Russia's President has hopes for a new tech corridor near Moscow, but can the country overcome corruption, lack of innovation, and a slow-moving state sector?
Transparency has not been a hallmark of Russian government. Exhibit A: No one has quite figured out the relationship between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his mentor, predecessor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Yet in at least one regard, Medvedev is consistently forthcoming: Russia, he says, is steeped in corruption, and it will take a long time to rectify the problem.
The nation is the world's most corrupt major economy, according to Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. "Corruption has penetrated all echelons of Russian power," says Medvedev, "and it has spread far and wide after the emergence of a market economy."
The President also says he wants Russian entrepreneurs to develop and produce products as transformational, memorable, and profitable as Apple's (AAPL) great icons, the iPad and iPhone.
"We need to think about developing the consumer market as a whole by creating good new products," he says. He does not want to return to Soviet practices, which focused on huge industrial projects at the expense of the consumer.
Medvedev, 45, one of Russia's first iPad owners, surfs the Net regularly and has an active Twitter account. His modernization plan envisions a shift from exporting mostly natural resources to excelling in high technology. Russia's exports of gas, oil, and other energy products made up more than 70 percent of total exports in the first 11 months of last year, according to Russian customs officials.
Medvedev wants technologies to make it to consumer shelves with "Made in Russia" written all over them. "This will be the kind of modernization we seek," he says. "I would like us to create Russian iPads and Russian iPhones. True, I haven't seen anything that works yet, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't invent. We should try and create our own models." In September, Russian industrialist Sergei Chemezov showed Medvedev a prototype of a Russian mobile phone. It will initially be assembled in Taiwan for sale later this year.
The President's push for diversification is getting some help from nonenergy companies, as Russia's economy rebounds from a record contraction in 2009 and consumer demand revives. Shares of X5 Retail Group, the country's largest grocer, have climbed 546 percent in the past two years, while those of Pharmstandard, the largest drugmaker, have risen 326 percent.
Medvedev has identified five areas where Russia could and should make breakthroughs: information technology, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and energy efficiency. The government is investing hundreds of billions of rubles in these programs, according to Medvedev's economy aide Arkady Dvorkovich. Medvedev wants private domestic companies to catch up with foreign rivals and has been on a charm offensive to lure multinationals to help.
The Russian President last May hosted a group of U.S. venture fund chiefs, including Drew J. Guff, a co-founder of Siguler Guff in New York, and David Kronfeld, founder and chairman of JK&B Capital in Chicago. In June he visited California's Silicon Valley, where he got commitments from U.S. companies to invest in innovation in Russia, including $1 billion over a decade from Cisco Systems (CSCO).
Siemens (SI), Nokia (NOK), and Boeing (BA) last year agreed to join in Medvedev's pet project of developing Russia's Silicon Valley, a tech hub in Skolkovo outside Moscow. Skolkovo will offer generous tax breaks and other incentives to companies nurturing innovation there.
At the same time, Medvedev has lambasted state-controlled companies, including airline Aeroflot and oil company Rosneft, for being slow to innovate. Economy Minister Elvira Nabiullina says that 22 of the top state-controlled companies last year registered only 1,000 patents combined, compared with 5,000 patents registered by IBM (IBM). "There is money to invest. But practically no innovation," Medvedev said at a government meeting on modernization on Jan. 31. Medvedev on the same day ordered the chief of Russia's United Aircraft to be replaced.
As big Russian companies trail in innovation, small companies find it hard even to survive. "When I say that it costs me $35 to open a company here, no one in Russia believes me," Olga Potapova, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, told Medvedev during his June visit to California. In Russia "small business does not have the capability of big business. Mr. Vekselberg can afford a group of lawyers. I can't."
Last March Medvedev appointed Viktor Vekselberg, an oil and metals tycoon who, according to Forbes magazine, is worth $6.4 billion, to head the Skolkovo tech hub. Once it is up and running, sometime in 2014, Medvedev wants to replicate the model across Russia.
Peter N. Loukianoff, co-founder and managing partner of Almaz Capital Partners, a Cisco-supported fund with $75 million invested in Russia-related projects, says that in general the U.S. venture capitalists who came last year to Moscow are looking more favorably on Russia. Of 20 venture capitalists who visited Moscow, at least three plan to set up biotech, clean tech, and nanotechnology funds in Russia. Andrew Somers, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, which counts more than 700 members, says many foreign investors in Davos have reacted positively to Medvedev's modernization appeal. "I think that he is pretty successful in selling the determination of the government to stress innovation."
At the World Economic Forum at Davos, the varying views of Russia were evident. Indra K. Nooyi, chief executive officer of PepsiCo (PEP), which entered the Russian market decades ago, praised the country's efforts. PepsiCo in December agreed to buy a controlling stake in Wimm-Bill-Dann Dairy and Juice, a top Russian producer of juice and dairy products, for $3.8 billion.
Also at Davos, high-tech entrepreneur and commentator Esther Dyson spoke up about Skolkovo. "What's missing is transparency around all the contracts that are being made with Russian and American companies" in the project, she said. "I would like to suggest that in Skolkovo you add transparency. If it's proper for people to make money it should be visible how they make money."
Investors are also divided over the implications of the Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky case. In 2005 the nation's then-richest man was sentenced to eight years in prison for tax evasion. He has just been sentenced to six more on fresh charges, leading some foreign investors to view this as an episode of selective justice that damages the business climate. Says Medvedev, "I think foreign investors should not worry about just one case. When we talk about a prominent businessman, it's easier for him to inspire a wave of public reaction. He has the money." Medvedev also points out that 2,000 high-ranking state officials were sentenced on charges of corruption and bribery—proof of Russia's determination to stamp out white-collar crime.
Some big companies just find Russia hard to deal with. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), the world's largest retailer, said in December it would close its Moscow office after it could not buy a local discount retailer. In 2009, Ikea, the home-furnishings retailer, suspended its investment plans in Russia after disputes with authorities over repeated problems in opening two new stores.
Above all, companies want a Russia that functions. As Christopher Weafer, chief strategist with Moscow-based bank UralSib Financial puts it, "Before Russia can talk about high-end electronics, it needs to improve the power supply and the roads. That's the reality that investors are more focused on."
The bottom line: Medvedev is on a charm offensive, trying to persuade Western companies to invest in Russia despite its problems with corruption.