies. Consequently, the concept was altered; no one wanted to argue, and we were asked to find a new function for the organization.”

“What is the direction in which you plan to develop?”

“We now develop a structure which is to transform into a state corporation soon. It will be called Social Investments. It is based on the ‘velvet re-privatization’ concept which we developed together with the Russian State Service Academy and the National Economy Academy....

“What does it look like?”

Like a vacuum cleaner, that gathers the assets for a structure which later becomes a state corporation...

“So, you have actually received a sort of authorization for carrying out corporate raids with using the power factor?”

“These are not raids. We do not take enterprises away. We minimize their market value by means of various instruments [like the tax police, the environmental regulator, the consumer regulator...oh yes, like in Lukoil, Total, Shell, TNK-BP etc: Exile]. As a rule, these are voluntary-coercive methods. There is the market value, the mechanism to block its growth, and, certainly, various administrative levers. However, people usually figure out where we come from…

“Are these people satisfied… or do they object?”

“No, why should they. We all live without bodyguards. In fact, everyone understands that it is our state task, that we’ve been commissioned with doing it. Unless we do it, others will come, and they will be carrying out the function of consolidating assets in the state’s hands just like we are doing it now, because it is the current state policy.”

Yes, I of course know that is the state's policy, but it isn't nice to have it rubbed in our faces so. People who know me have, on occasion, accused me of being chorus boy and cheerleader for the Russian govenrment. Well, after reading that interview, let's just say that, for a day or so, I was pretty mute.

The interview went around the Russian blogosphere in same morning and the power-elites have been discussing little else ever since. Kommersant is even threatening to sue the hapless Shvartsman for his desperate fight-back that he was radically misquoted.

At the same time, in the second case, we have the allegedly imminent ousting of Rosneft President Sergei Bogdanchikov. Apparently, the rumour goes, Rosneft Chairman, Putin confidante and old KGB insider, Igor Sechin wants Bogdanchikov’s job. Personally that sounds to me like asking J Edgar Hoover to be CEO of ExxonMobil…nah; he wore a dress and was not so scary…but it is more like asking Robespierre to be CEO of Total.

Rosneft has had a disappointing share price run recently and hasn’t benefited from the epic oil prices of recent months (the graph shows Rosneft’s share price - rebased to 100 from its IPO - and relative to the main global oil & gas index). Russian oil stocks have lost out – because the higher the oil price – the bigger the slice the state takes. On one level, that is sensible (because oil price is not controlled by management, so why reward management for something they didn’t achieve themselves). On the other hand, right now, the lower returns on Russian oil companies means that – globally – the Russian oil sector is, bizarrely, less attractive a place to invest that fiscal regimes with a standard flat hydrocarbon extraction tax.

I am not sure that these maneuverings aren’t really just the sign that some key political figures, having loyally served VVP, are now looking to monetarize their government connections and experience. Like Prime Minister Blair’s book deal. Of course, this being Russia, the numbers are bigger, and the connection between business and politics….well, it is not so pretty.

It does, though, beg the question. With this ‘velvet re-privatization’ in place, what is to stop the entourage around the next President from shifting the industrial wealth of Russia into their hands?

If they do that, just how tough with the Team Putin crew be then?

And how reliable the current power elties?

PS: word reaches me that two of the suggested Presidential successors, 1st Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov are both appalled by what Sechin & Co are doing and may actually be keeping a rather chilly distance from VVP. Incredible if true. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that, like financial markets, history does not move in a straight direction.

Sunday, 2 December 2007 fever... really?

It is quite hard to drum up too much enthusiasm for an election which is a foregone result. Through the western media - not the Russian media, natch - I have been reading about the state employees forced to get absentee-ballot papers and fill them out in front of their State bosses (sounds like New Labour in the Midlands if you ask me, but...) and other expected shenanigans.

I tried to encourge my colleagues with some election excitement (I am sure, inwardly, they were all going yay!). Inter alia, I emailed all my Russian staff:

"Do enjoy your right to cast your vote this weekend. Who you vote for, of course, is none of my business, but do vote. “History is made by those who show up” etc…

"I won't tell you how to vote – I remember, one time at Cambridge, when the University Catholic Priest said to us after Mass one Sunday before an Election: “Boys, I won’t tell you how to vote next week…but do remember that Our Lady wears a blue mantle”.

