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Russia: Closed for business

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images Last month, Dmitry Medvedev assured a group of international CEOs that he would work to enforce the rule of law and establish “absolutely independent modern courts that comply with the country’s economic development level.” But if the assembled corporate leaders were hoping that the new Russian president would be true to his ...

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ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Dmitry Medvedev assured a group of international CEOs that he would work to enforce the rule of law and establish "absolutely independent modern courts that comply with the country's economic development level." But if the assembled corporate leaders were hoping that the new Russian president would be true to his word, and the corruption and politically motivated prosecutions of the Putin era would end, this has not been an encouraging couple of days.

Yesterday, most of the expatriate staff of TNK-BP, an oil venture co-owned by British Petroleum, were denied extensions of their work visas. CEO Robert Dudley e-mailed employees this morning telling them to prepare for relocation as early as next week. The standoff between BP and its Russian partners has been escalating for months but after today, it appears that that the Russian shareholders have effectively wrestled the company away from the departing Brits. (Medvedev has denied accusations that the government is intervening on behalf of the Russian oligarchs on TNK-BP's board as well as the rumors that his old company Gazprom plans to take control of what's left of the company.)

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Dmitry Medvedev assured a group of international CEOs that he would work to enforce the rule of law and establish “absolutely independent modern courts that comply with the country’s economic development level.” But if the assembled corporate leaders were hoping that the new Russian president would be true to his word, and the corruption and politically motivated prosecutions of the Putin era would end, this has not been an encouraging couple of days.

Yesterday, most of the expatriate staff of TNK-BP, an oil venture co-owned by British Petroleum, were denied extensions of their work visas. CEO Robert Dudley e-mailed employees this morning telling them to prepare for relocation as early as next week. The standoff between BP and its Russian partners has been escalating for months but after today, it appears that that the Russian shareholders have effectively wrestled the company away from the departing Brits. (Medvedev has denied accusations that the government is intervening on behalf of the Russian oligarchs on TNK-BP’s board as well as the rumors that his old company Gazprom plans to take control of what’s left of the company.)

Also today, new charges were filed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia’s richest man, the former CEO of oil company Yukos has languished in a Siberian prison since a tax-evasion conviction in 2003 that was widely seen as punishment for the tycoon’s political ambitions. Khodorkovsky has now been charged with embezzling more than $28 billion and stealing 350 million tons of oil. Kohodorkovsky’s lawyers had hoped he could be released early after having served more than half his original sentence, but the new charges could keep him behind bars for another 20 years. One of his lawyers, Robert Amsterdam, told Bloomberg: “I don’t think they’re even trying to make these new charges look real.”

Russia’s leaders have created a legal system in which it’s essentially impossible for a business to operate legally, making anyone who does business there subject to arbitrary prosecution. It’s an arrangement that’s well-suited to protecting state power, but not very effective at promoting economic growth. If Medvedev really wants to make Russia the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020, he’s going to need to try a littler harder.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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