Funny Things Happened at the Forum

The phenomenal Petersburg photographer Alexander Petrosyan snapped this hyperrealist folk-conceptual photo at this week’s international economic forum in Petersburg, where the honored guests include the Taliban and the “president” of one of the fake Donbas “people’s republics.” There has been a lot of coverage of the remarks made at the forum by this snapshot’s ostensible subject. I have excerpted one article about them, below. This excerpt is followed by my translation of an interview with Sergei Khestanov about the forum and the broader Russian economic outlook in the light of the war and western sanctions.


As is traditional, the forum was dominated by a plenary session involving Putin. Earlier in the week, Peskov announced that Putin would make “an extremely important speech”. A couple of days later, he went out of his way to insist that the president was not about to announce a mobilization. It’s unclear why this was necessary – it’s no longer early March when this rumor was widespread.

The speech itself (which lasted for almost 90 minutes) contained no surprises. Putin spoke Friday about how “crazy sanctions” were not hurting the Russian economy, but, instead, causing pain for the Western countries as they wrestle with a crisis caused by an ill-conceived coronavirus response. “Our special military operation has nothing to do with it,” Putin said. More than once, Putin insisted the Russian economy remained open for business and reaffirmed his belief that the West would come to its senses and that Western companies would soon return to operating in Russia as normal.

But the most interesting part was when the moderator, Margarita Simonyan (head of state-owned RT and a prominent hawk on Ukraine) began putting questions to Putin and Tokayev. Along with the president of Armenia, Tokayev was one of only two heads of state to travel to the forum. It was painfully clear that Tokayev’s presence was repayment for Putin’s support back in January when troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) helped to re-impose order in Kazakhstan and, at the same time, marginalize Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

However, Tokayev’s gratitude knows some bounds. That was apparent two days before he shared the stage with Putin when he gave an interview to state-owned Rossiya 24 in which he confirmed that his country would fully comply with Western sanctions on Russia.

Judging by what followed, Putin was aware of that interview. The highlight of the session was Putin’s attempt to pronounce his colleague’s name and patronymic – Kassym-Jomart Kemelevich. In January, when Kazakhstan was at the center of international attention as a result of civil unrest, Putin was already struggling with this difficult – but not impossible – name and twice uttered something incoherent. This time, at the start of his speech, Putin got it right – but during the Q&A session he again referred to Tokayev as “Kemel-Zhemelevich”, prompting a highly suspicious look from his supposed ally (this is clearly visible in the video).

Tokayev’s answers to Simonyan’s questions were far from the platitudes of an ally and some of what he said ran directly counter to Putin’s position. Diplomatic and courteous (Tokayev is a former UN Deputy General Secretary), the Kazakh president told Putin:

  • Kazakhstan “takes sanctions into account” (a response to a question from Simonyan suggesting the West must be pushing Kazakhstan to stop cooperation with Russia).
  • No economy can successfully pursue a policy of self-reliance and import substitution.
  • Ukraine’s accession to the European Union must be accepted as a new reality, even though its economy is in a dreadful condition.
  • The U.S., and the West in general, are not in the throes of a major crisis. At present, the U.S. economy is “modern and dynamic.”
  • That there are some Russian politicians, journalists and cultural figures who make “absolutely incorrect statements about Kazakhstan” and other states and “sow discord between our peoples.” This is likely to refer to occasional calls in the Russian parliament to protect the Russian-speaking population of Kazakhstan, which is concentrated in the north of the country. Such pronouncements are very reminiscent of the rhetoric in Russia about the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
  • Finally, without prompting, Tokayev dismissed the possibility of Kazakhstan recognizing the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He dismissed the republics – recognized by Russia – as “quasi-state entities.”

You can watch the whole of the plenary session here, or read a transcript here.

The scandal continued Saturday when Kazakh media reported Tokayev had turned down the Order of Alexander Nevsky bestowed on him by the Russian government. The official reason was that Kazakhstan’s president is not permitted to accept honors from foreign countries while in office – Russian state-owned media devoted half a day to reporting this explanation.

Source: “Showcasing Isolation,” The Bell, 19 June 2022


The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) wrapped up this weekend. The feelings it generated are complicated. On the one hand, there was a heated discussion of the forum in social media; on the other hand, it was mainly not economic news that was discussed, but the juicy scandals that happened at the forum. Does the international forum have a future in the face of total western sanctions? And have the speeches at the SPIEF made it clearer what will happen next with the Russian economy? We talked about this with Sergei Khestanov, a well-known economist who has developed dozens of financial theories and techniques. He also serves as an adviser on macroeconomics to the CEO of Otkritie Investments.