"Oh, but, by the way, there is no greater symbol of Russian patriotism than a lovely Russian bear"

Of course, Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia, VVP's party) is going to storm it by a landslide; and in some of the... oh... 95,000 polling stations or thereabouts things may not be as the OSCE would dream of in a perfect world. But here are some personal observations.

If the neo-facists of the LDPR well, that will be the people's choice and not VVP's machinations. Mad bad Zhirinovsky is long-past his sell-by date. If the Communists get in, ditto. Actually, the demographic analysis of 'shares our values' polling I was fascinated to be shown confidentially was eye-opening in terms of 'reversion to cultural mean average' which is going on here.

The CP seems to be doing better than it has done for years and has elements of solid support amongst over 50s and under 25s. The latter is fascinating and, unlike most other democracies I know well, there is a real linkage of values and political ideas between these groups, not shared by the over 25s to under 55s: they think unfettered capitalism has been bad for Russia (I guess that means me folks) and want more state intervention in the economy and better pensions for their grandparents. Many of these under 25s were brought up largely by their grandmothers (remember average male life expectancy is about 58 years here) while the parents worked the 18 hours a day to scrimp together the food and clothing for subsistence living. These under 25s are fiercely loyal to their olds in a way we just don't see in the west; and were brought up on stories of fatherland and how under the USSR there was order and justice. Go figure...

Many of these under 25s are Putinistas to their core; and the generation VVP is banking on to fulfill his plans to transform Russia. But this generation also don't want conscription and want their iPod...and an iPhone... Now please.

Certainly, if the free-market liberals (the SPS) get seats - this is unlikely - then definitely the election will have been less rigged than the western media claim.

Either way, I still think this is all part of Step-1-2-3 that VVP has in mind for Russia. Step 1, a State Duma dominated by United Russia (think US Republican party, without the religious nuts and the whole let's-war-in-Iraq brigade); Step-2, someone of the same cloth elected President March 2nd 2008; Step-3 - and VVP doesn't need to become Prime Minister to achieve this because enough Team Putin-types are already in all the key posts - ensure transfer of real power from Presidency to Duma. Voilà, sustainable Parliamentary democracy and a structural check/balance on another Stalin ever assuming the Tsar's throne in the Kremlin. Easy huh?

This is managed democracy and, on a 20-30 year view sets up a democratizing path for Russia which no-one can really complain about. The 'I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-right-now' democrats need to get real. Overnight, unfettered democracy in Russia would lead to mayhem and quite possibly the violent breakdown of the Federation. VVP's way may not be pretty, or speedy, but for the next generation of Russians, it might get the job done.

And if you think Russian democracy without Putin is clear, logical and OSCE friendly, see this YouTube piece from the SPS (those nice, western-style, free-market liberals, remember them?). It is in Russian, but you don't need to speak a word to get what they're saying about Putin. That he actually is satan...

Friday, 9 November 2007

"Glory to the employees of the security organs of the Russian Federation!"

Tomorrow, November 10th, is the annual Militia Day in Moscow. One year, I recall, this involved the partial closure of the Garden Ring for the 'Militia Marathon', where State TV broadcast how fighting-fit the Moscow Militia is. hmm...

Who knows what fun this year will bring?

Just remember, on this day of the year it is polite to smile and say 'thank you' and 'sir' if they try to extract any bribe from you for a perceived sleight. Tomorrow is their day, so be generous!

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Help (or an AK47) is just a phone-call away

One of the 'perks' of my job - but one you sort of hope you will never have to use -is access to the CIS protection service from MIG Security service. The idea is that you have them on short-dial on your phone, your 'crash' code pre-programed.

I have only used them...ahem...once or twice in three years. And today was, amusingly, the first time in ages. From Office #1 in Paveletskaya to my home near Patriasrshy Prudy is usually about 30 minutes by car (but only 15 minutes in the opposite direction, which is odd). Today I was taking a taxi, which journey usually begins with the usual hand-wringing about the Moscow traffic (yawn!).

