The Developments at TNK-BP

Anybody who has been paying attention to the business climate in Russia over the past few years will not be much surprised about the latest round of nonsense in the TNK-BP row:

Russia’s migration service said today it would not grant a visa to TNK-BP chief executive Robert Dudley before he presents a valid contract, saying it believed his previous contract had expired.

“We cannot grant a visa to Mr Dudley before he presents a valid contract. The previous contract expired and we have no proof that it has been prolonged,” Konstantin Poltoranin, a spokesman at the Federal Migration Service (FMS), told Reuters.

Dudley’s contract expired last year but BP says it is still valid under Russian law because it has never been officially terminated and as a result rolls over automatically.

Mikhail Fridman, Lev Blavatnik, Viktor Vekselberg and German Khan, TNK-BP’s four Russian billionaire co-owners, who want to sack Dudley as part of their dispute with BP over the company’s strategy and management control, say the contract has never been officially renewed and is therefore no longer valid.

Dudley is also facing penalties from a judge after a labour inspector found some minor violations, the TNK-BP source said. These could include suspending him from his post for a period of up to three years.

So even if Dudley’s contract is proven valid and his work permit is renewed, there is a Plan B – and probably a Plan C, D, E, F, and G – to ensure he can get booted out of his post anyway.  I noted in April that the Russian government had pretty much abandoned any pretence to subtlety in its dealings with TNK-BP, even though an outsider would wonder why the Russian government is getting involved in the managerial disputes of a private company in the first place.  An outsider, that is, who hasn’t been paying attention.

One thing which doesn’t seem to have been picked up on much is that the dispute seems to have changed from one whereby the Russian government were trying to force the Russian owners of TNK-BP to concede their half to the current situation where it is BP which is looking like being kicked out.  This is from June 2007:

Many believe the Kovykta tangle is just a skirmish before the real battle over the Kremlin’s desire to seize the half share in TNK-BP that is currently held by Russian oligarchs and perhaps more.

A lock-in period under which Access-Renova and the other Russian owners must hold on to their shares in TNK-BP comes to an end in December. It seems inevitable that the Kremlin might use that period to put pressure on them to sell out, paving the way for a state-owned operator such as Gazprom or Rosneft to take control.

It is hard to tell what exactly happened a year ago during the arguments over Kovykta, but I got the impression that BP helped the four Russian oligarchs resist the Kremlin pressure to sell their stake to Rosneft or Gazprom.  Now the Russian government is assisting the oligarchs in forcing BP to cede control of the company.  There are two interesting aspects to this.

Firstly, the oligarchs have probably found themselves faced with the choice of either helping the Russian government get rid of BP, or being got rid of themselves.  Well aware of the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I know which way I’d turn.  I doubt this volte-face will go unnoticed by potential and current foreign investors.

Secondly, supposing the oligarchs do succeed in getting rid of BP, what will be their fate thereafter?  Will Gazprom or Rosneft take the BP half and be content with sharing the rest with the oligarchs, or will the Kremlin simply move its gunsights to the other side of the boardroom table?  Divide and conquer is not a new or original strategy, but I wonder if the Russian owners of TNK-BP are aware of it.

Thoughts on Japan

I’m now back in Sakhalin, new visa in hand, once again impressed by the speed with which a Russian embassy can process a visa if you pony up enough cash.  Some further thoughts on Japan are below.

The Japanese have toll-booths on certain roads, one of which runs between Narita Airport and Tokyo city.  Two little red-and-white striped barriers block the roadway between the toll-booths, which open automatically at great speed once a detector of some sort reads some device on the car and deducts the charge.  The barriers have to open at great speed because drivers approach them at great speed as if they weren’t even there.  First time I went through one, I thought my driver had gone all kamikaze on me, before the barriers whipped up a split second before the bumper would have smashed them to pieces.  I’m guessing the system doesn’t run on Windows software.  A Toyota Camry heading towards the barriers at 100mph.  Blue screen comes up.  Not pretty.

There were some nifty gadgets in the hotel room.  One was a toilet which did all the cleaning, washing, and scrubbing of your nether regions for you.  A little control pad attached to the toilet kept everything under control.  Another was the curtains which opened and closed at the touch of a button beside the bed.  You could lie in bed watching TV with a full view of the Tokyo skyline, then close the curtains and go to sleep without moving more than your arm.  In the morning, you can check the weather (hot and humid) before you get out of bed.  I liked that.

