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In global capital markets, Russia eyes larger role

The investment push, fueled by a new sovereign wealth fund and eager Russian businessmen, has raised concerns of Moscow meddling abroad.

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In the run-up to Mar. 2 presidential elections, Medvedev said the Kremlin would encourage Russian companies to invest heavily in foreign assets. "The acquisition of foreign companies directly or by buying up stakes in their authorized capital is a very important task," Medvedev told an assembly of Russian businessmen in February. "Business should always be confident that it has state support [when it moves onto] world markets."

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But is the world ready for an assertively capitalistic Russia? Some say no. In his annual assessment to Congress last month, US National Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell voiced "concerns about the financial capabilities of Russia, China, and OPEC countries and the potential use of their market access to exert financial leverage to political ends."

On a Persian Gulf visit last year, Putin lashed out at the US and other countries for "misplaced" fears of political penetration and the obstacles they create for Russian investors. Medvedev, for his part, has insisted that Russia's motivation is purely economic. The main reason for Russian investors to buy foreign firms, he says, is to "help retool and modernize Russian companies, boost their production effectiveness and enter new markets."

Some analysts suggest Russia's behavior will smooth out as it becomes more experienced. "Russia is a newcomer to this world of foreign investment and trade, and is only starting to devise its strategy," says Yaroslav Lissovolik, Deutsche Bank's chief economist in Russia. "At times it makes mistakes and does things that are not always seen as acceptable."

Soviet way of spreading influence?

But some experts believe a more old-fashioned political calculus might be at work, particularly since the Kremlin has exerted direct control over many of Russia's leading firms during Putin's tenure.

"People with a shade of the old Soviet mentality interpret foreign investment as the spread of Russian political influence," says Yulia Tseplayeva, chief economist at Merrill Lynch in Russia. "Some in government may have this outlook," she says.