Judging by the discussion of SPIEF on social media, the hottest guests were the Taliban (an organization that is banned in Russia) and Philipp Kirkorov. Is this due to the exoticism of their being at the economic forum or the absence of significant guests?

— The Taliban were just a kind of exotic highlight, I think. By the way, they were not particularly visible in the latter part of the forum. There weren’t many notable guests, really, but then again there hasn’t been an abundance of such guests for many years. What was unusual was that some guests of the forum (Russians, by the way) were asked not to advertise their participation and to wear name tags that did not spell out their companies and positions, lest they be hit by sanctions. From the economic point of view of, it doesn’t mean anything, but it is a quite interesting reflection on how the forum is seen.

Was western business represented at the forum in general?

— It was practically absent. Many [western businessmen] simply cannot attend without spoiling their reputations, even those who have not yet abandoned the Russian market.

And what was interesting from a substantive point of view?

— In terms of the forum’s substance, I would draw attention to the statement made by [Sberbank chief] Hermann Gref that the Russian economy would be able to reach the level of 2021 in ten years. That’s quite a frank recognition of the state of our economy. Vladimir Putin’s statement about banning audits of businesses is also welcome if the number of such audits is really reduced. However, it bothers me that they have been talking about this for so many years [without doing anything about it.]

Putin also announced a reduction in the preferential mortgage rate to seven percent.

— Volumes of orders have been falling in the construction industry, so we need to support it. And since, as a rule, the construction industry is closely affiliated with local and, sometimes, regional authorities, the desire to support it is quite understandable. Plus, the industry is a multiplier, so helping it helps the metals industry, manufacturers of cement, lumber, and so on. However, the decline in volumes is not yet tremendous, so nothing terrible would happen without help, but nor do I expect the support to trigger a boom.

There is another danger here: real estate prices in Russia, especially in the megacities, are overheated. if the decrease in mortgage rates is not coupled with an increase in down payments, we could end up with a mortgage bubble. And then, under certain unfavorable circumstances, of which there might be many going forward, we could face a terrific downturn in prices and a serious mortgage crisis. I would not say that the danger is great now, but it cannot be ignored.

Wait, what collapse? What crisis? It followed from Vladimir Putin’s speech that we have been successfully coping with western sanctions. Supposedly, foreign exchange earnings are so great that they almost equaled the volume of the frozen portion of Russian gold and foreign exchange reserves.

— Russia is bursting with money that it cannot digest because of import restrictions and the threat of frozen accounts. It turns out that money has been earned, but what to do with it? It isn’t possible to use it constructively. And this madness with shoring up the ruble is due to the fact that there is no demand for non-cash payments: exporters need controls, but they cannot sell currency. So, it’s like a pear is dangling in front of you, but you can’t eat it.

But Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina in her speech suggested a way out for exporters: they should focus on the domestic market.

— Those are pretty words, but most exporters have been working for the domestic market for a long time. The problem is that the domestic market’s capacity is limited. For oil and petroleum products, for example, domestic demand accounts for about a quarter of current production. That is, if we refocus on the domestic market, we need to cut production threefold. Will that make things better?

Export industries perfectly satisfy domestic demand, and everything else is exported. This also applies to the metals industry, both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and the oil industry, and the petrochemical industry. Nizhnekamskneftekhim, the world’s largest producer in its class of raw materials for plastics, supplies its products to both the domestic and foreign markets, but only a very small portion of what it produces goes to the domestic market, because such is the demand.

And, for example, aluminum and titanium are used mainly in aircraft construction. Given current conditions in the domestic market, they can be used, at best, to make kvass cans.

— Exactly. The domestic Russian market is simply not able to absorb everything produced by exporters. So, this call to pivot to the domestic market is like that joke. “Bunnies, become hedgehogs, so the foxes won’t eat you.” “Great, but how do we do it?” “I don’t know — I’m a strategist, not a tactician.”

To be fair, Nabiullina had also talked about structural adjustment in the past.

