As Gazprom Goes, So Goes Russia
On a frigid evening in February, the hottest place to be here was the Kremlin Palace theater. The draw inside the towering hall wasn’t Tina Turner or Deep Purple — rock icons well past their prime — but Gazprom, Russia’s most powerful corporate leviathan, which was celebrating its 15th anniversary. Gazprom certainly had reason to party: its chairman, Dmitri A. Medvedev, was riding high on the Russian campaign trail as the hand-picked successor of President Vladimir V. Putin. Although Gazprom forked over a handsome sum to book Ms. Turner and Deep Purple, Mr. Medvedev’s favorite band, the opportunity for the company, the world’s biggest producer of natural gas, to have its own man installed as Russia’s next leader was priceless.
“The gig at the Kremlin was fun, but it wasn’t wild,” Ian Gillan, Deep Purple’s frontman, wrote in an article for The Times of London after the show. “The young guys and more junior staff were all up on their feet, although they were looking nervously over at their bosses to see whether they could loosen their ties. It was as if they were asking, ‘How much fun are we allowed to have?’ ” Mr. Medvedev was sworn in as president on Wednesday, after winning the election in early March, and his ascent confirms that in today’s Russia, the line separating big business and the state is becoming so fine that it’s almost nonexistent. Gazprom and the government have long had a close relationship, but the revolving door between them is spinning especially fast this year: Mr. Medvedev, 42, replaces Mr. Putin as president; Mr. Putin becomes prime minister, replacing Viktor A. Zubkov; and Mr. Zubkov is expected to take Mr. Medvedev’s place as Gazprom’s chairman at a general shareholders meeting in June.
Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin “are as close to a dream team as Gazprom could ever hope for,” said Jonathan P. Stern, a British energy analyst and author of “The Future of Russian Gas and Gazprom.” It’s hard to overemphasize Gazprom’s role in the Russian economy. It’s a sprawling company that raked in $91 billion last year; it employs 432,000 people, pays taxes equal to 20 percent of the Russian budget and has subsidiaries in industries as disparate as farming and aviation. The company is a major supplier of natural gas to Europe, and it is becoming an important source of gas to fast-growing Asian markets like China and South Korea. In 2005, at the urging of the Kremlin, it bought Russia’s fifth-largest oil company from the tycoon Roman A. Abramovich. If crude oil and natural gas are considered together, Gazprom’s combined daily production of energy is greater than that of Saudi Arabia. With energy prices continuing to hit record highs, Gazprom is more influential than ever, both at home and abroad. Gazprom says that before 2014 it will surpass Exxon Mobil as the world’s largest publicly traded company — a goal that Mr. Medvedev himself endorsed before he became president.
When Mr. Putin was still president, he used Gazprom’s wealth and economic might to fight political enemies inside Russia, to reassert influence over former Soviet republics, to gain leverage over Western European countries by increasing their dependence on Russian gas, and to wrest Russian energy assets back from foreign companies. Now that Russia is seeking to reclaim the geopolitical clout it had in Soviet days, it is wielding its vast energy resources, rather than missiles, to reassert itself. More often than not, its most potent artillery is Gazprom itself. In a news conference last year, Mr. Putin denied that Russia uses its economic might to achieve foreign policy goals. But others disagree. “Energy should not be used for a policy tool, but it is,” said Vladimir Milov, president of the Institute of Energy Policy, an independent research organization in Moscow, and a former deputy minister of energy. Gazprom, he said, has at times been a “tool of punishment for neighboring countries.”
AT a Gazprom worksite in the Yuzhno-Russkoye field in Siberia one day last winter, it was so cold that two dozen diesel engines were left roaring day and night, lest they would freeze until spring. Every winter, some Russian roughnecks get frostbite. “Your skin just peels a little,” said Sergei G. Koshel, a drilling supervisor, dismissing the dangers. Another burly man, taking a break from the rig, pantomimed the issue more graphically, reaching up to his ear, pinching off a phantom piece and flicking it away like a cigarette butt. The Yuzhno-Russkoye field alone has proven reserves of 800 billion cubic meters of natural gas, or enough to meet the gas demand in the United States for more than a year, and it is only the first of half a dozen huge developments that are planned in the north. Over the next two years, Gazprom plans to triple its capital outlays in its core business of exploring, extracting and transporting gas — just to maintain its current production levels. Investments will rise to 969 billion rubles, or $45 billion, in 2010 from 330 billion rubles, or $14 billion, last year.
To help finance a heady expansion into the Arctic, Gazprom is working on ways to push up natural gas prices in Russia and in the export market. Last year, it floated the idea of creating a cartel for natural gas, similar to OPEC’s oil cartel. Iran supports the idea, but Algeria, Qatar and others are uncommitted. A gas cartel would allow Russia to increase its influence in global energy markets, but at this point it’s unclear how hard it will push the concept. Gazprom’s ties to the government are already paying dividends in the domestic market. Under a policy championed by Mr. Medvedev when he served as deputy prime minister, Russian consumers are going to have to pay starkly higher prices for natural gas. Prices are set to rise about 25 percent a year, starting this year, with the goal of reaching parity with world energy prices by 2011. Policies like this mean that average Russians won’t continue enjoying their traditional access to cheap energy, and they offer a stark example of the government’s willingness to give Gazprom a leg up — regardless of the social fallout. Just as Gazprom’s riches make it a proxy for Russia’s newfound power and prestige around the world, the company also epitomizes the risks of state capitalism: waste and inefficiency.