Thursday, 5 April 2007

On vacation in Morocco - back April 20th!

'Holiday' from Green Day - some people will be surprised that Shostakovich and opera-boy, Red Exile, likes Green Day, but I do: they're really cool. I guess that must make me broad-minded ;-) well, ideological pluralism rules, right?

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Dumbest corporate decision ever???

Huge amounts of nonsense are being written about Aeroflot on the news that it is to mount a bid for Alitalia. Mostly this is a lame excuse by lazy business news editors, desperate for an Easter break, to stuff some column inches without too much effort [NB: Orthodox and Occidental Easters are at the same time this year, how rare is that?]. For the most part they will write some tired old crap about la dolce vita of the skies being snapped up by Air Kremlin. As I said, crap. But evocative, have-a-laugh-at-a-drinks-party crap.

In truth, though, there are few better examples of a corporate going where angels would fear to tread (but pesky investment bankers would push you anyway) than this deal. This is a very bad deal for Aeroflot; but (natch!) a great deal for the investment bankers.

To put it very briefly: Aeroflot is a sound business model, has rising demand, new jets on order, is (by far!) the safest CIS carrier and, moreover, has great business fundamentals and solid growth prospects. It is (while still a work-in-progress) a great turnaround story.

Alitalia is over-staffed, stuffed full of nasty unions, structurally inefficient (has a much older fleet than you might think) and, while we love Milan, is no-one's serious idea of a hot shot nation for tasty routes; drowning as it is in discount fare airlines.

By what tragic stretch of logic of which human's imagination does anyone think that Western Europe's most economically hopeless national flag carrier - Sabena having thankfully gone bust - would be a synergistic fit with the largest air carrier of Eurasia?

Logic? hah! hah!

Now unless there is something staggeringly sneaky about anti-trust and EU economic concentration rules going on here (you see, Air France has, for eons, been expected to buy Alitalia, but some have queried the...ahem...natural monopoly on Western European routes at issue: Air France already owning KLM and all), then this is crazy.

Actually, some cynics might argue there is a potential sweetheart deal here. Air France, Alitalia and Aeroflot are all members of Skyteam, along with a bunch of other second-rate airlines (declaration of interest: I am a silver card holder on Flying Blue; but then I am on the cusp of BA gold card and Lufthansa Senator too...I really must fly less).

Aeroflot will just never - never - make money on this deal. The Italian unions will screw them and (hello?) no-one wants to fly Alitalia anyway... Western European tourists have oodles of cheap airlines to choose from, to go to Italy from home, and seriously rich and corporate travellers, well... there are few airlines whose business class (take it from one who knows) is less alluring than Alitalia long haul.

So why is Aeroflot engaged in this flight of fancy folly?

Obvious I'm afraid... to keep up with the Joneski's. After two attempts, little old KrasAir, the surprisingly good and go-get airline of the Abramovich brothers (no relation to Chelsea-she's-young-enough-to-be-my-girlfriend-guy) has recently out-manoeuvred Aeroflot.

At its second attempt, AirUnion / KrasAir recently bought Malev; IMHO, Central Europe's cutest airline (declaration: I have a silver card there too).

Owning Malev offers AirUnion (the vehicle KrasAir is using) a unique hub: Krasnoyarsk. Where? You say: oh, Americans!... Krasnoyarsk makes loadsamoney from oil, OK? It's in Siberia. And it has great air-routes to China, Korea and other South East Asian destinations (and Moscow)...

...Malev, on the other hand, has great European routes and even a cute slot or two to North America (and is part of B.A.'s One World alliance). So, AirUnion (KrasAir) offers clever hub-to-hub and competitive fares from China to New York, via Moscow and Budapest (and virtually all places in between).

Moreover, the AirUnion franchise is even more potentially lucrative, if you note that (Boris) Abramovich is also behind Russia's first 'no frills' airline, Sky Express. Indeed, as global aviation goes, he really is one of its most innovative and entrepreneurial players.

Sweet deal for AirUnion (hats off! etc) so you can see why Aeroflot felt it had to do something...

But, boy!, should this not have been it!

Humble Pie...