— What the Central Bank head said about structural adjustment is right, but it doesn’t make much sense yet. Unless we note the speech made by [Alexei] Kudrin, who said that it would take two to three months to develop a strategy. I consider him one of the most serious public figures in terms of macroeconomic analysis, so his words carry a lot of weight for me. Two or three months is a realistic amount of time, I think. It would bring us to the beginning of autumn, and all over the world at this time, business picks up after the summer lull. Plus, statistics for macroeconomic indicators will have been reported, and the relevance of the data will have increased. So I’m eighty to ninety percent in agreement with him.

 But what don’t you agree with?

— My main disagreement is that, since the sanctions have not yet ended, the effectiveness of strategies is low. No matter how good a plan is, it will have to be changed quickly and often. Moreover, so far most of the sanctions have impacted imports, and that is not so terrible. Of course, it’s sad that Ivan Sixpack can no longer buy a new smartphone, but this has little effect on the economy. Export sanctions are much more serious when it comes to filling the state coffers. But I think it’s too early to talk about them before next year.

Well, so far, Ivan Sixpack does not seem to be suffering much. Many people say that the sanctions are not really hurting us.

— Since demand has dropped a lot, people are under the illusion that nothing terrible has happened. But by the second half of September, I think that stocks in the warehouses will be exhausted, and it will become clear what is happening with durable goods.

— Especially with spare parts for cars. This topic is now of concern to many people. A friend of mine is now glad that she didn’t buy a foreign car, as she had originally wanted, but a Russian-assembled Renault.

— She shouldn’t be too glad. Some of the spare parts for inexpensive Russian-assembled foreign cars are made in Russia, but only some. The rest are imported.

— So, we will have to establish a shuttle trading business for the delivery of spare parts.

— Maybe, but the whole business will be tedious, time-consuming and, accordingly, much more expensive. As in the 90s, people will have to buy cars that Russian spare parts fit. They will have to learn how to do their own repairs. In Soviet times, I went abroad to buy a used car with cardboard templates in tow to determine whether the wheels from a Lada would fit it, whether the filters would fit. I knew how to re-rivet brake pads. Basically, I can fix anything on a car, except the carburetor. Most of the motorists of that time could do the same. Maybe they couldn’t do everything, but they could do the most basic things like cleaning the spark plugs and changing the oil and filters. Those were the necessary skills. But nowadays, many people don’t even know how to change tires.

— They’ll have to learn. Once again the menfolk will gather in garages on weekends, although many people don’t have their own garages anymore. They only have spaces in multi-story parking lots, and you can’t repair a car there.

— And the skills have been lost. Of course, a parallel import market will be established, and people will learn how to do repairs, but it will be difficult for motorists. It will become immensely more expensive and more difficult to maintain a car.

— Speaking of cars. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov announced plans to resume production not only of the Moskvitch, as discussed by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also of the Volga and even the Pobeda. The latter, by the way, was produced in the 50s. Is the [Russian] car industry really that bad off? What about the Chinese? Wouldn’t they help us? After all, they are switching to electric vehicles. Could they transfer the production of internal combustion engines to Russia?

— As I understand it, Manturov was actually talking about reviving the brands, not the cars of that generation themselves. Because if there is a demand for classic Ladas now, it’s not very big. In the back country, the fact that they can be repaired easily is appreciated. But all the other cars [of the period] were total tanks. I used to drive a Pobeda back in the day. It really, you know, encourages you to develop your shoulder muscles, because turning the steering wheel involves great physical exertion. The brakes are the same way.

But what they probably have in mind is producing new models under those brands, maybe even stylized to look like the old ones. Aesthetically, the Pobeda is beautiful — it’s just hard to drive it. The Volga 21 is beautiful, and so are the Moskvitches up to the 412 model. And if you also give it a two-tone paint job, like the Moskvitch 403, you could make a very popular model. Volkswagen also produced an updated replica of the Beetle.

 And how will they make them?

— They will probably buy the platforms from the Chinese, or [the Chinese] will even supply the assembly lines. Then designers will be commissioned to come up with designs, maybe even stylized to look like Soviet cars. And so the brands will be reborn.

— In conclusion, let’s return to the guests at SPIEF. In terms of foreign leaders, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev attended the forum. Chinese President Xi Jinping also made a short speech via video link. There is probably no point in asking whether SPIEF can now claim the role of the “Russian Davos.” I wanted to ask you abpit something else. Given the current conditions, is there any point to this event?

