The popular protests following the latest Duma elections revealed a fundamental shift in Russian popular opinion which has been forming for over a year now: as Russians realize that the economic prosperity of the pre-crisis 2000s is slowly but surely turning into long-term stagnation, they are no longer ready to pay for it with their political freedom and sense of personal dignity. Russians feel humiliated by a state they see as increasingly captive to interest groups and corrupt officials. This is bad news for Russia’s political elite, but good news for multinationals.
We are not seeing an Arab Spring in Russia, and neither is any opposition group or personality powerful enough to galvanize the disenchanted voters. Barring a major Black Swan event, Putin will return to the presidency in March for a six-year term. However, the legitimacy of his power has been undermined and will continue to be, making him a weaker leader. As Russians increasingly demand change, he may be able to last through his six-year term, but he is unlikely to be elected for another one. Meanwhile, the power groups that stand behind him may decide an unpopular Putin is a liability they don’t want to bother with. A post-Putin Russia is much more likely to be ruled by a political leader unofficially promoted to national prominence by the established elite, than by an opposition leader who will be an outsider to Russia’s power circles.
For multinationals, this means that the overarching political environment in the country will remain unaffected in the short term, but there will likely be some reshuffles and instability within Russia’s elite, including among high-level state officials. To respond to demands for change, Putin will introduce some new faces to the government after the March elections, and MNCs should be positioned to engage with them through a more nuanced government relations strategy.
The perception of increased political risk will continue to drive capital outflows from Russia, putting downward pressure on the ruble and contributing to rising inflation. Capital markets, already highly sensitive to risk in Emerging Europe as a result of the eurozone crisis, will be cautious at best on Russia, making financing more costly to Russian companies. As a result, MNCs should expect high volatility on the Russian market at least until the outcome of and reactions to the presidential elections in March are clear.
And while MNCs will likely see some of their Russian partners struggle with tighter lending and a weaker ruble, this period will create opportunities as well. We expect high government spending through the March elections as Putin seeks to appease the population. The weaker ruble and higher volatility also make this an opportune time for MNCs interested in pursuing M&A. Even major Russian companies are increasingly struggling to raise money on the global capital markets, creating opportunities for strategic acquisitions by MNCs with a long-term vision for the Russian market.