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...