— Tokayev, I think, just couldn’t help but show up. Everyone paid attention to how he spoke relatively harshly about the DPR and the LPR. Of course, he is a professional career diplomat and spoke in such a way that you can’t find fault with him, so it’s quite difficult to extract any one definite message from his speeches.

— What about when he said that Kazakhstan had no choice but to support western sanctions?

— But this is quite obvious: he didn’t say anything new. It is clear that the economy of Kazakhstan cannot fight a consolidated decision by the western economies. This would not only be difficult, but also not really necessary. So, where its own interests are not affected, Kazakhstan can help Russia — but no more than that. By the way, the Chinese have the same attitude towards us.

Is that why Xi Jinping not only did not come to SPIEF, but was also brief in his video message?

— There is not much to talk about in the current circumstances. So it’s not that Xi didn’t want to talk. There was nothing in particular for him to talk about. It is clear to everyone that the Russian economy is not doing very well. So, our corporations signed contracts with each other, which they happily reported before going their separate ways.

The question of whether SPIEF should be held is another matter: the degeneration of such forums is not only a Russian problem. The Davos forum has also been experiencing a lack of serious ideas. Ten years ago, the substantive part of it was much larger, but nowadays everyone is for all the good things and against all the bad things. And all other [economic] forums face similar problems: a lack of substance and a focus on narrow subjects. So, what is happening with the Petersburg Forum is not unique.

Russian pop singer Philipp Kirkorov at the 25th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum
Photo: Maksim Konstantinov/Global Look Press. Courtesy of Republic

It’s hard to say what the reason is for this. Maybe the format has worn out its welcome. As in art, there is a fashion, a trend, and then times, traditions, and tastes change, and the format goes away. Maybe it is due to the fact that the world economy has been slowing down. When the forums were interesting, the economy was growing; intense economic processes were underway, and reforms were being undertaken in the countries of the former USSR and Eastern Europe. But now there is stagnation everywhere, even in the IT field, about which I know a thing or two. What can I say? Moore’s law has been disproven! The number of transistors on a single chip no longer doubles every eighteen months. So, this is a universal problem. I don’t know whether this trend is reversible or permanent, but for the time being it’s like this. Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? The “resolutions” that were “submitted for consideration” and instantly “approved”? The long tedious speeches about nothing? It’s all coming to look a lot like that.

Source: Tatyana Rybakova, “‘Do you remember the Central Committee plenums in Soviet times? It’s all coming to look a lot like that’: Sergei Khestanov on the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and the future of the economy,” Republic, 19 June 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexander Skobov: The Myth of “Good” Liberals in Power

toppala

Alexander Skobov
Facebook
August 18, 2019

I have to reiterate my fundamental disagreement with mainstream liberal political analysts. Stated briefly, their big idea is that the Russian political elite consists of two parties, so-called civic liberals, who support bourgeois modernization, and the security forces, who support the restoration of the Soviet Union in both its manifestations—as a totalitarian political regime and as an economy totally subordinated to the state. All recent events are thus interpreted in the light of the alleged struggle between the two parties, i.e., the party of the security forces has gone on a decisive offensive.

This is a liberal myth. The Russian liberal crowd, who are mainly right-wing liberals, concocted the story that increasing crackdowns and the Putin mafia state’s transition from a soft-core authoritarian imitation democracy to a hard-core authoritarian regime has been opposed by a party of court (systemic) liberals, a party informally led by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Can anyone produce even a single bit of evidence corroborating the so-called Kudrin party’s opposition to the policy of increasing crackdowns? Right-wing liberals would tell me the Kudrinistas are forced to act out of the public eye and play by the rules governing infighting among courtiers (apparatchiks). The fact this infighting has no outward manifestations is no proof that there is no showdown between the two parties, they would argue.

Let’s assume this is true. Where, however, did Russia liberals get the idea there is even one cause for such a showdown? Kudrin and other systemic right-wing liberals have always advocated an authoritarian modernization in which a “progressive” elite imposes unpopular social and economic reforms on the unwashed masses with an iron hand. By and large, their ideal is shared by the so-called Russian fascists, i.e., the “patriots” and statists. The occupation regime running mainland China carried out the very same economic reforms after crushing dissenters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has Mr. Kudrin ever said publicly that he is a principled opponent of such methods of strangling the opposition? He has not. Then why have Russian liberals decided he opposes the mass detention of peaceful citizens for protesting in public at certain times?

