Russia Seeks Prominent Foreigners for Business Sector

The Russian government is attempting to recruit big-name foreign officials to head some of its most important companies. Recently, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was hired to run a new natural gas consortium.

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The Russian government is trying to recruit leading foreign officials to run some of its most important companies. The Kremlin has already named former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as the head of a new natural gas consortium. It's also made an unsuccessful attempt to hire a former US Commerce secretary. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

The state natural gas giant, Gazprom, announced its offer to the former German leader only weeks after he'd left office. Under the deal, Schroeder would head an ambitious project he negotiated as chancellor that would build a pipeline under the Baltic Sea to supply Germany with Russian gas. Speaking to reporters last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said appointing foreigners to top positions in Russian state companies had no political subtext.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through Translator) I think it's an element of the openness of Russian business and Russian oil companies. It will, of course, bring benefits on the international level, and first of all to the interests of the Russian companies themselves.

FEIFER: But not everyone's buying the message. Schroeder's appointment drew sharp criticism in Germany. The Green Party chairman commented, `It stinks.' Many Western Europeans feel their countries are already too dependent on Russian gas. Germany, Moscow's biggest customer, gets a third of its gas from Russia.

Some analysts say floating Schroeder's name is meant to distract Western investors from recent bad press about Putin's growing authoritarianism. Yuri Korgunyuk is director of Moscow's INDEM think tank.

Mr. YURI KORGUNYUK (Indem): (Through Translator) It's meant to show that we're heading toward Europe. We're creating a different economy to that of the past. It's a purely political gesture.

FEIFER: But business analysts like Alyeg Maximov(ph) of the Troika Dialogue investment bank say the Kremlin's new penchant for big-name foreign officials will make Russian companies more transparent.

Mr. ALYEG MAXIMOV (Troika Dialogue): If somebody like a top foreign politician sits on the board of the company, it will be more difficult in the future, you know, to jeopardize the trust of the investors and all these persons.

FEIFER: Schroeder is not the only big foreign name to be considered for a top job in Moscow. Earlier this month, Putin offered former US Commerce Secretary Donald Evans a job as head of the state oil company, Rosneft. Evans is a close friend and confidant of another president, George Bush. Evans said Monday he turned down the Moscow job because of personal commitments. But earlier reports said he'd seriously considered the post, something that raised major criticism in Washington. Bank analyst Maximov says the Kremlin had been looking to boost Rosneft's image ahead of an expected initial public offering of its stock, or IPO, next year.

Mr. MAXIMOV: If somebody like Don Evans agrees to chair the board or to be the member of the board, that will obviously speak a lot about the company and help the IPO.

FEIFER: The deal was controversial because Rosneft was recently at the center of a major political controversy, the state takeover of the Yukos oil company. Many say the company was broken up and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, jailed because Putin saw him as a political threat. Analysts say trying to hire Evans, and Schroeder's new job, is an attempt to downplay such past events. But Indem's Yuri Kurganyuk believes the Kremlin's new strategy won't work, especially in Schroeder's case.

Mr. KURGANYUK: (Through Translator) Putin's appointment probably had the opposite of its intended effect. It looks like the Russian government has bought the former German leader.

FEIFER: The Russian news magazine Kommersant Vlast says the Kremlin is building a giant state-run energy company that will be able to exert great influence in Europe. The magazine calls the project `Putin and friends.' Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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