OK, so I failed to do three posts Sunday - by way of 'breaks' in what turned out to be 14 hours in the office. I left the office at 01.45 and actually fell asleep on my bed, at home, fully clothed before the alarm woke me 07.00 to go to a breakfast meeting. I have never pushed the envelope like this before, stress- and work-wise. I did 14 hours yesterday and I finished 'today's' work about 30 minutes ago.
We're thrashed with work - which I guess is good - and I am flying to North Africa tomorrow, as it now is, for a longish, total break... In my world, time off has to be paid for (almost by way of apology for not being there to serve), so as every last drop of blood and sweat is gained before one sod's off to do nothing).

I owe an apology to the Barack Obama campaign. They had *nothing* to do with that Hilary-Apple-1984 ad... as everyone in the USA knew but me... exiled-in-Russia-boy.
It was made, actually, by a 'real person'. He was fired from his job for it. This might be less, though, an example of how 'new media' can destroy the lives of those who drive cutting edge content and more, one hears, that his employer was/is connected to the Obama campaign and this "unauthorised" piece of campaigning (while, *dead cool* IMHO) may have risked backfiring on the candidate and, hence, the creator had to be torched.
In politics supporters and volunteers are the most expendable of all: they make pretty corpses and, sucker-believers all, they rarely complain.
Actually, a mate of mine from the UK - with whom I had shared some political war stories - said to me: "for you even to think about how PACs are a great way to to ratfuck [technical political PR term, people] means you have an even more craven view of democracy than I thought".
Yeah right, oh-my-last-New-Labour-believer-friend...and your point is?

The creator was interviewed on YouTube by their 'political editor' (good grief). He seemed too good to be true to me.
Whatever, I still think he is a PAC-man (hah! hah!).

Sunday, 1 April 2007

2 of 3: The Energy Charter debate, Russia & the EU

(It's breaktime again, so I am listening to BBC Radio 1 over the Net. Cool.)

I brain-dumped some ideas last night to a colleague who is our Mr EU:

Can Europe replace Russian oil and gas?

Unless it plans the become a region of candles and camp fires, no it cannot. ‘Renewable’ sources of energy are unlikely to replace more than 20-25% of the EU’s energy needs, on a twenty year view: and that’s optimistic. You can cover Europe in solar panels and wind farms, but that statistic is not going to change. Other sources (Kazakhstani, Qatari, Iranian) may reduce ‘dependence’ but they won’t reduce actual ‘flow’.

What Russia thinks about the EU

Well, for a start, what’s Europe?

Few Russians think of themselves as a part of Europe and, academically, don’t even acknowledge its geographic existence as a continent. Don’t believe me? Just ask different people from different parts of the world “how many continents are there?” In Russia, South America and Italy they will say six (Eurasia, North America, South America, Australasia, Antarctica and Africa); in the USA, Britain and, interestingly, in China they will say Seven (Europe, North America and South America, Australasia, Africa, Asia, and Antarctica). In Iran they will say five (one America, and no separate Europe): very Mesopotamian that.

[Of course some people get to six by forgetting Antarctica: they're just dumb].

For Russians ‘Europe’ is an historical conceit of the Western lands. Eurasia – which in terms of geography is the land we all live on – centres on Russia: physically and, oftentimes, politically. Understand that and you have a fair chance of understanding quite a bit about the Russian position.

So for many Russians, the European Union is the political and ideological wing of NATO; the old enemy and – seeing how keen the USA is to sprinkle new missile systems in Poland and Czech - still a potential threat. Also, no Russian can understand how any nation state can hive off their national sovereignty to Brussels, as a slave loses freedom to his master. Bluntly put, I am not sure the Russian State respects the states that sign up to the EU; doesn’t trust it as anything more than a talking shop behind which hides US militarism and also sees it as an attempt to weaken Russia.

So what’s the beef with the Energy Charter?

The Energy Charter & Why Russia won’t Sign

Just two weeks ago, during his visit to the United States, Russian Foreign Minister, Alexei Kudrin confirmed once again that Russia will not ratify the Energy Charter: “it has a whole series of defects” he said. What are these? For a start, resurgent, Putinista Russia, doesn’t accept that giving away Sovereignty over the management of its energy resources could ever be in its in its national interest.

