For the Irish living in Moscow, there is some disappointment that the Emerald Ball, a highlight of the ex-pat calendar which takes place close to St Patrick’s Day, has been called off. But by far the bigger emotion among them and the wider population in the Russian capital is shock at President Vladimir Putin’s recent actions.
That’s according to Irishman Chris Weafer, a former head of research at Irish Life who went on to become chief strategist in two of Russia’s largest banks — Sberbank and Alfa Bank.
Now CEO of Macro Advisory, which offers macro-political research aimed at major corporations and investors in Eurasia, he is seeing first hand how people in Moscow are dealing with the fallout from Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Speaking from Moscow, he told me that anger is growing in the city that has changed deeply over the past 40 years.
“To wake up on Thursday morning and find a full invasion to have been launched really, I think 99pc of people in Russia were absolutely shocked, to use an Irish expression, gobsmacked,” said the Mullingar native.
There has been a lot of discussion in the West about how much sanctions can actually achieve.
Weafer suggests it may awaken some political dissatisfaction among a population which hasn’t paid too much attention to politics for some time.
“One thing that President Putin’s policy has (done), over the years, it’s really created almost full employment in Russia and rising incomes, which is why people don’t care about politics and have not cared about politics,” he said.
“Why bother? The economy is good, you’ve got full employment, there’s plenty of jobs.
“And in real terms, incomes have been rising, disposable income rose 3.5pc last year in real terms.”
Just like in Ireland, affordable housing and healthcare have been among the primary concerns.
“Now that’s all about to change — job security will be a big concern for people, rising inflation on the back of the rouble collapse, the shortage of goods that have to come in from overseas, all of these things will, within the next couple of months, start to affect people.”
He said that people are very aware of this in Moscow and other cities in Russia.
“There is no censorship as such, people in Moscow can watch CNN and BBC and Al Jazeera, they can look at the Irish Independent online, there’s no restrictions so they’re fully aware of what’s happening,” he said last week. However, more restrictions on media have been introduced in recent days.
In a global world, where Russia had a place in terms of trade, economics and travel, ordinary people are unhappy about how Russians are now being viewed, he said.
”They’re starting to fear what might happen in terms of their lifestyle and economy and job security.
“But they’re already angry that what’s happening is making them kind of global pariahs,” he said.
“More and more people are now starting to speak out.
“The question is — I don’t know the answer to it — will it translate to protests or public dissent, or the emergence of real opposition?
“We don’t know, but this is one of those catalysts that could do that,” he said.
Weafer has seen several economic crises during his 24 years in Russia.
He said that the Kremlin would take intensifying unrest seriously.
“They’re always very nervous about real people coming onto the streets with genuine grievance and political grievance.
“The theory is that we could actually see a clamp down and more authoritarianism, which I believe would actually lead to bigger problems later on.”
From a business perspective, there will be disappointment.
“It’s almost one step forwards and three back.”
As for his business, he is open to
the possibility that Moscow may not always be home for the advisory firm.
“That may well be that we may
need to relocate to another city in Eurasia.
“It very much depends on where
big multinational corporations are
active,” he said.
“If they stay in Russia, then that’s fine for us.
“But if they refocus to other countries in the Eurasia region, that’s where we go as well.”
With Irish companies joining the many high-profile international firms walking away from Russia, what will this mean for future investment in the country? While economic crises may fade in the memory, the harrowing scenes from Ukraine will not soon be forgotten.
“The legacy of this will be that companies will be very wary, they will reassess the risk and it’s not just business risk — because you can say you’ll make money again, the economy will recover — the reputational risk is also a big factor for a lot of big companies where Russia is part of the business, but they have the rest of the world,” he said.
“They have stakeholders they need to answer so I think managing and assessing reputational risk will be just as big an issue for companies as the commercial or economic risks.
“You may very well find companies who can see they will make money in Russia but they may still leave because the reputational risk is more important for them.”