But 45 minutes later, as we approached the MKAD - hello? - visions of being whisked off and ransomed swam before my eyes....well I am severely sleep-deprived at the moment, having been pushing myself crazily and just returned from a whistle-stop trip to Astana.

So I dialled my crash code. It's an impressive in-your-own-language service and, as I prepared to hand the phone over to the driver - "you are to explain exactly where you are driving right now and why; and If they are not happy, they will track us down and get us" (I never how how they do this, but apparently the nearest Militia car can come to the rescue).

I then remembered a friend of mine who has used this service once 'in anger', so-to-speak. Even in jam-packed Moscow, they sent two bullet-proofed cars, with AK47-wielding guys, to effect 'fast extraction'. Apparently it is a great way to impress the ladies.

This trip didn't come to that. But I certainly felt reassured; not least when I saw the driver look at me wearily and with some more respect after the call. He didn't dare over-charge me!

Afterwards I bought a new mink hat, in quiet, small celebration...well, it is getting way cold here right now.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

A new Season underway...

I don't know why the sudden blogging hiatus - people go through phases I suppose - although this summer (for the first time since I started following blogs) the whole English-language blogosphere seems to have gone through some sort of collective sigh of ennui...

...part of the resason for which may be the rise of Facebook. I have become a Facebook whore. It's incredibly addictive and just crystallizes how brilliant social networking can be. It has put me back in touch with school friends whom I would never usually drop an email to, randomly, but the fact I read their Facebook updates, and they mine, sparks a dialogue which otherwise would be lost. I think it genuinely adds the humanity back to the Internet (and, perhaps, in contrast, can make blogging look rather sterile). Facebook-is-conversation:-blogging-is-rhetoric kind of thing.

Anyway, as winter hits Moscow - grump - I will start blogging again. A random email conversation (the opera/ballet season is only just a week old):

Red Exile replying to a friend on Facebook:

Hi there. Yes the little angels getting me down yesterday. Jean Jacques [very French bistro on Nikitsky Boulevard, rapidly becoming expat heaven in the heart of Moscow] I haven't been to yet, but my colleague swears by it. I might check it out tonight! Friday's Bolshoi was the new production of Corsaire - so-so I thought - more a parade of fiddly dance show-offy bits than a richly compelling narrative, and the music left me unmoved; but I was so tired from only having 2-3 hours the night before (overnight train to Moscow from Kyiv) that I wasn't on my best.

I have tickets for Norma at the Novaya Opera tonight, but not sure I am in the mood for Bellini.

Hot things in opera and ballet this season? Well, actually I think this side of Christmas the Bolshoi is looking rather tame (apart from the 'Kings of the Dance'; a four night spectacular, which is sold out but scalpers are now selling tickets for about $300 each, but fortunately I bought mine ages ago); so I have temporarily transferred my affections to the Stanislavski-Nemirovich-Danchenko (theatre on Dmitrovka Pereulok).

I think their new ballet, 'Chaika' (based on Chekov's seagull) is very fresh and has some interesting music, including Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie! [she has a great website! and an amazing life story] The production has a fine young cast and is another Moscow work for Hamburg ballet's John Neumeier, who did the Bolshoi's production of Midsummer Night's Dream and whose style of melding traditional with avant-garde, both musically and in terms of dance I think very intelligent and emotionally charged. Below is a YouTube piece from Kyltura TV on Chaika - it's in Russian, but you'll get a flavour of what this production is like:

Last week there, on the opera side, I just loved their Carmen: the tenor singing Don José, Mikhail Vekya, is just INCREDIBLE. He doesn't look how you imagine Don Jose to look, but the sound is extraordinary and he literally stole the show (there is a mirco-bio in Russian only here).

His final scene raised the hairs on the back of my neck and reminded me of another great Don José performance: check out José Carreras , from 1987 in New York, here.

The S-N-D is also organising 'Dance Inversion: international ballet festival' in November and I am going every night for about a week :) LOL

That's it for now from your Moscow arts correspondent!

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

"Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage"

As I was editing, with one of my analysts, a presentation deck we're giving tomorrow, he laughed and said I reminded him of Rowan Atkinson...strangely, he still has a job here...

