fredag 1 juli 2011

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Russia has floated for most of.the past decade on a cushion
of steadily rising oil revenue,
earning about
$1,500bn from oil and gas exports
since 2000. Oil revenues alone fund
roughly 50 per cent of federal budget
revenues and made up 25 per cent of
gross domestic product in 2010.
While few would say that having
lots of money is a bad thing, it is
becoming clear to some of Russia’s
leaders that dependence on energy
exports is actually a hindrance to the
country making it into the top league
of the world’s developed nations.
On the eve of the St Petersburg economic
forum, designed to showcase
Russia’s westernmost aspect, the
country increasingly resembles a Middle
Eastern oil autocracy more than
the budding European democracy that
showed so much promise 20 years ago
after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russia has no shortage of leaders
who have correctly identified the
problem. Alexei Kudrin, finance minister,
startled Russian economy
watchers with a sobering prediction
on April 21 that the era of oil-fuelled
growth may be ending, and not just
because oil prices may fall from their
highs earlier this year.
He said that a further increase in oil
prices might even “have a depressive
effect” on the Russian economy. A
rising oil price, he said, “used to act
as an economic stimulus. Now however,
this model is exhausted.”
The rise in oil prices over the past
decade “played a cruel joke on us”, he
said. To fight inflation, the central
bank was forced to strengthen the
rouble, which hurt trade in all sectors
but oil and gas, further concentrating
dependence on energy. “We paid for
growth with inflation,” he said.
The oil windfall has skewed the
economy, pushing up wages without
pushing up productivity, and leading
to an overvalued currency that has
stifled investment and ensured that
the other sectors of the economy
remain perpetually uncompetitive.
The new mood is a product of the
economic crisis. While Russia’s GDP
doubled in the 10 years before 2009,
that year its GDP fell 8 per cent. The
causes were not hard to find – energy
and commodity prices fell and foreign
credit lines dried up. The previously
impressive economic growth was
shown to be nothing more than the
ability to pump oil.
In 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev
published a manifesto called “Russia
Forward!” in the online newspaper, calling his country’s
dependence on oil “primitive”.
But talking about the problem and
doing something about it are different
things. Two years after the financial
crisis started to abate, Russia remains
largely unreformed, despite Mr
Medvedev’s oft-repeated promises.
Increasing investment will be critical
to any attempts to modernise the
economy. Currently, investment as a
proportion of GDP is about 20 per
cent, while the average for emerging
markets is 30 to 40 per cent (China is
40 per cent). Instead, Russians spend
on consumption, and 70 per cent of
the federal budget is social spending.
Another reason for lack of domestic
investment is low savings rates,
which economists say are caused by
negative real interest rates. “Russians
save when the real interest rate is
positive,” says Natalia Novikova, senior
economist at Citibank Russia. She
pointed out that last year, when inflation
fell to below interest rates, saving
rates climbed sharply, but fell back
when inflation picked up.
This spring, the central bank began
to raise interest rates for the first
time in two years in an effort to fight
inflation, but economists are divided
on whether the action comes too late
and is too slow.
Meanwhile, on March 31, Mr
Medvedev outlined 10 reforms
designed to raise investment, both
domestic and foreign. He targeted the
cosy relationships between cabinet
ministers and state companies, forcing
ministers to step down from the
boards of state companies which they
have run like fiefdoms for years.
These included the powerful Igor
Sechin, deputy prime minister and
former chairman of Rosneft, the state
oil company.
But Mr Medvedev’s attempts to run
economic policy have been stymied by
competition between the president’s
administration and the cabinet, which
takes its orders from prime minister
Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev’s
former mentor.
Mr Putin stood down from the presidency
in 2008 at the end of his constitutional
limit of two terms, and all
but appointed Mr Medvedev as his
Mr Medvedev is still very much in
Mr Putin’s debt, say observers, and
the two are old friends going back 20
years. However, the difference in their
approaches to economics is obvious.
Mr Putin increased the state’s role in
the economy during his eight-year
tenure creating a model now called
“Kremlin Inc”. Mr Medvedev would
like to end this. “What worked 10
years ago may not work today. We
need to get used to a changing world,”
he told journalists in April.
Mr Medvedev detects differences
between his own approach and that of
the prime minister. Mr Putin believes
that modernisation is “a calm, gradual
movement”, Mr Medvedev said at
a May 18 press conference in Moscow.
“But I think that we have a chance
and enough forces to conduct that
modernisation faster.”
Where possible, the president has
been combining the struggle to reform
the economy with the fight to broaden
his own political power. Over the past
few months, this has had some noteworthy
successes, weakening rivals
such as Mr Sechin, and tackling some
of the blatant problems with economic
In some ways, Mr Medvedev’s strategy
is reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev,
the Soviet leader who, faced
with an entrenched communist old
guard in the 1980s, identified himself
with inevitable economic and political
reforms, and used these as a tool to
empower himself politically against
the Politburo establishment.
The course of reforms is likely to
depend on who becomes president in
2012, and this is the most speculated
about question in Russian politics.
While many people simply assumed
Mr Putin would return to his old job
after Medvedev’s first term, Mr
Medvedev seems to be mounting a
convincing campaign for a second
term. Most observers, however,
believe the two men will work it out
among themselves who will stand.
This will avoid a prolonged power
struggle or even running against each
other in the election.
But commentators are split on
whether the mystery over who will
run is a purposeful tactic, designed to
prevent either being seen as a lame
duck, or simply that the two men
have not hammered out a deal yet.
Mr Medvedev used the first domestic
press conference of his three-year
old presidential term on May 18 to
spin yet more suspense about the
“There is not long left to wait,” he
said. “Such an announcement is close
at hand.”

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