by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Those who remember Peter Coclanis‘ 2009 presentation to the John Locke Foundation on Russia’s long-term challenges are unlikely to be surprised by Carol Matlack’s report from the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.
For Russia’s battered economy, 2016 already looks miserable. The ruble has slumped to record lows as oil prices have fallen 11 percent since Jan. 1, to around $30 a barrel. The government, which gets nearly half its revenue from oil and gas, is scrambling to plug a 1.5 trillion-ruble ($19.2 billion) hole in its budget. The International Monetary Fund forecasts the economy will shrink 1 percent this year, after contracting 3.7 percent in 2015. The situation has created “an atmosphere of extreme nervousness,” Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told President Vladimir Putin in a meeting on Jan. 26, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin.
As grim as the numbers are, they may understate the increasingly dismal prospects for a country that only a few years ago was enjoying its greatest prosperity. Economists and business leaders, including some with strong Kremlin ties, are warning that Russia faces long-term stagnation and declining competitiveness. “We find ourselves among the countries that are losing, the downshifting countries,” Herman Gref, head of state-controlled Sberbank, the country’s largest financial institution, said at a conference in Moscow on Jan. 15.
The situation resembles “a staircase leading down,” says Evgeny Gontmakher, a board member at Moscow’s Institute of Contemporary Development, whose chairman is Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Gontmakher predicts Russia will probably eke out near-zero growth through 2017 and that the government will reassure citizens the economy will resume climbing after the March 2018 presidential elections. Instead, he says, the economy “will go downward after 2018.”