The news that Heineken, the Dutch brewer, has sold its business in Russia to a local buyer for a token $1 – at a loss of €300 million, but with job guarantees for 1,800 Russian workers – raises moral issues about when and how multinationals should withdraw from pariah states. A database compiled by Yale professor and corporate responsibility campaigner Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, tracking 1,586 foreign operators in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, counts 534 as having made a clean exit versus 219 (including BT and some smaller UK-listed companies, alongside a plethora of Chinese names) ‘digging in’ for business as usual.
The rest, global brands and pharma giants among them, are in-between, keen to be seen postponing new investments or scaling back existing ones – but not quite ready to leave. All of which implies tough decisions: about PR shame at home; about a collapsing Russian economy and the risk of state confiscation; and the potential upside, unlikely as it may be, of a more benign post-Putin regime.
Sonnenfeld, I read, was inspired to make his career urging business leaders to do the right thing (in this case meaning pulling out) by observing western companies’ decisions to withdraw, or not, from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. I’m reminded of the example of Barclays, which – under pressure from students, charities and some shareholders – shed its South African interests in 1986, only to reopen on a smaller scale in 1995 and be told by Nelson Mandela himself: ‘You should never have sold.’ That tells us these choices are nuanced – but the comparison only goes so far while there’s no Mandela on the Russian horizon.
Dividends of sin
At last, a success for ‘digital Britain’: a social media platform from Essex that reaches 238 million users, generates income for three million content creators and rewarded its owners with $338 million in dividends last year.