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Participation in Russian Firms: to Quit or Not to Quit? by Hélène de Lauzun

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Participation in Russian Firms: to Quit or Not to Quit?

The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war February 23rd raises the question of how states and individuals should position themselves with regard to the Russian aggressor.

Several European leaders serve in leadership roles in Russian companies. Should they leave these positions to show their disapproval of the Putin regime and its actions, or should they continue their activities as if nothing happened? Opinions differ. 

François Fillon, French Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 and a candidate in the 2017 presidential election, is currently in a position of influence. He joined the board of directors of Russian petrochemical giant Zarubezhneft in June, after partnering with Sibur last December, a company controlled by two Russian oligarchs: Leonid Mikhelson, one of Russia’s richest men, and Gennady Timchenko, close friend to President Putin. As the situation at Ukraine’s border intensified in February, Fillon said he had no intention of leaving his post, which led Secretary of State for European Affairs Clément Beaune to denounce what he called Fillon’s “complicity” with Putin. François Fillon has repeatedly drawn attention to the danger of ignoring Russia’s resistance to NATO expansion in the east. 

As of Friday, February 25th, he resigned from all of his functions in Sibur and Zarubezhneft, buckling under the pressure of public opinion.

In Germany, a similar situation has arisen for former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now chairman of the board of Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, and a member of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream 2, the controversial Russian-German gas pipeline that Germany suspended on Monday, February 21st. In 2011, Gerhard Schröder inaugurated the first section of the Nord Stream pipeline in the presence of Angela Merkel, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, and François Fillon. So although he immediately condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on LinkedIn, he also said that mistakes had been made “on both sides.” 

At the beginning of February, during his trip to Washington, the current Chancellor Olaf Scholz distanced himself from Gerhard Schröder, recalling that “he does not speak for the government, he does not work for the government, he is not the government.”

And Scholz is right. But not all European leaders have taken the questionable positions of François Fillon and Gerhard Schröder. 

Instead, the former Italian and Finnish prime ministers and the former Austrian chancellor each announced on Thursday, February 24th, that they had resigned from the boards of Russian companies on which they sat. Matteo Renzi told the Financial Times that he was resigning from Delimobil, Russia’s largest car-sharing service, and said he had sent a resignation email on Thursday with immediate effect. Former Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho resigned on Thursday from Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank, where he had worked for six years. Christian Kern, Austrian chancellor between 2016 and 2017, also resigned from the board of directors of Russian Railways (RZD) on Thursday morning.

Given the strategic dimension of the companies concerned, these former European leaders believe that in resigning, they acquit themselves of complicity with Putin’s policies. For Christian Kern, the RZD is “part of the Russian war logistics,” which explains his immediate withdrawal. 

After Fillon’s opportunist resignation, Schröder’s position will be all the more difficult to defend in the eyes of European public opinion.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).

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