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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boardrooms: Chess Pieces In June Vote

The boardrooms of Russia's biggest companies have seen sweeping change over the past few months, but the maneuvering seems to have more to do with the intricacies of electoral politics than with a free market.


The turnover of top jobs over the past two months has been extraordinary. The key figures of three of Russia's top half-dozen companies have all stepped down or been pushed aside.


In April, Anatoly Filatov was sacked as president of Norilsk Nickel, Russia's biggest industrial company. The past two weeks have seen the departure of Rem Vyakhirev as chairman of Gazprom and most recently of Sergei Muravlenko, chairman of Yukos, Russia's second biggest oil company.


In the case of both Norilsk and Yukos, the moves look like an attempt entrench the results of the highly suspect shares-for-loans auctions held at the end of last year.


In the case of Norilsk, Uneximbank was awarded the shares in what amounted to a hostile takeover. Uneximbank, loyal Yeltsin supporters, are now in charge and will be better able to protect themselves should the political situation change after the elections.


Yukos management had much better relations with Menatep Bank, which won its shares under another suspect shares-for-loans deal. The fact that Menatep has now taken over the board of Yukos in exchange for giving Yukos seats within its power structure suggests an attempt to create a corporate bond so complicated that it cannot be undone, whatever the result of the elections.


The politics of the recomposition of the crucial Gazprom board are inscrutable. Although he is still clearly in control behind the scenes, Gazprom chairman Vyakhirev, one of the staunchest of Yeltsin's supporters, stood down in favor of Anatoly Kazakov, the privatization minister.


Kazakov says his main role will be to prepare the company for a further wave of privatization. This message clearly has Gazpom's backing and looks like a veiled warning to the communists, who have been talking about taking back control of the gas monopoly.


Anatoly Chubais, the now-fallen genius of Russia's privatization program, remarked in April, when the sackings at Norilsk Nickel started this round of change, that it was all part of a broad move toward "new management" in the name of shareholders rather than by the state.


Whatever all these shadow plays actually mean, this seems a bit rich. The boards of directors of Russia's biggest companies are still more like chess pieces in the hands of politicians, and the main game at present is the 1996 presidential elections.