Norilsk Nickel's decision to spend $1.16 billion to buy 20 percent of the South African goldminer Gold Fields, much of it in borrowed funds, is a wager on President Vladimir Putin having too much to do right now to notice, the Russia Journal said. If Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov, the two controlling shareholders of Norilsk Nickel, imagine that, after the Kremlin vetoed their cashout projects last month, they will be permitted to leverage the Russian asset base of the company as they reverse its shares into South African ones, they are taking a risk as enormous as the one that landed Mikhail Khodorkovsky in prison last October.
Lest anyone be in any doubt, whichever wager Norilsk Nickel is betting, their deal could be reversed by just two telephone calls - one from Dmitri Kozak, the chief of the government staff, to President Vladimir Putin; and a second from Kozak to Sergei Ignatyev, chairman of the Central Bank. As Potanin and Rozhetskin understand, but haven't admitted in public, Central Bank permission must be granted for any of the transfers of funds that have supposedly been agreed for this transaction. That permission was granted, but not hastily, when Norilsk Nickel spent a fraction of the price to take control last year of Stillwater Mining Company of Colorado. But for a billion-dollar purchase of a minority stake, secured by as much as half a billion dollars in metal and other Russian assets, Central Bank permission is likely to be methodical, and to require Putin's permission.