Now that we are all done with cheering and feasting, it is worth remembering the pagan roots of the 12 Days of Christmas and the celebratory season in general.
Long before Jesus Christ was born, the ancient Greeks and Romans held festivals in late December to mark the winter solstice. For them, the rebirth of the sun and the return of daylight were worth celebrating. It’s one of the reasons the Roman Christians picked Dec. 25 for Christmas Day. The date coincided with the festival of the sun qod Mithras. His rebirth, and the birth of Christ, weren’t far from each other in meaning in the Fourth Century.
For the ancients, who also used to bring a green tree branch into the house, this was a time of year to appease evil spirits lurking in hiding places within the house or outside under the ground. In the snow-covered regions of northern Greece, for example, it was the custom to feed the bears. This was appeasement of a practical, not simply symbolic, sort. For, if the bears could easily find the food offered to them, they would be less likely to come looking for it in the villages.
I don’t know if the Kremlin staff still employs diviners and astrologers, as in the Yeltsin days. I suspect, though, that they haven’t given up on the old practice of feeding the bears. A presidential election-campaign staff is already being formed which is going to need cash, not to mention regional vote-gathering machines. Both require a lot of appeasing in the early stages. In any event, those whose fortunes depend on harvesting presidential power are bound to lay their offerings in front of the bears, even if they have not been explicitly ordered to do it.
In no particular order of size or merit, then, let us imagine what the bears, if awakened at this time of January, might want to find lying about:
• Vladimir Potanin. Controller of the Interros holding, whose principal asset is Norilsk Nickel – the world’s leading miner of nickel and palladium – Potanin has been selling off non-core assets in the shipping business, only to buy others in the food sector. It is almost two years now since Potanin made an overpriced offer for a 34-percent stake in steelmaker Novolipetsk. That deal, urged on Potanin by Boris Jordan, cost Interros $170 million – $30 million more than Novolipetsk chairman Vladimir Lisin had offered the sellers, the Reuben brothers of Trans World. Maybe Jordan had told Potanin that if he paid the premium, in no time at all he could take over the rest of Novolipetsk, ousting Lisin. Maybe Potanin was not listening. At any rate, the threatened takeover by Interros has failed to deter or daunt Lisin, although the conflict between the shareholders has slowed down the steelmaker’s move toward modernization and recapitalization, thus hurting the very share value Potanin was after. What morsel will it take for Potanin to abandon his taste for Novolipetsk, and in a steel market as depressed as this one, can Lisin afford the price?
• Oleg Deripaska. Head of Base Element (the new name of Siberian Aluminum, now that its aluminum assets have been transferred to Russian Aluminum) and managing shareholder of Russian Aluminum, Deripaska is probably more dependent on the Kremlin than the other bears. On the one hand, having acquired a group of automotive assets, including the Gorky Automobile Plant, three bus manufacturers, component makers and a possible interest in acquiring more, Deripaska cannot afford rapid progress by Russian negotiators seeking accession to the WTO. A cash flow of around $1.8 billion in these auto assets – equal to or greater than Deripaska’s original Siberian Aluminum revenues – depends on a variety of protections from imports and domestic price increases. If the Kremlin wants WTO membership, it will have to sacrifice some of the protections Deripaska is counting on.
At the same time, his stake in Russian Aluminum, the largest producer of primary aluminum in the world after Alcoa – would benefit from the greater freedom of trade to be enjoyed once Russia enters the WTO. A smart bear will try to keep the one without relinquishing the other. In addition, in a market of falling aluminum prices, Deripaska’s profit margin and dividend from Russian Aluminum can be sustained by a variety of tidbits that require Kremlin generosity: for example, low electricity rates and discounts off rising rail freight charges.
• Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven. Here the bear specialists may dicker among themselves. Is Aven a shareholder on the same level as Fridman, or is he something less? Whatever the answer, there is no doubt the Alfa Bank bear is hungry, and this will be a testing year. A European syndicated bank loan for $20 million it received in December was the first sign of international confidence in unsecured lending to Russian institutions. Can Alfa go on to attract buyers of unsecured bonds worth, say, 10 or 20 times the loan value? Or can Fridman and Aven find a Western bank of greater size willing to offer a billion dollars or more for a small piece of Alfa equity? This is more a question of bear-training – a complicated and riskier matter than bear-feeding, which, as I have said, the ancients believed to be an exercise in pacification, not partnership.
But, look, there are so many bears in Russia and only so much the villagers, even the Kremlin ones, can afford to proffer. Matching offering to appetite is always difficult when villagers encounter bears and men meet the spirits of the netherworld. Doubtless, for those with a taste for blood sports, the miscalculations are interesting to watch for.