There seems to be some schoolgirl fetish thing going on in Japan.  Okay, all the actual schoolgirls were dressed in short tartan skirts and knee-socks, but so were the women handing out flyers on the streets and the girls on more than a few advertising posters.  It seemed to be a recurring theme.

If you think Russians like their female popstars young, take a look at Japan.  I saw a poster advertising some top Japanese star’s latest single.  She looked about 12.

I wandered into what looked to be a games arcade, hoping to check out some fancy video games we can expect to see in the west in 15 years.  I found it full of people in their forties and fifties playing some bizarre game which consisted of putting steel ball bearings – which they kept beside them by the thousand in baskets – into a machine.  It looked like some vertical version of bagatelle.

Odd, day-glo cartoon characters are not used in Japan only to advertise kids’ stuff, such as odd, day-glo cartoon toys.  They are used to advertise seemingly everything, including stuff which exists firnly within the realms of the adult world.  Bank loans, for example.

There were lots of weird kiosks about, full of slot machines which I could not for the life of me figure out what they were dispensing.  My best guess is comics.

I went into the BIC Camera Centre on the day some latest mobile phone launched.  One would have thought Miss Japan was there putting out for anyone who wanted her.

The Japanese use their own, stunningly logical system of shoe sizes.  Rather than use random numbers like 38 or 7.5, they state their shoe sizes in centimetres.  Sadly for me, most Japanese feet don’t grow beyond size 28.

Going to the sports section of a department store presents you with a mass of golfing equipment and nothing else.  The outfits Japanese women choose to play golf in look as though they were created by Walt Disney.  Enormous – and I mean enormous – netted structures stand around the city.  These are driving ranges.  Golf is big in Japan.

The Tokyo Metro is brilliant.  I have ridden the four main ones in the world – London, Tokyo, New York, and Moscow – and found the Japanese one to be by far the best, although they don’t have bronze sculptures of partisan fighters planning an attack on German invaders.  London’s is by far the worst.

The sheer quantity of electronic stuff on sale in Electronic City in the Chiyoda district is staggering.  You go into a shop, spend a while looking around, then realise there are another 6 floors.  I don’t think there is anything you couldn’t find there.  Except for maybe anything made by Samsung or LG.  I saw Sony LCD TVs the size of whiteboards.

Apart from when it is really busy with people, Tokyo is very pleasant to walk around.  There are signposts all over the place, pedestrian crossings everywhere, and everything is spotlessly clean.  If it weren’t so expensvie, it would be a great place for a short holiday.

The policeman outside the Russian embassy greets passers by with a cheery grin and a hello.  Try finding that in any other country.

I liked Japan. If I got offered a year or two of work there, I’d jump at the chance.

An Afternoon in Tokyo

I have spent most of today wandering around Tokyo in a state of utter confusion and hopelessness.  And I haven’t even got to the Russian embassy yet.  But even taking this into consideration, I am enjoying myself.

The biggest problem is similar to the one I had in Korea a few years ago, which is a complete inability to distinguish a bank from a brewery and a bar from a bus stop.  Everything is labelled but, oddly enough, in Japanese.  I can’t decipher a single character.  At least in Korea I had half a chance with being able to recognise the logos.  I’ve written before about the importance of logos and when you find yourself in a world without many you recognise (a 60-storey skyscraper with Hitachi on the top isn’t helpful), identification of goods and services is pretty damned difficult.  I suspect had Naomi Klein lived in Japan for a year, she’d have ditched her most famous work halfway through the introduction as she bit into an imported Mars Bar.  So most of this afternoon I spent looking for an ATM which spoke English.  There didn’t seem to be any banks which I recognised except for Citibank, whose ATM was as much use as a slot machine.  The few Japanese banks I came across had ATMs with no English instructions, and most didn’t even display the Visa sign.  Even the ATMs of the Bank of Dolinsk (Dolinsk is a set of trees with a house between them north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) carry the Visa sign.  I needed a load of cash (only cash, of course) to pay for my visa tomorrow, and I was beginning to panic.  Eventually I found what was described as an “international ATM” in a post office beside my hotel, which coughed up some dough after a bit of poking around with the buttons.  I can’t say I didn’t enjoy wandering around the Ginza district of Tokyo all day, and I particularly liked seeing the population of a small country cross those diagonal zebra crossings when the little green man comes on, but I fear that never before has Tokyo seen anyone looking more gormless on its streets than I did this afternoon.  I should take this opportunity to thank the Aussie fella for giving me directions when he found me hopelessly cross-referencing two pocket maps with a huge tourist one on the street, to absolutely no avail whatsoever.