...apparently he was referring to this, that he had found on YouTube:

I gather he was referring to my urging him to "give it [the presentation] some more sex and sizzle".

Monday, 30 July 2007

Random email conversation today

From: [Red Exile]
Sent: 30 July 2007 08:22
To: [UK political mate #2]
Subject: Good grief...

Kitty Usher is a UK Government minister?!?!? She’s a sweetie but, really, is that the best New Labour can do now (is this the same mousey little girl who was a member of the ‘Floral Street gang’* in 1998 and who then hung out at Britain in Europe?) Gosh.

FT flash extract
‘Hassle of Heathrow’ takes toll on City
By Christopher Adams, Political Correspondent
Published: July 29 2007 22:03 Last updated: July 29 2007 22:03
London’s status as one of the world’s leading financial centres risks being undermined by excessive delays at Heathrow and the airport’s sprawling layout, the new City minister warns on Monday.
In her first interview in the role, Kitty Ussher has told the Financial Times that the government shares business concerns about queues at passport control, the effect of security measures and the airport’s set-up...

[The Floral Street gang, by the way, was a group of about 10 of us that met in an apartment in the London street of the same name. Lobbyists, a civil servant or two, a BBC political journalist, the poltical editor of a major national newspaper and some senior Tories from the City of London, we started a grouping that became the later somewhat doomed 'Britain in Europe'. This - oh burn out my eyes - planned to be...the 'yes' campaign for the UK to join the Euro...

...I will remember the night well because I arrived late having been at a Labour party fundraising drinks party at the swish home of a UK celebrity and where Cherie Blair was guest of honour (she and I discussed the nude portrait of our host...Somewhat socially odd. Halcyon days...]

From: [UK political mate #2]
Sent: Monday, July 30, 2007 1:15 PM
To: [Red Exile]
Subject: RE: Good grief...

The very same. She was Pat Hewitt's Special Adviser for a while 2001 - 2005ish, then became MP for Burnley in 05; became Hewitt's PPS, and now the heady heights of the Treasury. I think she is actually quite bright, and hopefully none of Hewitt's character will have rubbed off on her.

From: [Red Exile]
Sent: Monday, July 30, 2007 1:17 PM
To: [UK political mate #2]
Subject: RE: Good grief...

But she is ‘here kitty, kitty…’ sweet.

The City will at best ignore her; at worst eat her alive.

Poor wee thing.

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Cargo plane crash kills seven at Moscow airport

"The plane, which belonged to the cargo airline Atran, was built in 1964..."

It was 43 years old.

Full report here and here.

End of the 2006/2007 Bolshoi Season

Last week, having scored a front row seat from my usual dealer, I watched the fantastic end to the 2006/2007 Bolshoi season: the gala concert "all the stars of the Bolshoi ballet". It was an incredible show and a very high note on which to end a great more Bolshoi Ballet now until October (!) - but they will be on tour in London and, I think, Berlin.

An orgy of YouTube discoveries follows [although, in truth, I am...ahem...unable to make any claims as that the permission of the copyright holders was always obtained, by the people who made these vids...oh well].

In the First Half, Maria Allash wowed us with her Aegina from Spartacus; while the prima ballerina goddess that is Svetlana Zakharova gave us her extraordinary solo piece, 'Revelation'

[taken from Russian TV, I think, sound quality not terribly good]

[choreography by Mitoso Hiroyama; to music by John Williams]

In the Second Half we were treated to a performance of Middle Duet, a fantastic piece choreographed by Bolshoi Artistic Director, Alexei Ratmansky (who I think is really coming into his own now and nudging the Bolshoi to do some really edgy, raw and wonderful pieces):

[piece taken from Kultura TV]

This is an extraordinarily beautiful piece I think (music by Yuri Khanon). The duet is between the sublime Natalia Osipova and Andrei Merkuriev; who is, IMHO, featured as a soloist not nearly enough by the Bolshoi. You can see almost the full Middle Duet here (performed in this version I think in Seoul, by St Petersburg's Mariinsky Ballet). BTW, the staging is supposed to start very dark, very dimly through the shadows...

