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Investing in Russia? Try Funds

According to a report published by Reuters yesterday, private equity funds are starting to catch the scent of Russia, and the hunt for bargains has begun.

Spurred by news of recent Russian acquisitions by such corporate giants as General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , private acquirers -- the likes of Blackstone and Sigular Guff -- are said to be seeking potential buyout targets in Russia. The country's economy is on an oil-powered upswing, and Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has predicted that its GDP should return to pre-breakup-of-the-Soviet Union levels within two years.

Meanwhile, consumer brands like Yum!'s (NYSE: YUM  ) KFC and CKE Restaurants' (NYSE: CKR  ) Carl's Jr. have been making haste to expand their mindshare among Russian consumers, with both companies recently promising to expand their presence in the country. Put it all together, and a Fool can see why America's private equity funds might want a piece of the action.

On the other hand, a true Fool is more likely asking: "Forget about the corporate vultures. How do I get a piece of the action?" Excellent question.

First off, forget the usual suspects. Sure, with valuations far below their Western peers, Russia's oil giants look ripe for the picking. But as anyone who's been following the YUKOS saga can tell you, Vladimir Putin isn't keen on the idea of letting Russia's crown jewels escape Kremlin control. So while it's true that you can invest on your own in companies like Gazprom (Pink Sheets: OGZPF), Tatneft (NYSE: TNT  ) , or Lukoil (Pink Sheets: LUKOY) through American Depositary Receipts (ADRs), that may not be the best way to play the Russian card.

It seems much more likely that foreign private equity buyers will focus their efforts on companies the Kremlin obsesses over a bit less -- less liquid, usually non-ADR-listed companies trading primarily on the Russian Trading System (RTS) stock exchange. And how do you do that? By buying into a mutual fund that knows how to make such investments. I've identified four such funds, including two that rate highly with mutual fund monitor Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN  ) . They include the five-star-rated ING Funds Russia (FUND: LETRX  ) and the four-star-rated Third Millennium Russia (FUND: TMRFX  ) . Unrated funds include Templeton Russia and Central Europe and Russia.

If you go that route, however, remember to bring your wallet -- because these companies don't come cheap. Both of the Morningstar-rated funds charge a 5.75% front load. And even after you're in, they charge hefty expense ratios: 2.75% for Third Millennium; 2.01% for ING.

One more caveat, though: Whatever Russia's prospects, no Russian-focused funds have yet met the demanding performance standards required for inclusion as Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter recommendations.

If you're investing in funds and want to keep your costs as low as your prospects are high, it's worth first examining the funds that have earned the Shannon Zimmerman seal of approval -- and are walloping the market by a 2-to-1 margin. Want to know what they are? Justclick hereand we'll show you how to find out, with a free trial subscription to Motley Fool Champion Funds.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above.

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