Liberals should stop imagining they have intercessors in the top ranks of the Putin organized crime group. There are no such intercessors.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

Impotent

DSCN1619

And [Putin] just stands there and watches them destroy each other, and doesn’t interfere. Because then, on the one hand, he gets to maintain his position above the fray and watch all these ministries mutually weaken each other and become incapable of monopolizing power (which he’s afraid of). But on the other hand, he’s afraid even to give an order, because he senses that his orders have no weight anymore, that he can’t do anything. It’s a hideous situation, and as a result everyone turns into these trembling slaves who have no idea what will befall them, because there’s no one to appeal to, there’s no ordering principle to appeal to anymore. There’s no law, Putin is absolutely impotent, he can’t do anything.

I am sorry for writing what I am about to write, because I have a decent amount of admiration for the man who wrote the passage I have quoted, above, but if there is anything nuttier than thinking that Putin (or any other dictator) is absolutely powerful, it is thinking that Putin has no power at all.

The “impotency” heresy seems to be all the rage these days, because Putin was, allegedly, persuaded by his ex-finance minister and ex-Petersburg city hall colleague Alexei Kudrin to write not one but three official letters telling whoever has been hassling the European University in St. Petersburg to back off and leave it alone, and all three times these sinister forces (whom no one has yet properly identified, because no one believes federal education watchdog Rosobrnadzor and the courts could arrange this sick, nine-ring circus on their own) willfully ignored Putin’s instructions.

The explanation, given by Fontanka.ru investigative reporter Irina Tumakova in the latest edition of Novaya Gazeta v Petersburge—that the mess kicked off due to four complaints filed with the prosecutor’s office against the university by non-entities who now cannot even remember why they filed the complaints and have lost all the paperwork—may be factually true, but it will have the effect of reinforcing the “impotency” camp’s convictions.

In reality, there are as many ways to exercise power as there are ways to be impotent, and so it is easy to confuse the two, especially if you are naive enough to believe that when Vladimir Putin says or writes something, he always means what he says or writes.

Let’s suppose Putin really is not averse to handing over the two mansions on the corner of Gagarin Street and the Kutuzov Embankment to his arch-crony Gennady Timchenko or whomever else Tumakova mentions in her article, and, in the process, getting rid of the European University, towards which he, plausibly, only feels antipathy, since in the past it was involved in using European Union funds to study election monitoring, something Putin, who has stayed in power this long only by rigging elections on a massive scale, would hardly approve.

(Putin even publicly said as much at the time, in late 2007 or early 2008, and soon afterwards, fire inspectors showed up at the European University and shut it down for two months.  It was reopened after a loud, noisy, vigorous public campaign by its faculty, its students, and its numerous supporters in the local and international community. I took part in that campaign.)

More generally, the Putin regime has been engaged in a long-term, deliberate program of clamping down on any and all independent forces and entities in Russia, from small and medium businesses and NGOs of all stripes (even ones not mixed up in politics and without financial or other connections to foreign partners) to independent religious groups (e.g., the Jehovah’s Witnesses) and independent educational institutions such as the European University. Hardly surprising for a regime chockablock with “former KGB officers” at all levels and led by another “former KGB officer,” it has increasingly come to regard everyone trying to operate beyond the Russian government’s overweening oversight as extremely suspicious at best, “national traitors,” at worst.

Putin could make large numbers of people loathe him more than they already do by openly issuing a decree closing the European University and turning over its building and the neighboring building to his buddy Timchenko. Or he could play it smart and make clear through all the hundreds of channels he has at his disposal that he wants to shut down the university and hand over the building to Timchenko, all the while feigning to Kudrin and his liberal fans that he is worried enough about that fine little university to write the “back off” letters Kudrin asked him to write.

But the fix is already in, because Rosobrnadzor, the courts, Timchenko, and everyone else who needs to know, know that Putin’s letters of “support” for the university are meant to be roundly ignored. They know this because he has somehow indicated they should ignore them. How he did this exactly is immaterial and, ultimately, uninteresting.

So, in reality, this is yet another example of Putin’s exercising his rather considerable power, not evidence of his impotence. Of course, like any reasonably smart dictator or just plain leader, he wants to appear to be above the fray, but that does not mean he really is above the fray. He is right in the midst of it, whatever “it” is: making peace among the made men in his mafia empire, awarding them for their loyalty, slapping them on the wrists for their lapses, and adjudicating their conflicts between each other as they arise.