That gay old trouper, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and the dramatic Ilze Liepa, gave us their La Dame de Pique which I am coming to like (nothing on YouTube yet, sorry), although I find Tsiskaridze a little too hammy a performer for my taste...

The finale was Zhakharova and Denis Matvienko, and the full company, performing the Grand Pas from Don Quixote:

[an illicit recording of a 2006 performance by Matvienko]

But since I am show-casing ballet on YouTube, I offer these two discoveries.

The first is a piece that captures Carlos Acosta, whom I mentioned recently, as he performed the lead role in Spartacus:

As well as a fantastic segment of Twlya Tharp's In the Upper Room (music by Philip Glass), which I watched again on 14th July, with I think the best cast rotation for this piece (including Denis Savin, Alexander Smoliyaninov, Natalia Osipova and Andrei Merkuriev):

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Flatlining: the near-term outlook for Russo-British relations

I am really surprised – and a little disappointed that I have not posted in over three weeks – it has been quite a time. We go through these…phases…of being hugely overworked; then I get tired…and then ill. I have had a cold-fluey thing for over a week.

The Litvinenko saga has now, of course, segued into the Lugovoi saga and over the last week I was surprised to find myself in demand as a pundit for the BBC; commenting on the state of Russo-British relations. This had come about after I wrote a piece for one of the Moscow papers profiling Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, which appeared just as it became clear the UK government was about to deliver its response to Russia’s refusal to extradite Andrey Lugovoi.

So, over the last few days I have been on BBC TV 2’s ‘Daily Politics’ and BBC Radio 5’s “Wake up to Money”; interviewed twice by Rupert Wingfield-Hayes – very nice bloke – for BBC Radio’s ‘World Tonight’ and BBC TV 1’s ‘Six o’clock news’; as well as a live – and feisty appearance – on BBC World TV; just after the Russian foreign ministry bounced back their response to Britain’s response, as-it-were. [although a London friend sniffed: "well you've not done 'Newsnight' dear, so I should tone down the puppy-dog enthusiasm until you make it there...]

The BBC World presenter was, I could tell – remotely from the Moscow bureau where I could hear him but not, of course, see him – angry that I wasn’t towing the British line. Quite the contrary, I said, Russia’s behavior was “very restrained in the face of Britain’s provocation…and this restraint shows that President Putin’s Russia is committed to international partnership…but Britain must treat Russia with respect…”. Even I was slightly surprised I kept a straight face while saying this, it just tumbled out, albeit entirely on-message with the line I wanted to take.

These are the first times I have done TV or radio about Russia; but at another time in my career I did a lot of TV and radio. I reckon around 100 interviews by now, mostly live: I prefer live to pre-recorded, just because – and this is purely luck rather than skill – I can normally deliver answer the question and then pivot—to-message before most interviewers have thought what they want the next question to be…that extra 5 seconds+ or so they end up giving me, making all the difference. I love live broadcast (and secretly have a hankering to do more of it).

My mother – who only has a patchy grasp on current affairs at the best of times – telephoned me from rural France where she spends half the year, her husband having watched BBC World: “darling, I saw you on television. You’ve lost weight! Well done dear…”

So now each side has satisfied Sovereign honour, it that now it? Are we all back to normal in Russo-British relations? No. I think not. A hint of this was to be found in a report filed Friday on the RIA Novosti newswire, with comments from the president of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Shokhin.

“Shokhin warned that British companies in Russia may now face difficulties with tax authorities and regulators, and that inspections may become more frequent. "Perhaps, under broadly equal conditions, some companies may fail to win tenders," he said.

“He said that U.K.'s decision to refuse entry visas to Russian officials could be easily applied to the executives of Russia's state-owned enterprises.”

A very sage observation, I would say. In contrast the Brits seem to believe that theirs is an inalienable right that all Russian IPOs, for instance, will go to London. Most of these British politicos are so arrogant and so out-of-touch. And the present government pretty clueless; not helped by the fact that the Russian Desk at the Foreign Office, IMHO, is still intellectually wedded in a 1990s-Atlantacist view of what Russia is, will become and how it should be treated.

In today’s UK media, the Sunday Times has it that, actually, the Brits believe the Litvinenko murder was the FSB. Balls.