My hotel, the Imperial Hotel, is superb.  Which is of no surprise whatsoever, as this is Japan we are talking about.  Being a good metre taller than the average Japanese, the receptionist obviously thought I was more comfortable at lofty elevations and put me on the top level some 31 floors above the pavement.  The view from my room is spectacular, and I’ll post some photos when I get back.  The room – one of over 1,000 – is excellent, with everything in perfect working order and the bathroom containing white fluffy bathrobes, the one and only sign of a decent hotel.  Had I bothered to bring my laptop, I could enjoy complimentary super high-speed broadband in my room, but as it happens I have to use super high-speed broadband in the business centre which contains a dozen top-notch computers, none of which have a worn out mouse and a keybaord missing a couple of keys, which I can use free of charge.  When it comes to running hotels, the Japanese – along with the Koreans – have got the rest of the world licked.

I didn’t fancy paying $85 for a buffet dinner though.  Tokyo isn’t cheap. So I went for a wander along a narrow street alongside the elevated railway near the hotel and found a place which sold some dishes I recognised, photos of which were on display outside.  They were Korean dishes, which I know from living amongst 30,000 ethnic Koreans on Sakhalin and alongside a wife who spent 3 years in Taegu, on offer in what I took to be a rough-and-ready Japanese restaurant.  So I went in with white face, round eyes, hairy arms, and full of ignorance, where in this regard I was in the company of myself only.  Nobody spoke English, which made it all the more fun, and by the time I had ordered my food and had drunk the neck off a bottle of Asahi Dry I realised I was in a rough-and-ready Korean restaurant and there wasn’t a Japanese person in the whole damned place.  Keeping “they-all-look-the-bloody-same-to-me’ mumblings to a minimum I kicked back, ate my food, took in the surroundings, and enjoyed my beer and myself.  Problem is, I don’t know a single Japanese dish and, now you mention it, I don’t know a single thing about Japan other than crude stereotypes involving sumo wrestlers, karaoke, and samurai swords.  But I do know I like Japan, and the service is impeccable and the people unfailingly polite, even if they do turn out to be a load of Koreans.

I’ll see what I can find tomorrow.

Off to Japan

I’m going to be offline for a few days.  Tomorrow I’m moving to a bigger and better apartment, a result of my having changed jobs, and I don’t know when my internet connection there will be up and running.  And on Tuesday I’m flying to Tokyo for a few days to get my new visa.  I’m looking forward to the second of these immensely, the first not at all.  I’ll be taking my camera, hopefully I’ll post some photos on my return.

London

I’m back in Sakhalin alive and well, despite the lack of posts on here.  Truth is, I’ve changed jobs, joining another company from the one which brought me to Sakhalin in the first place.  Having had to do a handover, organise a new apartment, and start a new job, I’d not got around to writing anything until now.

I enjoyed my trip back to the UK a lot, mostly because I caught up with friends and family who I’d not seen in almost two years.  Much time and money was spent drinking, and I enjoyed being able to visit some decent shops without having to pay either a commission charge or a foreign currency charge when paying by credit card, nor did I have to pay a few percent of every total I withdrew from a cash machine.

My first thought on returning to London, which occurred when I was on the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow T5, was how pretentious people are there.  I listened to some real nonsense being spouted on the tube, including some fellow with a ponytail explaining to his rather bemused female friend all about how the Illuminati control the world via the Freemason movement.  This was a result of her asking why Angelina Jolie was made a UN goodwill ambassador, and she listened patiently for fifteen minutes whilst Ponytail explained the inner workings of the Bilderburgs who, incidentally, select the UN security council and have appointed Barack Obama to be the next US president.  When he finally ran out of ideas, she looked confused and asked what that had to do with Angelina Jolie being made a UN goodwill ambassador.  Ponytail had an answer: it ensures the Illuminati has Hollywood on side, and thus films can be made to influence the opinions of the masses.  The example he gave was Men In Black, which was made in order to make the public think that men in black working for the government was all a big joke.  She didn’t look convinced.

But in a way, I kind of liked this sort of stuff, and I think Londoners have got a right to be pretentious in some respects.  One thing I noticed, more so than I have done before, is the incredible variety of people who live in London.  You hear a bewildering array of languages on the tube, you can sit opposite a swarthy couple speaking a peculiar language, and you’d struggle to pin down the continent they are from, never mind the country.  Everybody is of all shapes, sizes, and colours, and you see a hippyish Spaniard with his arm around a Korean girl, and between all the languages and dialects I noticed that there was no connection whatsoever between speaking like a native Londoner and personal appearances.  Having been living in Russia, a place where opinions of racial superiority are widespread and do not lie buried deep, and where ethnic Russians fiercely deny that a third-generation ethnic Korean could ever be considered Russian, I thought Londoners should be justifiably proud of what has been achieved there.  I certainly was.  You can be whoever you want to be in London, something which few cities in the world can boast of.

