Q. What do sushi, haute couture, tour operators, oil trading and (maybe) the persecution of another Russian billionaire have in common?
A. They’re all showing signs, one way or another, of how the Russian economy is struggling with the west’s sanctions against it. You can see the impact from Paris and Wall St. via the beaches of Turkey and Egypt all the way-almost inevitably–to the courtrooms of Moscow.
Exhibit A: Reuters reported Thursday that Morgan Stanley’s (MS) plan to sell its oil trading business to the state-controlled oil giant OAO Rosneft may collapse because sanctions on the company make it virtually impossible to finance day-to-day operations. The last round of E.U. and U.S. sanctions means Rosneft can’t borrow for more than 30 days in either European or U.S. financial markets.
Reuters quoted people familiar with the matter as saying that the chances of the deal going through range from “possible” to “highly unlikely.”
That’s not only a problem for Rosneft, but also for the Wall St. behemoth that wants to exit the business because it ties up too much capital for comfort under new regulatory rules. Rosneft didn’t reply to Fortune’s request for comment Thursday, while the right spokesman at Morgan Stanley couldn’t immediately be reached.
Exhibit B: A Moscow court Thursday upheld an order to keep oligarch Vladimir Evtushenkov under house arrest, rejecting his offer to post over $8 million in bail as a bond. Where’s the connection, you ask? Evtushenkov’s sprawling Sistema empire includes the oil company OAO Bashneft, a company which it has transformed into a cash-generating machine.
Those cash flows (over $1 billion in the first half of 2014) are a tempting prospect for Rosneft, which has huge debts to repay after buying the much bigger TNK-BP last year. Cue charges of illegal privatization and money-laundering, in a more than faint echo of the Yukos affair 10 years ago–which just happened to be directed by the same Igor Sechin who is now Rosneft chairman.
Rosneft denies any involvement or hint of impropriety in the process, but spokesman Mikhail Leontyev was happy to help guide the public’s and the court’s thinking by telling Komsolskaya Pravda last week that “I find it hard to imagine that Ural Rakhimov (the former president of Bashneft’s home state) could privatize assets correctly.”
And in a heavy hint as to what might await Evtushenkov, Leontyev said: “I have lots of friends who have sat in jail for years, and then the accusations have been withdrawn. We have a specific court system, particularly as regards investigations. You understand?”
We understand. Sistema’s shares have lost over 60% since June.
Exhibit C. But it’s away from the intrigues of Moscow that things are getting visibly strained. Over 56,000 Russian tourists have had to be helped home from their holidays this year because the ruble’s collapse to an all-time low against the dollar has caused a string of tour operators to go bust. The firms, which cater to the mass-market, all face bills in foreign currency but get paid in rubles.
“The Russian tourism market is experiencing a profound systemic crisis triggered by political and economic factors,” the Russian Travel Industry Union spokeswoman Irina Tyurina said last week. “The year 2014 was much worse for the travel industry even than the crisis year 2009, in which outbound tourism dropped 15%-20% percent.
Exhibit D. Hordes of stranded lower- and middle-class Russians may dint Putin’s still sky-high popularity, but if you believe the line that Russia is a country run by the 1% for the 1%, then he may have more to fear from this: TV star Tina Kandelaki (seen in happier times flipping a Ferrari on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice) complained on her Instagram page Thursday that for the first time in 10 years, Russians have dropped out of the top 10 buyers of prêt-à-porter fashion in Paris. “Purchasing power is falling,” she said. “We’re no longer Emirates (sic) and don’t want to buy things for three times their actual price.” (Heck, we didn’t realize it was THAT bad…)
Exhibit E. At least you’re still allowed to buy Jean-Paul Gaultier, even if you can’t afford it. But Bloomberg reports that Russian sanctions on European food imports are now killing what has been the staple food of Moscow’s middle-class for the last decade–sushi. Restaurants are having to pay 30% more for Chilean salmon now that they can’t buy the Norwegian version–and are finding that customers don’t like the look of it either. Meanwhile, up in the Arctic port of Murmansk, director Mikhail Zub has closed his fish canning factory down, laid off over 100 staff and sued the government after the sanctions stopped him buying Norwegian salmon. #GLWT, as they say.