A real example of impotence are tenured and celebrated academics who persuade themselves, after being suckered by one of the oldest cons and mythologemes in Russian history (the powerless tsar surrounded by perfidious boyars), that since the allegedly powerful Putin is, in fact, impotent, they can be excused from empowering themselves and their students, and mobilizing them and the rather large community of people in Petersburg and around the world who are sympathetic to the European University to fight the power and get the university’s full rights as a research and teaching institution reinstated, while also forcing the powers that be to have the university’s grand old building restored to it and let it go ahead with renovating the building, as the university had carefully been preparing to do for several years.

That would be a real cause to rally round, but instead we have been treated, in turn, to long bouts of radio silence, various implausible conspiracy theories, and self-defeating disempowerment sessions, disguised as the worldly-wise acceptance of defeat and the lowly station of academics in Russian life.

But we have not seen the slightest hint of a coherent, militant public campaign to save the university, most of whose seemingly feeble supporters have the temerity to call it the “best in Russia.”

If it is really the best, it should be worth fighting tooth and nail for, no? Even and especially if you think the emperor has no clothes. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Vladislav Inozemtsev: The Calm before the Storm

A common sight: first-floor commercial space for rent in downtown Petersburg
A common sight: first-floor commercial space for rent in downtown Petersburg.

The Calm before the Storm: Can We Avoid Economic Collapse in 2018?
Vladislav Inozemtsev
Slon.ru
August 1, 2016

Last week, Tatyana Nesterenko, one of Russia’s most experienced financiers and a person distant from politics, a person who has held the post of deputy finance minister and head of the Federal Treasury for almost twenty years, said the Russian economy should expect serious financial problems as early as next year, comparing the current situation with the “eye of a storm, [meaning] a condition in which everything [merely] looks quiet and safe.”

In my view, Nesterenko is undoubtedly right. The government has recently appeared to be the epitome of tranquility. It has even been drafting a new three-year budget, although in terms of revenues for 2016, the previous such plan (for 2014–2016) was off by 42%! Revenues were projected at 15.9 trillion rubles, but actual revenues in the first six months of the year were 4.6 trillion rubles. I don’t think the new draft budget will prove more accurate, if only because no sources of income for covering the deficit are envisioned after 2017. The president, who from time to time meets with economists and recommends developing a new development strategy for the country “roughly within a year,” meaning when the Finance Ministry’s reserves will run out and the budget’s huge social commitments will prove impracticable, has mainly been busy reshuffling the security forces, believing, apparently, that a sum changes by rearranging its components.

Coins tossed for good luck onto a stanchion in the Fontanka River
Coins tossed for good luck onto a cable spool anchored in the Fontanka River.

Today, Russia’s economy, to invoke Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev‘s maxim, really has hit rock bottom. The authorities are elated that the rate at which the GDP has been falling fell to 0.6% in the second quarter, but we should note this reduction took place in conjunction with an accelerating reduction of real incomes (by 6.2% in May, and 4.8% in June) and a considerable increase in inflationary expectations. Annual inflation was 7.5% as of June and showed no tendency toward decreasing.

Moreover, oil prices have fallen considerably. Brent fell by 15.2% during July, and, apparently, black gold is near a new equilibrium price ranging between 38.5 and 43 dollars a barrel. A 15–16% fall in the oil price will cost the Russian budget 430 to 460 billion rubles in the remaining five months of 2016, which is also no cause for optimism. Responding to it by “managing” the descent of the ruble will not be easy. Devaluing the national currency will no longer lead to a growth in exports, which this year has lagged behind last year’s figures by 30.5%. On the other hand, imports, which have basically not shrunk (they are down by only 10.4%) will inevitably become more expensive, dragging along with them the prices for a wide range of goods, thereby causing inflation and setting the tone for high interest rates.

Empty billboards are also not hard to come by in the city center.
Empty billboards are also not hard to come by in the city center.

In mid 2016, the Russian economy really is situated in the eye of a kind of storm. It is quite calm there at the moment: the authorities have become accustomed to the new circumstances. They have no hesitation in spending reserve funds. Generally, fears of popular discontent over lowing living standards have been overcome. Seemingly, a certain reduction in the degree of hostility toward western countries might do the trick of restoring relations with them.  There has been a glimmer of hope the EU’s problems will deepen with the UK’s exit. The possibility of Donald Trump winning the presidential race in the US has been taken seriously. Putin feels like a winner in his confrontation with Turkey. It is no wonder officials have dubbed the situation the “new normal.” It really is the new normal, so as long we take into account two factors: oil at 50 dollars a barrel and spending accumulated reserves at the rate of 600 billion rubles a quarter. That is around 8% of the overall amount in both sovereign wealth funds, the Reserve Fund and the National Wealth Fund.

