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Russia’s Achilles Heel – Reflections from St. Petersburg, by F. William Engdahl

Source: New Eastern Outlook

For three days this month, June 16-18, I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia. I’ve been in Russia many times since the Ukraine US-backed coup d’état of February 2014, and the deliberate escalations of NATO military and economic tensions and sanctions against the Russian Federation. This year’s forum, my second as participant, gave me a rare opportunity to speak with leading representatives from every sector of the Russian economy- from CEOs of the energy sector to the Russian Railways to the national Russia Grid electricity provider to numerous small and mid-sized businessmen, to a wide range of economists. It sharpened my perception of just how precarious the situation of Russia today is.

What became clearer to me in the course of the three days of discussions in St Petersburg is precisely how vulnerable Russia is. Her Achilles Heel is the reigning ideology that controls every key economic post of the Government of the Russian Federation under Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Under the terms of the Russian Constitution adopted in the chaos of the Yeltsin years and enormously influenced, if not literally drafted, by Russia’s foreign IMF advisers, economic policy is the portfolio responsibility of the Prime Minister and his various ministers of Economics, Finance and so forth. The Russian President, today Vladimir Putin, is responsible for defense and foreign policy.

Making the job virtually impossible of reviving credit flows to fuel genuine real investment in urgently needed infrastructure across the vast land expanse of Russia is the Central Bank of Russia. The Central Bank of Russia was given two constitutionally-mandated tasks when it was created as an entity independent from the Russian Government in the first months of the Russian Federation following the breakup of the Soviet Union. It must control Russian domestic inflation and it must stabilize the Ruble against major foreign currencies. Like western central banks, its role is almost purely monetary, not economic.

In June, 2015 as I participated the first time in the St Petersburg forum, the Russian Central Bank base rate, interest charged to banks, was 11%. In the peak of the so-called Ruble crisis in January 2015 it had reached 17%. Expectations last summer were that Elvira Nabiullina, the central bank governor since 2013, would begin to bring central rates rather rapidly down to manageable levels, especially at a time when central banks such as the European Central Bank, the US Fed and the Bank of Japan were lowest in some 500 years at zero or even negative. Further, since January 2016 oil prices, a significant factor in the Ruble strength as Russia is the world’s largest oil exporter, began a rise of more than 60% from lows below $30 a barrel in early January to levels near $50 six months later.

That lowering of rates by the Central Bank hasn’t happened. Instead it is slowly killing the economy. One year later, in early June, 2016 the Russian Central Bank under Governor Nabiullina made the first rate cut since June 2015…to a still-deadly 10.5%. Perhaps it’s notable that monetarist Nabiullina was named by the London Euromoney magazine as their 2015 Central Bank Governor of the Year. That should be seen as a bad omen for Russia. Equally ominous was the fulsome praise the head of Washington’s IMF had for Nabiullina’s monetarist handling of the early 2015 Ruble crisis.

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