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The Russians Are Buying—and Buying

Flush with profits, Russian companies are now zoning in on a new target: Eastern Europe. The real surprise is that the region’s governments, saddled with debt and deficits, are helping them do so.

Russian companies were shut out of Eastern European markets after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Bitter feelings toward the former occupiers lingered, and Russia’s battered corporations were in no shape to acquire. Besides, German, Austrian, and other Western European companies were eager to invest in the newly liberated East.

That’s changed. The value of Russian acquisitions in Eastern Europe over the past three years totaled $2.8 billion, compared with $2.4 billion in the previous 17 years, says the United Nations. Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, agreed to buy nine Eastern European units of Austria’s Oesterreichische Volksbanken in July for as much as €645 million ($881 million) in the Moscow-based lender’s first foray outside the former Soviet Union. Russian Railways, the operator of the world’s longest train network, has bid for a controlling stake in the cargo unit of Poland’s state railway. In late August, Russian Railways also expressed interest in the cargo business of Slovakia’s railway. VTB Group, Russia’s second-largest bank, bought a majority stake in Bulgaria’s state tobacco company for €100 million on Aug. 29.

The hunger for capital is changing attitudes in Poland, which has resisted Russian investments since breaking from communist rule in 1989. In the port of Gdańsk, birthplace of the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement, the Grupa Lotos refinery’s majority stake has been put up for sale by the government. TNK-BP, the Russian oil venture half owned by BP (BP), is among the bidders and is one of four to be short-listed, Polish news service PAP reported. The sale is part of Poland’s plan to raise 15 billion zloty ($5.3 billion) to finance its deficit. “The most important thing for us is for Polish refineries to be more competitive,” says Jerzy Borowczak, who fought alongside former President Lech Walesa in Solidarity. “Historical grudges mean nothing to me.”

The share of Russian acquisitions in Poland, the EU’s largest eastern economy, may rise in part because of the changing attitude of politicians. There should be “no ideological reasons” to reject Russian investments even as a “certain amount of caution and restraint” is warranted, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said last spring. Some of Tusk’s opponents remain firmly anti-Russian, however. Dawid Jackiewicz, a member of Law & Justice, the largest opposition party, said he would make Treasury Minister Aleksander Grad stand trial if the Russians buy Lotos, according to Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a local paper, in April.

One concern Eastern Europeans have about the Russian presence is that they are already almost totally dependent on Russian gas for their energy needs. Hungary in May spent part of its recent International Monetary Fund bailout loan to buy a 21 percent stake in MOL Nyrt., the nation’s largest refiner, from Surgutneftegas, a Russian oil producer. “A country can’t be strong if it’s completely dependent for its energy needs,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, an anticommunist student leader in the 1980s, said in a TV address.

Despite the opposition, the Russians’ fat checkbooks are proving powerful. VTB and Sberbank reported record net income last quarter as lending expanded and the share of overdue loans shrank. TNK-BP said in July that it expected record annual profits. Russia’s combined corporate profits, excluding financial companies and small businesses, surged 43 percent in the first half of 2011 from a year earlier, to 4.1 trillion rubles ($136 billion), the Federal State Statistics Service said on Aug. 26.

The Russians’ purchases may eventually bolster ties between Russia and Eastern Europe, says Simon Quijano-Evans, chief economist for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at ING (ING) in London. “The more cross-border activity you have in the region, the lower the political noise is going to be,” he says.

The bottom line: Russian companies made $136 billion in the first half of 2011. That money is helping bankroll a string of deals in Eastern Europe.

Simon is Budapest bureau chief for Bloomberg News.

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