Britain still has a special appeal for Russians

The economic crisis of 2009 has brought a lot of soul-searching and a re-evaluation of business and investments. And a question which has been raised in recent months is, has Britain – and London in particular – lost its appeal for the wealthy, in this instance, wealthy Russians?

Certainly, London, as with other financial centres, took a bashing last year. Some of the glamour of Britain’s capital has been tarnished; even if those of us who take the Tube to work every morning know that the number of people working in London has not diminished noticeably.

But is it worth the while of big investors to pull their money out of London? If they have any sense of history, the answer has to be, “No.” London still has too much going for it, not just because of its history and tradition, but also because of another factor which the rise of any other financial centre will not threaten: geography. Or, to be more precise, geography and time.

Why have so many Russians chosen to put their money into London in the first place? English traditions have something to do with it, as does the English language. But across the pond in the USA, they speak an understandable form of English, too, and it’s a much bigger and richer country than Britain.

It is also, though, a lot further away from Russia, both in terms of flight times (assuming planes are flying) and time of day. As Chris de Burgh puts it in his song, Moonlight and Vodka , “Midnight in Moscow is lunchtime in LA”, which makes doing business difficult for all but insomniacs.

An oft-heard reason also for Russians to establish their business in Britain is stability. Having made their money in the crony capitalism of Russia in the Nineties, there are few places more stable than Britain, not just for business, but for settling down. If you lived through the Wild East 20 years ago, as the hairs begin to turn grey you want rather more peace and stability.

If anecdotal tales which reach us in the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce are true, a bigger threat to Russian investors in Britain is the erratic visa system which many Russians experience when they put in for their British visa. Technical problems and the bedding down of the new system since the introduction of the UK Border Agency in 2008 has seen a rise in the number of Russians being refused visas, or experiencing the ridiculous situation of being invited for interview for their visa days or even weeks after they wanted to use the visa.

One of the requirements on the new – and lengthy – visa application is for the applicant to declare how much money they have in the bank at the time of submitting their documents. After being turned down for a visa because he had not made this declaration, one wealthy Russian businessman faxed through to the British Embassy the latest Forbes list of rich Russians, highlighting his position high up the list.

A subjective opinion among a certain section of the British public concerns one Russian businessman who invested heavily in a football club in South West London. Were this gentleman to decide to pull his money out of that particular business, it would cause rejoicing among many other football fans.

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