Another empty billboard
Another empty billboard

However, the problem is not so much that sooner or later we will have to break back into the open sea through the hurricane’s eye wall, but the fact that the eye of the storm might move, and it would appear we have no instruments for tracking it. The country has not been trying to find the best place in this “quiet corner.” It has simply been drifting, humbling waiting for what happens next.

Evaluating the numerous programs and strategies that experts affiliated with one or another wing of the government are now trying to draft, one cannot help thinking that none of them is capable of boosting the Russian economy in view of two circumstances.

An elderly woman turning in scrap paper and other junk to supplement her pension.
An elderly woman turning in scrap paper and other junk to supplement her pension.

On the one hand, anti-crisis measures should have been implemented yesterday, rather than postponing their preliminary discussion to 2017. By the way, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov warned in early 2016 that, at current oil prices, the Russian budget would be short 3 trillion rubles, which in turn would lead to spending the greater part of the National Wealth Fund. Little has changed since then. In the absence of reserve funds, the hole in the budget cannot be closed in 2018 either by raising funds on the international capital market (in this case, we would have to raise considerably more money than all the central government’s current international obligations) or by privatizing. (One year’s deficit could be papered over only by selling off the lion’s share of the state’s holdings in Gazprom and Rosneft.) Whatever economic development strategy the Kremlin approves a year from now, it will not prevent a large-scale collapse in 2018, with all the attendant consequences.

On the other hand, all the existing programs, however much Alexei Kudrin and Boris Titov stress their differences, are generally focused on the same thing: relaunching the economy on behalf of manufacturers. There is in fact only one difference between them. Titov’s Stolypin Club has suggested priming major enterprises with money through the earmarked and regulated distribution of cheap loans, subsidized by the Central Bank, while Kudrin’s Center for Strategic Research favors institutional reforms that could include reducing taxes on business and limiting the rights and opportunities of security services and the bureaucracy for extracting additional income from business. The assumption is that either by getting its hands on cheap money or ridding itself of the unbearable pressure of regulators, business will be reanimated, sparking life-saving economic growth.

More commercial real estate for rent in the city center.
More commercial real estate for rent in the city center.

I would love to be wrong, but I don’t think these measures will produce any meaningful outcomes, because the most important factor in the economic slowdown of 2014–2016 has been the crisis in consumer demand. The state has diligently performed its investment obligations, saturating heavy industry with funds via defense sector orders. It has not halted its sometimes pointless but expensive infrastructure projects. It has been encouraging state companies to build new pipelines and railways, but none of it can compensate the effect of declining consumer demand. Moreover, this demand has increasingly shifted towards the continuing flow of imports, while the share of domestic goods on the market has stopped growing. As I understand it, none of the economic development programs has so far offered a solution to this problem.

Therefore, in my opinion, we should introduce as least three new story lines into the ongoing debates.

First, we should stop regarding increases in wages for low-paid earners, pensions, allowances, and other payments to low-income Russians as “costly measures.” Saving money by reducing the incomes of doctors, teachers or pensioners is much more destructive than reducing costs at Gazprom or expenditures in the program for rearming the Russian army. These segments of the populace are most focused on purchasing domestic goods and services, and investing in them produces a multiplier effect in the sales and production of consumer goods. The crisis of 2008–2009 was negotiated much more successfully than the current crisis not only due to the relatively radical reversal in oil prices but also because the government considerably increased people’s incomes at the time, despite budget problems, whereas 41% of the population now say they lack money for food and clothing.

Second, we should think hard about a one-time credit and debt amnesty for people whose indebtedness to banks, the tax authorities or housing and utilities sector companies does not exceed, say, 30 thousand rubles.  Obligations of this amount now account for around 20% of the population’s entire debt burden, and a measure like this would affect 10 to 12 million people. The state would have to allocate up to 2 trillion rubles to implement the program, but both the social and political (why deny it) effect of such a measure would be incomparable with a Stolypin Club-style emission of a similar scale, which would completely vanish in the offshore accounts of executives of major companies in bed with the state and sympathetic officials. In my view, we cannot do without this measure now, but none of the people involved in the current discussion has deigned to mention it in their programs.

