Good News Hobbles As Bad News Hurries

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sometimes random juxtapositions tell us a lot about the real state of affairs around us. Last week, for instance, President Vladimir Putin was in Germany, telling all who would listen in his fluent German that Russia is a great place to invest, that the future here is bright, that his slate of reforms has created a good business climate in Russia.

Traveling with the president, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref heavily underscored the theme. "I do not want investors to feel disadvantaged in our country. We will leave no stone unturned to achieve this goal," he said.

Ah, if only a shortage of unturned stones were the problem! But it is not.

The wires last Thursday were humming with the news that the head of security for Promstroi Bank, Nikolai Shatilo, was shot to death by unknown gunmen near the entrance to his downtown home. When word came through, many on The St Petersburg Times staff began spontaneously listing other recent hits, murders that are -- to be frank -- too commonplace even to be considered news.

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Less gruesomely, some may have noticed the Disegni store on Nevsky Prospekt, just across the way from Gostiny Dvor. A sign in the darkened store window tells customers where they can pick up items that they left to be altered, while the main entrance bears a forbidding, ominous official seal.

The chain of stores is at the center of a nasty legal squabble between a foreign businessman and his former Russian partner, a squabble that bears all the hallmarks of a "drive-out-the-foreigner" type situation. Just like the one memorialized by the Minutka cafe down the road that still looks oddly like a branch of the U.S. Subway chain. How ever the Disegni case turns out -- and these processes are usually virtually unending -- the safe bet is that a once-thriving business will be killed off.

Of course, it would be unfair to place too much emphasis on such cases, although it is no less unfair to pretend that they do not exist. There are many examples of thriving foreign-owned and joint-venture businesses, and it is certainly possible to argue that these examples are more indicative of future trends.

But anyone in the news business knows the saying that bad news races around the world while good news is still putting on its shoes.

The Dutch consulate had a trade mission in town last week. The British consulate is bringing one next week. Can we really tell these guests that Russia is "leaving no stone unturned" in order to make their potential investments here secure?

Robert Coalson is the editor of The St. Petersburg Times.