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Schroeder accepts, Evans declines

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti economic commentator Nina Kulikova.) Donald Evans, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, has declined the Russian authorities' offer to chair the board of Rosneft, a major state-owned oil company, report The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.

Is it good or bad news for the Russian expert community? On the one hand, the possibility of Evans becoming the chairman of Rosneft, which the leading Russian and foreign newspapers reported last week, promised quite a few benefits to Russia. On the other hand, it was a questionable offer.

If Evans accepted it on the eve of Rosneft's initial public offering (IPO), the Kremlin would have presented this as proof of Western principles in the company's management. This would have improved the company's standing harmed by the acquisition of the former Yukos assets, as well as the reputation of Russia, which badly needs its companies to be seen as reliable partners.

The invitation of such a skilled and influential specialist to Rosneft's board shows that the Russian company is trying to work according to international standards, publicly and transparently.

Russia has been working hard of late to strengthen the standing of its energy companies and improve their reputation. One of the moves towards this end was the lifting of the ring fence around Gazprom. Recent legislative amendments have raised the ceiling of foreign participation in the company from 20% to 50% minus one share.

Secondly, the groundbreaking ceremony of the North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) demonstrated Gazprom's ability to work with Western partners.

The painful conversion to market prices in the energy trade with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was especially difficult in the case of Ukraine, should make these relations more transparent and increase the effectiveness of the Russian gas monopolist.

And lastly, Rosneft's IPO planned for next year should reduce the state's share in the company and propel it into foreign markets. The process would have been simplified if it had a foreign chairman with strong ties abroad.

So far, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is the only former high-ranking foreign official to have accepted a management position in a Russian energy company. Having agreed to chair the shareholders committee of the North European Gas Pipeline Company, the NEGP operator, he will be in a position to facilitate the solution of many problems inevitable during construction (ecological, route, etc.).

Schroeder's agreement confirmed that the Russian economy has become an inalienable part of the global economy. Russia is completing talks on accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). After the recent December conference, it needs to sign accession protocols with only four countries.

The outgoing year saw a record number of Russian companies' IPOs. Russian corporations emerging on foreign markets dominated by transnational capital should correspond to modern trends. If they want to become transnational, they need transnational management.

At the same time, the invitation of Donald Evans to Rosneft provoked many questions in Russia. Foreign managers have been on the boards of independent Russian companies for years. After the rapid privatization in the 1990s, the first Russian owners recruited foreign managers, which helped them raise the quality of corporate governance. But it was the first time that the leading post in a state-owned company was offered to a foreign specialist, let alone a former high-ranking official.

Can government officials who had worked for years for the benefit of their own countries honestly defend the interests of a state company in another country? The former U.S. secretary of commerce would have lobbied the interests of one or several American companies. It is one thing for a former foreign official to advocate the interests of Russia in the West or attract investment that would not lead to a loss of national control over the company. But it is quite another thing if his actions directly or indirectly secure open or hidden foreign control over the Russian company.

The Russian authorities do not seem to fear this. Russia has shown that it no longer has second thoughts about inviting foreigners to state-owned companies. And since the intention has been declared, the government will most probably continue the search, and Schroeder may soon cease to be the only well-known foreign official on the Russian government's service.

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