- Lugovoi is not the person the FSB would use for this (still less the SVR), but he is the person you would hire for a rogue attack if you weren’t a state entity
- His past in the KGB 9th (Directorate; handles nuclear facility security and VIP protection) means he knows just who exactly to go to both to acquire the material and how to handle it so as not to kill himself
- A multi-million op is no problem for any of the super-rich to fund
There was no reason for the Russian state to kill Litvinenko (his allegations were old and tired and no longer passing the ‘so what’ test), but…
- …increasingly impoverished Litvinenko was rumoured to be for hire to peddle Kompromat on Russia’s new plutocracy. A fairly fatal error in anyone’s book.
- This was an oligarch-ordered killing. 50% likely to be one close to the Siloviki (which is a tad embarrassing for VVP and all) or 50% likely to be one of the diaspora, wanting a ‘false flag’ with which to condemn VVP in the eyes of the world: it was never a Government black op.

I watched – miracle of the Net – the British Foreign Secretary’s statement on Russia streamed live on the Internet. In amongst the toadies, in the subsequent Parliamentary Q&A there was some very good stuff. Sir Malcolm Rifkind – himself a Foreign Secretary – talked about using a Lockerbie trial-type solution. This is something I have written about elsewhere: judicious use of third countries for spying/terrorism trials. Prime Minister Brown disses this idea – “This was a serious crime in Britain…the murder of a British citizen…Britain is the only place for a trial” – one hears the Ministry of Justice doesn’t like a precedent being set that suggests extra-jurisdictional trials are acceptable. Hmm…Do the British actually want a trial or not? They're not being very imaginative about getting one.

In secret bilateral talks, I have cautious optimism that the Russians could agree to an English-law trial taking place in Russia. The British prebuttal of this – our law wouldn’t allow this* - seemed to me extraordinary. How can the UK expect Russia to change its constitution to accommodate London, when not itself prepared to amend its own Administrative law.

* The situation was different for the Lockerbie trial, because that was taking place under the the separate system of law that Scotland enjoys.

In the last few days, I have had some interesting feedback. The expat community in Moscow thinks the British have engaged into a course of action that, while never seriously likely to bring forward a trial (almost as if they don’t really want one), does make the new Prime Minister and his government look ‘tough and strong’ to the British people.

Some Russian contacts, however, say that the eventual, highly moderate response of the Russians only just came about. In truth there was a lot of anger in the Kremlin and several blocks sought a much, much tougher and asymmetric response. One of those most angry, indeed, was VVP himself (he has a very thin skin, actually, people forget and is quick to take offense). Foreign Minister Lavrov and also, I heard, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin made a sustained and successful argument persuading more moderation by way of response.

A quick catch-up on the last three weeks

29th June – last flight?

By now you must have figured I have become very scared of flying. This is despite the fact that I estimate that I have easily done over 300 international flights since moving to Moscow in Spring 2004 and; in my lifetime? Easily over 1,000 (I was an ex-pat brat).

Anyway, something snapped when I took the afternoon AeroSvit from Kyiv to Moscow. We landed in the immediate prelude to a huge thunder storm. On landing the plane was wildly erratic and at less than 50 metres I would judge the engines roared and we did a go around. Having landed on the second attempt, and exiting the plane there was this huge downward gust of pressure – wind shear: the invisible plane killer.

Wind shear scares me silly out here: CIS airports almost never have, I’m told, wind shear radar on the ground and these twenty-five year old Boeings and the Soviet planes don’t have on-board wind shear detectors.

So, suddenly, dust and rubbish shot up into the end before a squal of blackness crossed across the runway. As we bussed into Terminal 1c you couldn't actually see terminal 2 – just straight across the runway – because visibility sank to nothing as a huge storm crack overhead and the heavens opened…

…and I have not been on a plane since. A whole month without flight (when I normally do three flights a week). I have to do something about this, because soon my bosses will notice…I recently asked my Chief of Staff to look into taking the Moscow-Budapest-Moscow train for a Board conference in September: madness! But might be kind of fun…there’s something sexy and glamorous about Eastern European train travel (well not if you’re not in first class, granted), which air travel these days can’t match (except on those long, epicurean and pampering transcontinental flights to the Middle East).