Third, direct measures for stimulating demand are necessary. They were adopted by all the governments of developed countries hit by the crisis of  2008–2009, but our officials were quite reluctant to copy them. I have in mind not only programs for encouraging purchases of new automobiles but also a system of issuing food stamps, analogous to the American one, to poor people. For example, pensioners could buy stamps nominally worth four to six thousand rubles for two to three thousand rubles at welfare offices. The stamps would be accepted in shops as payment for domestic food products only, with the exception of cigarettes and alcohol, and commercial outlets would then turn them in at banks at face value and have the amount credited to their accounts. This could be a powerful stimulus both to domestic manufacturers and commerce, not to mention the popularity of such a step among socially vulnerable groups themselves.

Ads like this one for a prostitute service are stenciled and pasted on every available surface in the city center.
Ads like this one for a prostitute service are stenciled and pasted on every available surface in the city center.

In other words, now it is not enough to say that Russia has sailed into a perfect storm. It must be understand that not only the captain and his mates will have to fight for our ship’s survival but absolutely all the passengers as well, and so the basis of an anti-crisis program should be attention to the general population, not to state corporations. And, of course, to be at least relatively prepared to fend off the mighty blows of the elements, we must stop postponing actual steps until tomorrow, and begin taking them today.

Source of original text: Worldcrisis.ru. Translated by the Russian Reader.

Russia Year Zero

Cat eating scraps from pizza box. May 24, 2016, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Cat eating scraps from pizza box on May 24, 2016, in Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Zero Sum
When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes
Maxim Trudolyubov
Vedomosti
May 27, 2016

It is probably already clear to everyone that the implicit “social contract,” about whose existence it was customary to natter in the fat years, was a hoax. Rejecting political subjectivity, ordinary folks and not-so-ordinary folks, big business, and regional elites were able to enrich themselves and, in the consumerist sense, converge with Europe.

It was not, however, a one-off deal with a perpetually fixed rate of profit, but a protracted process. We voluntarily became political zeroes. We gave up free speech, the right to elect and be elected, and the right to demand accountability from our politicians, and part of the population gave up the right to funded pensions. But the unit of prosperity we got in return was given to us not as property but was lent to us. Now the government has collected the debt. The zeroes remain, but the unit will soon run out. The government has no other sources for funding projects, but unpredictable and expensive projects—military campaigns as in Syria, for example, and infrastructural projects like the Kerch Strait Bridge—are the whole point of Russian politics.

The authorities supported the population during the crisis of 2008, but by 2011, dissatisfaction with government policy and the Putin-Medvedev castling move had sparked protests. The Kremlin learned its lesson, and it is ordinary people who are now primarily bearing the burden of the crisis, not the state. Having surrendered their rights to the Kremlin, people will now have to surrender not only their pension savings but also their savings accounts and, so to speak, the fat they have saved up on their bodies if they do not decide to take back their political rights. People’s well-being is, in fact, the “source of growth” that President Putin has asked his economic advisers to find. Actually, he was kidding: the source has never been lost.

When the president, in May 2016, summons his economic council, having forgotten about its existence for two years or so, and says the country needs new sources of growth, how are we to understand this? How were we supposed to understand his proposal to reduce economic dependence on the oil price, which he voiced in the autumn of 2015? It is like offering to grow oneself a new liver after sixteen years of binge drinking.

The Kremlin has created the current situation by consistently rejecting any measures that could have, long ago, reduced dependence on oil and generated stable sources of growth beyond the extractive and defense industries. It is impossible to fix in a month what has been done over sixteen years. Moreover, the very same people have been summoned to do the fixing, people still divided by irreconcilable contradictions. What joint effort at seeking ways out of the crisis are Alexei Kudrin and Sergei Glazyev capable of mounting? The sum of their efforts will inevitably be zero.

It would appear this zero quite suits the Kremlin, as economist Konstantin Sonin argued in a recent interview with Slon.ru. Incidentally, efforts are also needed to maintain zero growth, and those efforts are being made. Certain malcontents might not like the “zero” economy, but the Kremlin really likes it, because it strengthens the power of the front office, where decisions about redistribution are made. When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes.

Translated by the Russian Reader