Markets React to Russia’s Recognition of Separatists
The effects of Russia’s first foreign war as a capitalist country rippled Tuesday through the Moscow stock markets, which dipped to their lowest level since 2006. The loss of billions of dollars in paper value is confronting the Kremlin with a dimension to its geopolitical posturing that never existed during the Cold War, even as Russia seemed to be consolidating its gains after the Georgia conflict.
The RTS stock market fell 6.1 percent on Tuesday after President Dmitri A. Medvedev recognized two separatist regions in Georgia. The sell-off was deepened by grim warnings from Western leaders of unspecified diplomatic or economic retaliation for the move.
The war of words apparently spooked foreign investors, who fled what they fear will grow into a full-scale falling out with the West over Russia’s actions in Georgia. The market recovered somewhat, ending the day down 4.1 percent, but investors were glum about its prospects.
“The market perception is extremely negative,” said James R. Fenkner, chairman of Red Star Management, a Moscow hedge fund. “They’re being perceived as the evil empire. They’re going to have to do some serious things to change it.”
Russia is not about to go broke, as it did in the financial collapse of 1998. Any Western effort to punish Russia economically will surely be softened by the surging demand for Russian oil and natural gas in Western Europe and Asia.
Moreover, while the stock market stumbled, the country’s trade surplus and the profits of its leading energy companies remained as robust as ever. Russia holds about $600 billion in foreign exchange and gold reserves.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin noted that Russia was on track to meet his goal of doubling its 2003 gross domestic product by 2010.
But since the start of the conflict in Georgia on Aug. 7, the ruble has slid 4 percent against the dollar in spite of intervention by the central bank, and the cost of insuring Russian sovereign and corporate bonds has risen steeply. In another worrisome sign for the economy, Russian officials said Monday that they saw little chance of Russia joining the World Trade Organization.
The talks had in any case been stalled over import tariffs for airplanes, with implications for Boeing, and Russia’s poor record on protecting intellectual property rights.
While warning of consequences for Russia if its troops do not quickly withdraw from Georgia, Western leaders have not made any specific threats, but possible measures include barring Russia from WTO membership, expelling it from the Group of Eight industrialized countries or withholding visas and freezing offshore bank accounts of Russian political leaders.
Those penalties could sting far more sharply in today’s Russia than they would have during the days of the Soviet Union, because many of the top officials in government also sit on the boards of directors of state companies.
Medvedev, for example, was chairman of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom until his inauguration in May. Gazprom, the world’s second-largest publicly traded energy company after ExxonMobil of the United States, lost 3 percent of its value on Tuesday.