I have done three trips to Kyiv. Each by train. Train #1 out of Moscow (dep 23.20, arr. 08.30) and Train #2 out of Kyiv on the way back (dep. 20.17, arr. 06.39). I always book a twin-person carriage for myself and usually now take a small night-time picnic,

Customs and immigration out of Russia, in Souzemka, and Khoutir-Mikhailivskiy in Ukraine are a pain (the towns are 20 minutes apart and the Russian side is very slow, but at least they come on board to your carriage). They wake you up at around 1.00am back into Russia, but I get back to sleep afterwards; on the way in, the wake up is 4.00am (finishing around 5.00am) and so I watch dawn in Ukraine, not bothering to go back to sleep.

The Ukrainian side also now have PDAs (which is why they are faster than the Russians) so are able to do onboard registration on my entry (whereas the Russians have to alight from the train and call in my visa details for clearance).

6th July – weird things

I had been in Kyiv again (actually I have dropped by the office for a couple of days every week over the last month) and had a very interesting meeting with a future force in Ukrainian politics, now launching his own NGO: he’s a very high-powered local lawyer.

The Ambassador of a small Central European country and I share the same taste in whiskey…and bars. He’s become quite my regular drinking/talking global politics buddy. For some reason I think this very cool...

At 1.30am – waiting to enter Russia, I am awake on the train and a journalist friend calls from Doha, in Qatar. And we’re chatting – via satellites bouncing a signal Lord knows where – me being all George Smiley on my post-Soviet overnight train and yet, also, chatting to a mate at a party in the Middle East…

…who then worried me because he was heading out on a trip with Hezbollah into Southern Lebanon. Now this is a patch I know (and if you know Lebanon well, Hezbollah is all part of the scene) and I say: “Dude, down to Sidon, you’ll be fine, just stay north of Sidon” “er…” he replies, “I am going well South of Sidon”.

So we chat and I point out that while his employer might be an Arabic TV station, he’s a blonde English guy and the Hezbs in Southern Lebanon aren’t the diplomatic dandies in Beirut we know, but are ‘the real thing’ and might not welcome a Brit. That and the Israelis have been shooting at TV cars across the borderline (because sometimes Hezb pretends to be TV). So I was kind of worried for my friend…

We spoke a week later, he partying in Damascus – damn I love that City – and he clearly has some good war-stories: being shoved into a cell overnight with armed guards for instance: “but we got some great shots and broadcast live way farther South than the BBC or CNN would ever dare”…which is what passes for delivering understanding into global living rooms apparently.

8th July Spartak!

A one-night only special starring the Cuban ballet star Carlos Acosta. There is a good piece about this on Russia Today (LOL – that’s a sentence hardly ever used!).

Acosta was quite extraordinary and, as I was chatting with a friend afterwards in post-performance dinner at café des Artistes, sitting outside, we agreed it was one of the highlights of the Bolshoi this season…and then Acosta comes to the restaurant with a small entourage. He’s charming and has excellent English (he’s danced with the English National and the Royal). He’ll be guest-starring with the Bolshoi this Summer at Covent Garden in London. Mug or steal yourself a ticket if you’ll be in town…

Tonight – 22nd July – I am going to the Close of Season Gala Concert, with all the leading Bolshoi Ballet stars. It should be a wonderful night…but then no Bolshoi until October 5th…

…I must travel abroad – the summer ballets put on at the country estates outside Moscow are very bourgeois and ‘chocolate box-y’.

Now then, how to get from Moscow to London, without flying, by train…

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't

Although by no means free, I find the news feeds pumped out daily by Business New Europe to be really helpful and interesting: I'm a fan (except, maybe, when they try to write about politics) and I think their service is worth the Euros 300 or so a year to subscribe to the feeds that cover my patch.

This came through the other day as an extract from a (forthcoming?) Alfa Bank report. Looks like it will be worth begging, borrowing or stealing a copy, if you're not already an Alfa investment banking client...

