De Beers seeks to polish its Moscow image

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The Independent Online
THE Oppenheimers are in town cutting quite a dash as they try to ensure Russian diamonds stay within the strict boundaries of their diamond-selling monopoly, De Beers. Last night they opened elaborate new offices on Tverskaya Street where all the fashionable Western retailers are vying for space. Parliamentary deputies and businessmen came.

Seven cars whisked the De Beers team around from official offices to the Cultural Foundation where the company donated pounds 750,000 of fine art and Russian treasures, including a long-lost letter from Pushkin, another from Turgenev and still another from Tolstoy to Gandhi found in South Africa by De Beers' former chairman, Harry Oppenheimer.

His son Nicky, who is deputy chairman, explained: 'We have a tradition of extending ourselves into the cultural life of the countries where we do business . . . there's a synergy between the beauty of a diamond and the beauty of the art we see here.'

'Very interesting I must say,' said Harry Oppenheimer as he toured his own generous gifts. He was making his first visit to Russia at the age of 84, although his De Beers company has been dealing with the Soviet Union, often at arm's length during the Cold War, for the last 30 years.

Nicky Oppenheimer admitted that the world diamond market was going through difficult times. Recessions hit jewellery companies first and De Beers more than most because for years they have controlled all but a small percentage of the diamond market. The job of the diamond merchants was to bring back 'confidence', said Mr Oppenheimer. 'Confidence is uniquely important to the diamond trade.'

But confidence in De Beers is also demanded by the diamond producers. Russia digs out 25 per cent of the world's diamonds - after Southern Africa's 50 per cent - and if Moscow decided to go it alone in the market that would seriously upset the controlled price set by De Beers. The price of diamonds could crash.

Since the new Russian government emerged De Beers executives have been flying into Moscow in the company's jet, buttering up politicians here and in the main diamond-producing region of Yakutia in eastern Russia. Some members of the Russian parliament, sniffing capitalist exploitation, are determined that Russia should have more control over the sale of its diamonds than it had under the corrupt Communist government, which the MPs accuse of selling out to De Beers.

The Oppenheimers, and a bevy of a dozen fresh-faced, smartly suited De Beers executives, are equally determind that there should be business as usual.

Yesterday, the Russians replied to the deluge of expensive gifts with something also priceless that costs almost nothing: a brilliant concert by child prodigies. 'It was a small demonstration of our own power,' said Svyatoslav Belza, the Cultural Foundation's compere.