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Russia Markets: Citizens Search for the Anti-Putin

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Street protests will not yield a new president, but maybe a new prime minister.

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Disgruntled urban Russians mounted another impressive protest in Moscow Dec. 24, 2011 drawing a crowd that was probably well upward of 50,000. Then they peaceably dispersed for the winter holidays, which in Russia stretch through Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. The leisurely break shows the urgency, or lack thereof, of the nation's hunger for democracy. Yet all sides agree that the December rallies were an important event for Russia, not least national leader Vladimir Putin.

After an ambivalent early reaction, Putin made a flurry of moves toward year's end aimed at co-opting rather than crushing the dissident movement. He demoted Kremlin political Svengali Vladislav Surkov, something of a bete noire among liberals, promised a crackdown on corruption in state energy companies, and toyed with the prospect of reinstating popular elections for governors. (They are now appointed by Russia's president.)

Political uncertainty in Russia, the world's largest oil exporter, could roil already tightening world petroleum markets and prove a boon for ETFs that are long on oil prices like the United Stats Oil Fund (USO) or ProShares Ultra DJ-AIG Crude Oil (UCO). More pluralism could threaten the interests of Russian state firms currently protected as national champions, like Gazprom (OGZPY.PK) and Rosneft (RNFTF.PK), and undermine international investors like Exxon Mobil (XOM), which last year entered a strategic partnership with Rosneft that could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Centuries of autocratic rule have taught Russians, however, that what the authorities say today they can easily change their minds on tomorrow. The lasting impact of the December protests will largely depend on whether they can coalesce around a leader or party that can counterbalance Putin on a daily basis if not unseat him. The chattering classes within and without Russia have launched a hurried search for such a figure. The results so far are not encouraging.

At the sillier end of the spectrum, Western media have been giving ready ink to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who rails against Putin and demands a re-run of the Dec. 4, 2011 parliamentary elections that set off Russia's unrest. Never mind that Gorbachev, revered as he may be in the West, is widely reviled in Russia as the man who destroyed a superpower. Last time he ran for president was in 1996, and he got 0.5% of the vote.

The Christian Science Monitor, ever sober and well-informed in its foreign reporting, offered a more useful thumbnail of "Seven Russians to Watch" as the politics of 2012 unfolds. Heading the list is Mikhail Prokhorov, a vigorous 46-year-old multi-billionaire who has already jumped into the presidential race against Putin. Brash, quick-witted and photogenic, Prokhorov is the kind of fellow who might make waves in America as a less cranky reincarnation of Ross Perot. But if there's one thing Russians hate more than bureaucrats, it's the newly-hatched billionaires whom most of them see as having stolen the national wealth from the general population. Prokhorov will be lucky if his charisma and personal war chest get him 10% of the vote on election day, March 4.

Boris Nemtsov, the Monitor's No. 3, is a likeable sort who turned the rust-belt city of Nizhny Novgorod into something of an economic maverick when he was governor there in the 1990s. But he has been grinding away in opposition since Putin took power in 2000 without much to show for it. Nemtsov is also Jewish, which unfortunately would be a major liability in contemporary Russian politics.

The Russian protest movement's overnight sensation is Alexei Navalny, No. 4 on the Monitor's list. A lawyer by training, Navalny became a favorite in intellectual and financial circles over the past few years with a blog that exposed alleged graft at big state companies like oil pipeline monopoly Transneft (TRNFF.PK) and VTB bank. But he is just 35 and has never run anything. His first forays into politics also show questionable judgment.

He turned up last autumn at an ultra-nationalist rally flanked by skinheads calling for Russia's racial purification. Speaking at the latest rally on Dec. 24, 2011, he injected a most unwelcome hint of violence into the proceedings. "If these rogues and thieves keep on cheating us, we will take what belongs to us with our own hands," he told the Moscow crowd. Navalny might make a fine special prosecutor with a brief to root out high-level corruption. A president, for the moment, he is not, even if he could draw votes from beyond Russia's equivalent of the Beltway.

Which leaves …. Vladimir Putin. And maybe Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister who got fired at just the right time, last September, for just the right reason, insubordination to current president Dmitry Medvedev, whose political star is sinking fast. Kudrin, whose 10 years as a ferocious budget hawk are a big reason Russia's economy is in relatively good shape today, has enough self-awareness to know he will not overthrow Putin. Hawkish finance ministers only get the top job in desperate places like Greece or Italy.

Instead, Kudrin has deftly used his ex-government status to position himself as a bridge figure between the Kremlin and the restive middle class in the streets. By implication he has also become a candidate for prime minister, a post that Putin will appoint after he retakes the president's job in a few months time. Putin promised the job to Medvedev back in November 2011, but that was a long time ago.

Pushing Russia's top liberal technocrat into the prime minister's job would be a considerable achievement for the fledgling pro-democracy movement, even if not everyone in the movement thinks so. Kudrin drew a mix of boos and cheers when he spoke on Dec. 24. Restoring direct election of governors and mayors is another giant gain that seems theoretically within reach if the opposition can focus on it. Apocalyptic expectations of Putin spontaneously combusting will prove counter-productive, from within Russia or without.

Buttressing democracy in the post-Putin period, whenever that may come, depends on uniting the various talents present at the rallies now into a coherent movement with clear objectives and reasonably broad voter appeal. That means a lot of compromise and drudge work, not the traditional fortes of the brilliant Russian intelligentsia. But the prize for success could be huge.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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