Let’s be clear here: broken and broke, Yeltsin Kleptocracy Russia signed the Charter in 1994. But it has never since ratified it (signing a Charter is politics and can be fudged: ratification is Law and Russia, the land of signing-and-stamping stuff, appreciates the difference). Russia felt it had to sign for reasons of aid and trade. The Charter was drawn up in the early 1990s, when Russia was uniquely desperate.

Russia is no longer desperate. A point Jean Lemierre, the current President of the EBRD, made at a conference I recently attended, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, on global political risk. Speaking on-the-record at Chatham House, he said (of the Production Sharing Agreements, or PSAs, signed between Yeltsin’s Government and Western oil firms in the 1990s): “A deal that is too good for one side, is no deal at all. It won’t last and one shouldn’t be surprised if Government later comes along and unmakes it, as they should, and in their people’s national interest”. Sometimes, it really takes a Frenchman to have that kind of clarity: "Crap deal? Let's rip it up then: sucks to be you!"

The Energy Charter is a good example of such a one-sided deal; drafted at a time of Russian national weakness.

Ratification of the Energy Treaty would allow Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan free access to Russia’s vast transnational gas pipeline and Russia doesn’t believe any country but it should control this vital strategic national asset. Also, Russia does not accept that it should immediately raise domestic gas prices to world market rates and thus plunge domestic business into chaos and its people into economic hardship.

Ratification would also prevent Russian companies, most notably Gazprom, from having full control over supply. The Ukraine and Belarus disputes in this area show the clear ‘disconnect’ Europeans have about Russia. For years the World Bank has said: raise your non-domestic CIS gas tariff to world market rates if you want to sort out your economy. That’s what Russia has done. Who can blame Russia if they briefly turned off the gas to countries unwilling to pay market prices, and at the same time stealing gas, blatantly, from the pipelines crossing their countries. Try suggesting to Britain that it should sell North Sea oil to Europe at a discount and, at the same time, ignore the fact that the French are illegally skimming off 10%, and see how far you get.

If Russia were to explain this clearly, and in terms like these, I think a lot more people would understand. It is disheartening that the Russian bureaucratic machine still fails to do this. Like the British Royal Family they adopt an approach of “never explain, never complain”; which didn’t do the Royal Family much good. And, actually, Russia complains a lot about the West misrepresenting Russia. Partly this is reasonable, but partly it is also because Russia doesn’t engage with the West, on an intellectual level, so it shouldn’t be surprised if unintelligent things are said about it.

EU investment into the Russian utility sector

If one sees Russia’s actions in the context of trying to gain back its economic freedom after feeling strong-armed into deals, in the 1990s, as the West exploited Russia’s weakness, then one can make three observations about the prognosis for EU firms' investment into the privatizing Russian utility sector right now; the firms being spun out of RAO UES. Now, RAO UES is right that Russia’s electricity infrastructure needs literally billions of Euros spent into replacing and expanding it; at least 10 billion Euros. But Russia doesn’t need foreigners for that:

  • Russia is flush with cash to invest: just see how even the non-oil sector of the RTS and MICEX exchanges, in Moscow, have done
  • There is no better definition of strategic industry than electricity, so “no”, foreigners won’t be allowed to buy up GenCos on the cheap, nor control distribution. They'll have to compete for minority stakes.
  • And, as the Spanish Stock Exchange Commissions treatment of E.On Ruhrgas’s bid for Endesa, or the French consolidation of national gas assets between Compagnie de Suez and Gaz de France, has shown us: Europe talks free markets, but still sometimes practices national protectionism in energy: so the Russian State is unmoved at any negative comments on the fact that Gazprom looks likely to integrate, vertically, into power generation, distribution and supply. It is good business sense for Gazprom.

Prospects for the EU-Russia Summit

While Poland plays its juvenile game with Russia over meat exports – and holds up EU-Russia agreements – expect a very frosty Summit. Also, one hears President Putin doesn’t especially warm to Mr Barosso. I don't know if this true, of course, but if it is then, adopting the Cleopatra’s nose school of history, then I don't expect the EU to make any huge break-throughs at the Summit...