The emerging 4x4 Energy Strategy

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

While the government has never formally clarified its strategy for either its involvement in the oil and gas sector in Russia or its plans to help Russian companies expand internationally, both upstream and downstream, we now have almost enough evidence allowing us to build a model of how it is most likely to work. That is, at least based on current evidence, best described as the "4x4 Energy Strategy".

The four domestic strategies are:

• State companies control 51% of all major energy projects.
• An international energy major is included in each project with an equity participation of 25%. That company will more often than not be the operator of the project.
• The remaining 24% is eventually allocated in several smaller lots to National Oil Companies from other countries (e.g. China, Malaysia, India, etc) for which the Kremlin has bartered greater energy cooperation in exchange for some reciprocal trade, investment or political deals.
• The next major investment theme will be to concentrate on downstream processing of greater volumes of gas and oil inside Russia so as to eventually have a better balance between the export of raw material and higher value-added products from the raw material.

The four international strategies are:

• Access to international upstream and downstream projects for Russia's National Champions Companies by bartering reciprocal deals in upstream Russian oil and gas.
• Creating JVs with international energy majors to facilitate access to politically and economically sensitive downstream, particularly in both LNG and natural gas distribution.
• To develop Russia's National Champion Companies to eventually rank amongst the world's biggest energy giants.
• To have a controlling/influential role in export routes from Russia and the CIS countries.

Note: This is a subject and theme to be written about separately later.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Ideas clarified? Or the dumbing down of geopolitics?

As I was cruising round the английский-Russkie blogosphere (OK, so the link goes to one in German, so sue me!) this morning I came across the Inglehart Values Map. This is another attempt to squeeze all the multi-national complexities of the world into a nicely digestible 2 x 4 palimpsest of the truth. Another example of this phenomenon is the Vomitously-named ‘Global Peace Index’, which was promoted – excellently, BTW, even if it was a naff product – by Edelman. Russia scored incredibly badly on that index: in a league of Sudan, Nigeria, Israel and ... oh yes... Iraq; which seems extraordinary to me. These other countries are cleaved, literally, more or less in half by civil war – if you count Palestinians as equal occupiers of that land too – while Nigeria is just one bad week away from becoming the next Somalia.

This is not true of Russia. Chechnya, which is now almost quiescent – was never a wedge deep across the whole nation; rather it was more like Northern Ireland; a local dispute which was, for the most part, contained and not at all reflective of the wider national conversation (rare hot-spot troubles aside).

So, anyway, the latest example of intellect-lite. The World Values map – which I reproduce below:

Now I am not going to diss this completely – because inasmuch as you can use a bi-linear analysis to summarise the world, it’s not utterly useless. The problem of course is the extent to which you have to adopt completely faux parameters in order make your pretty global picture.

For while I can see that there is some validity to creating a spectrum that runs from ‘traditional values’ through to ‘secular-rational values’; it seems to me that ‘spectrumizing’ – ugh, sorry for that word, but somehow seems to fit here – “survival values’ through to ‘Self expression values’ is invalid.

The survey says of its methodology:

“The second major dimension of cross-cultural variation is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies - which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values.”

Nice. So, mate, where would you put Lebanon on that map? People who know me know I am besotted with truly-madly-deeply wonderful Beirut. But, go on: where would you put Lebanon? Indeed, interestingly, I see this map seems to have forgotten the Middle East almost entirely… because Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the Emirates, even Syria, just don’t fit the picture. Ditto, mutatis mutandis, where’s Israel on it? Also, do I really believe that Shinto-revivalist Japan has abandoned religion as much as this survey suggests?

This habit of making pretty pictures and league tables as a substitute to real thinking of course is not new. It all started, with a vengeance, in the 1970s with the management consultants, Boston Consulting Group; who managed to fit any business you care to mention into one of four inter-locked boxes. The BCG boxes still hold pretty valid – I use them myself – but as our world hurtles faster and faster – thank you technology – to some neo-medieval clash of civilizations, we need much better foreign policy education.

After the calamity of the first half of the twentieth century, the age of gentleman-amateurs conducting foreign policy came to an end (Viscount Halifax being a notoriously good example) and we began to professionalize our approach to foreign affairs: hence the explosion in all those international relations and foreign relations courses. We need, again, a new approach to managing geo-eco-political issues. Cute boxes won’t cut it.