But then there were the things London cannot boast of, one of which is the ludicrous 11pm closing time of bars.  Having a big fat bastard bellowing in your ear to finish your drink and make your way outside still grates as much now as it did in 2003 when I last heard it.  On a Friday night in Shoreditch we could not find a bar open later than 1am, and even then there were only a handful staying open until that time.  Advice was given for us to wander about looking for a nightclub which “might be open until 2am”.  No thanks.  The Russians might not run the most refined drinking establishments, but at least they know how to keep their customers happy and not boot them out just as they’re getting going.

Which leads me to the things London can be utterly ashamed of.  Having kicked the entire population of the city pubs out onto the streets on a Friday night at around midnight, inevitably the thronging masses proceed to turn the place into a total shit-tip.  Without exaggerating, Brick Lane was ankle deep in litter and what by the morning would become effluent, and the street was packed with people who were utterly plastered to the point of not being able to stand properly, but being more than able to order a kebab from a van parked opposite.  It was not a pretty sight.  With a thick stench of piss and weed, it wasn’t a pretty smell either.  Even the most depraved Russian town doesn’t turn scenes like that on a night time.  When the desperate alcoholics of Sakhalin’s abandoned port towns demonstrate greater civic pride than the average Londoner, then perhaps it’s time to ask Sochi if they want the summer games as well.

Many people complain about the appalling standard of service in Russia, even the Russians themselves.  But there is no greater preparation for living in Russia than having previously endured British levels of service for several years.  Try getting a fridge delivered in Russia and Britain, and see if there is any discernable difference in service.  If anything, the Russians will do it better even if the delivery guy is actually somebody’s mate and could really use a bath.  The aeroplane which flew me between Moscow and London – Europe’s two largest cities – was operated by British Airways and had the interior condition of any random carriage on the Northern Line.  It was a disgrace.  It was old, unkempt, unclean, and my armrest kept falling off.  And the food was terrible.  By comparison, the Transaero plane I took for the flight between Sakhalin and Moscow was old, unkempt, relatively clean, and the armrest stayed on.  And the food was edible.  If British Airways between London and Moscow can’t beat the service standards that Transaero achieves between Sakhalin and Moscow, they should flog their Heathrow landing slots pronto and go off to do something they might actually be good at.

Later on in my holiday I ordered some computer components online and selected the express delivery option, which cost £10 instead of £5.  Unfortunately, the company I purchased them from had chosen to use City Link for the delivery.  Having waited a few days, I called them up and found out that they had tried to deliver the package but found nobody in (I was in), and had left a card (which I never found).  Then they just sat back and did nothing.  According to the online tracker, the package was scheduled for delivery the next day.  The next day nobody came, so I rung them up and asked them why.  Apparently, the website automatically updates itself to state the delivery date as being the next possible date of delivery which is in no way related to the scheduled date of delivery which City Link has decided upon.  Presumably the website states “scheduled delivery” because the web designer lacked a dictionary.  So I asked the boy on the end of the phone where the package was, and he said it was a couple of miles away.  So I asked him if they could reschedule it to deliver it today, but that was not possible.  In fact, nothing I asked City Link to do seemed possible, and as my flight back left the next morning, I said sod it and walked round to their depot to collect it myself.  Asking around, it seems quite a few people have trodden this path before me.  Before I hung up, I asked him why nobody called me in the 4 days they had my package.  He said they “don’t offer this service”.  Why they insist on having a telephone number for every recipient is anyone’s guess.  But if the customers of City Link find themselves walking a 4-mile round trip to collect an express package 4 days after they failed to deliver it, then they should probably join British Airways in sacking off their whole core business and finding something they might do well, although I wouldn’t like to take a guess at what that might be.  Monitoring clouds, perhaps?

Russian service is crap beyond belief, but at least they have the excuse of 70 years of idiotic communism to offer up as an excuse.  What excuse do the Brits have?  I don’t know, and I’m not going to stick around to find out.  It was a nice visit, but I’m not going to live back in the UK any time soon.  My new job will likely keep me on Sakhalin for another two years, and beyond that I am not even going to bother thinking about.