This reminds me: in Kyiv last week I heard Deputy Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Alexander Chaliy, give a rousing speech in defence of the Ukrainian political system. He was like the entertainment director on board the Titanic talking up Ukraine and spinning the situation President Yuschenko is in. Quite apart from the memorable feat of spin, I just loved his comment that "The European Union needs its own Perestroika and Ukraine shouldn't think about joining it. Ukraine should be like Norway: good relations with the EU but not a part of it. And like Switzerland: where Russians can invest offshore."

Now that's a more moderated message than I have heard from President Yushencko and, of course, one Russia would welcome (implying, as it does, Ukraine's "equal disengagement and equal co-operation" between Russia and the EU).

One closing thought on EU energy security. Don’t think in terms of Russia ‘cutting Europe off’. Of course it won't.

Think about where the new Russian reserves of oil and gas are (Siberia and the Russian Far East), think of the massive rising demand in China, South East Asia and Japan and think this: ‘in twenty years time can the higher-cost, lower productivity economies of the EU actually afford Russian oil and gas?

And then think again as to why EU states are just desperate for Russia to ensnare herself in the Energy Charter.

1st of 3: Ephemera

It has been too long since I last posted. It has been mad and at work and I am here, in the office: in fact I have worked 19 days straight without a break, which is quite depressing. I have structured my list of things to do around three blogging breaks today. The car will pick me up for home at 01.00 - which is too depressing to think about really - and I have a breakfast meeting at Vogue Café; and then basically meetings, breakfasts and dinners everyday. They'll be 14 hour days, every day.

Anyway, there are a couple of YouTube videos I have recently seen I want to share.

The first I saw at the often interesting Lebanese Bloggers. It starts as a simple piece of satire and then gets bitingly good. The last line is a brilliant punchline.

Catch it while you can, because earlier versions seem to have been pulled.

Anyway, this clip has been bouncing around the English-speaking Middle East; and they love it.

I was just thinking today that, after this posting, I am definitely heading back to the Middle East. I really want to go back to Beirut.

Anyway, as a teenager - briefly thinking about becoming a total whore and going into advertising (where did that come from?) - I remember the great Apple launch ad which, it is true, pretty much confirmed that the best advertising in the 1980s was done in Britain. This iconic ad has now been brilliantly appropriated and used for a Barack Obama viral campaign (Actually I am thinking this may have been done by a PAC committee and not by the official campaign, but we all know how PACs work. It's what I would have done: to keep the Candidate looking squeaky-clean and not down-in-the-gutter nasty). It was designed purely for the YouTube generation. Inter alia, it tells you the Obama campaign is prepared to be sneaky and mean: they could be winners I'm thinking.

Epically good political vital marketing. I am not holding my breath for anything that good to appear here for December 2007 or May 2008!

It has that wince! Ouch! factor don't you think? Or maybe only other Hilary fans will think like me. You go girl!

BTW, this was the original Apple launch ad: By Ridley 'Bladerunner' Scott. It is from 1983. I love it still. These were the days when we talked about an "Apple Mackintosh" and not a Mac, right? Is it really 24 years ago?!? Oh boy...

Of course, Scott took the Orwell 1984 idea and mixed it with a bit of TV series, 'Blake's 7', which while finished by then, had still a lot of resonance on early 80's contemporary British pop culture (Brit boys between 35 and 45 will go misty-eyed at the rocking sci-fi show that was 'Blake's 7': their wives, girlfriends, 'etc' and all foreigners will think they've cracked).

At the time the Ad, and Blake 7 for that matter, sub-consciously played on our deep fear of the USSR; and what we thought were the mad, bad, evil geriatrics in the Kremlin, trying to end our world. The grey, dumb slaves in the Apple ad? I am sure that is how, as a 15-year old in 1984, that is truly how I thought Soviet people were... Come to think of it, I am quite shocked that, then, I used to think 'Russians' were really quite bad people...

Oh go on then, I can't resist a little bit:

Oh...and since we're having an orgy of YouTube, let's end on this very neat, smiley little Apple ad, also designed specially for the YouTube generation. I wonder if my Russian reader will get the joke?