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Russia’s Achilles Heel – Reflections from St. Petersburg

by F. William Engdahl, 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.

Operation Success…patient died

What I experienced in my discussions at the conference–this year with record attendance of more than 12,000 business people and others from around the world–was a sense that there coexist two Russian governments, each the polar opposite of the other. Every key economic and finance post is firmly occupied at present by monetarist free-market liberal economists who might be called “Gaidar’s Kindergarten.” Yegor Gaidar was the architect, along with Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs, a Soros-backed economist, of the radical “shock therapy” that was responsible for the economic hardships that plagued the country in the 1990s resulting in mass poverty and hyperinflation.

Today’s Gaidar Kindergarten includes former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, another Euromoney favorite in 2010 as international Finance Minister of the Year. It includes Economics Minister, Alexey Ulyukaev. It also includes Medvedev’s Deputy Prime Minister, Arkady Dvorkovic.

Dvorkovic, a graduate of Duke University in North Carolina, is a protégé, directly serving during his earlier years under Yegor Gaidar. In 2010 under then Russian President Medvedev, Dvorkovic proposed a lunatic scheme to make Moscow into a world financial center by bringing in Goldman Sachs and the major Wall Street banks to set it all up. We might call it inviting the fox into the hen house. Dvorkovic’s economic credo is “Less state!” He was the chief lobbyist in Russia’s WTO accession campaign, and tried to ram through rapid privatization of the assets that remain state-owned.

This is the core group around Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev today who are strangling any genuine Russian economic recovery. They follow the western playbook written in Washington by the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury. Whether they do this at this stage out of honest conviction that that is best for their nation or out of a deep psychological hatred for their country, I’m not in a position to say. The effects of their policies, as I learned in my many discussions this month in St Petersburg are devastating. In effect, they are self-imposing economic sanctions on Russia far worse than any from the USA or EU. If Putin’s United Russia party loses the elections on 18 September, it will be due not to his foreign policy initiatives for which he still enjoys 80+% popularity polls. It will be because Russia has not cleaned the Augean Stables of the Gaidar Kindergarten.

Obeying Washington Consensus

From various discussions I learned to my shock that the official policy of Medvedev’s economic team and of the Central Bank today is to follow the standard IMF “Washington Consensus” budget austerity policies. This is so despite the fact that Russia, years ago, repaid its IMF loans and is no longer under IMF “conditionalities,” as it was during the 1998 Ruble default crisis.

Not only that, Russia has one of the lowest debt-to-GDP ratios of state debt of any major country in the world, a mere 17% while the USA “enjoys” a 104% ratio, the Eurozone countries have an average debt level of over 90% of GDP, far from the mandated 60% Maastricht level. Japan has a staggering 229% debt-to-GDP.

The official economic policy today of the Central Bank of Russia with its absurdly high rates is to reduce an inflation rate of a mere 8% to its target of 4% through an explicit policy of budget austerity and consumption reduction. No economy in recorded history has managed an economic policy under forced reduction of consumption, certainly not Greece nor any African nation. Yet the Russian Central Bank, as if on automatic pilot, religiously sings the Gregorian death chants of the IMF as if they were a magic formula. If Russia continues down this Central Bank monetarist path it may well soon be that, “the operation was a success, but the patient died,” as the cynical saying goes.

Stolypin Club

There is a coherent, experienced and growing opposition to this liberal western cabal around Medvedev. They at present are represented in something called the Stolypin Club, created by a group of Russian national economists in 2012 to draft comprehensive alternative strategies to lessen Russia’s dependence on the dollar world and boost growth of the real economy.

I had the honor of appearing on a major panel together with several members and founders of this group. It included a co-founder of the Stolypin Club, Boris Titov, a Russian businessman and open ideological foe of Kudrin, who is chairman of the All-Russian “Business Russia” organization. He insists on the need to increase domestic production of goods, stimulate demand, attracting investment, tax cuts and the cuts to the refinancing rate of the Central Bank. Titov is a central figure today in Russia’s recent China initiatives. He served as chairman of the Russian part of the Russian-Chinese Business Council, and member of the Presidium of the National Council on Corporate Governance.

My panel also included Stolypin Club leading members Sergei Glazyev, Adviser to the President of the Russian Federation, and Andrey Klepach, Deputy Chairman of the VEB Bank for Development. Klepach, a co-founder of the Stolypin Club, was formerly Deputy Economics Minister of Russia, and director of the macroeconomic forecasting department of the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade. My impression was that these are serious, dedicated people who understand that the heart of true national economic policy is human capital and human well-being not inflation or other econometric data.

Read More @ Journal-NEO.org

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