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Economic Governance 101: Russia


This series of articles aims to provide a summary analysis of some of the key economic governance methodologies in application in the world today. Starting with the world’s largest economy the United States of America – characterised by its free-market orthodoxies. Onto Germany, the beating economic heart of the European Union. Through the hybrid phenomenon that is the contemporary Chinese economy and its direct democratic counterpart in India. The series will finish with an examination of “The Nordic Model” in Sweden and finally the enigma that is Post-USSR Russia.

The Economic Governance 101 series consists of 6 main articles:

6. Economic Governance 101: Russia

Economic Governance 101: Russia

Upon the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25th 1991 (Office of the Historian, N.D.) Russia faced up to the seismic task of transitioning from a pure command-based economic model spanning 15 individual states ( Editors, 2021) to an open mixed economy focused on the delivery of market-based reforms for the now singular Russian nation. Whether modern Russian economic governance has ever truly departed from its authoritarian roots in the now over 30 years since is another matter entirely and one which this article will seek to examine and discuss.

Figure 1: Modern Russia remains in many ways defined by its past within the Soviet Union

A Post Soviet World

The initial post-Soviet period of contemporary Russian economic history is defined primarily by the dramatic shift from a centrally planned economy characterised by extensive public ownership and exclusively state driven decision making to an open market model featuring widespread privatisation and market-based resource allocation. A detailed study by Black, Kraakman & Tarassova titled “Russian Privatization and Corporate Governance: What Went Wrong?” examines the many pitfalls that beset post-Soviet Russia during its drive toward open market economic reform in the early to mid-1990s. The absence of “a decent legal and enforcement infrastructure capacity” left newly privatised firms extremely open to exploitation. Having operated as a command-based economy since the inception of the Soviet Union in 1922 (Pipes et al., 2020) the Russian government had not had any opportunity to gain the necessary experience in devising an appropriate framework for managing and regulating a privatised commercial environment.

The incumbent managers of formerly state-owned enterprises lacked the practical expertise to manage in a private sector environment. Nonetheless, many former public sector charges were retained in the aftermath of the transition to private ownership, a product of the political wrangling which enabled the move toward mass privatisation in the first place. Predictably in most instances, these individuals proved either incompetent in an unfamiliar setting or plainly corrupt, electing to “steal whatever assets the company still has, perhaps killing an otherwise viable company”. This process of asset stripping, revenue skimming and the general prioritisation of self-gain over commercial success was termed "self-dealing" (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, p. 3).

Figure 2: The fall of the Soviet Union remains the defining event in contemporary Russian history and brought with it vast reaching social, political and economic consequences

With appropriate regulatory infrastructure distinctly lacking “honest” owners were further compromised by the unsuitability of strictly legal or above-board business practices to the realities of the everyday business environment. A less scrupulous individual could for example engage in activities such as “evading taxes, obtaining favors from the government, not paying workers, enforcing contracts in effective albeit unofficial ways (instead of ineffective enforcement through the courts)” (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, p. 3). An “honest owner” by comparison lacked the leverage to adequately deal with less principled governmental authorities and lived under the permanent threat of government expropriation of funds and other “long-term investments” as a result.

The absence of a legitimate regulatory framework and lack of genuine legal recourse further aided and abetted the fomentation of a “hostile business environment” characterised by “a punitive tax system, official corruption, organized crime, an unfriendly bureaucracy, failure to privatize the urban land that businesses need to grow, and a business culture in which skirting the law was seen as normal, even necessary behavior” (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, pp. 3-4). Without a strong independent regulatory body to counter the dysfunctional nature of the newly hybridised state, this operation system quickly became institutionalised. Predatory economic actors seized upon the myriad opportunities for personal gain and insider dealing became the established norm in a state-wide Kleptocracy.

Figure 3: The pro market reforms of the 1990s did not go to plan leading to a strong degree of resentment amongst a large portion of the Russian populace and a nostalgia for the Soviet era

Shock Therapy

The rapid drive toward mass privatisation was the central ideological tenet of a Western prescribed economic “shock therapy” directive described by Murrell as “nothing less than a revolutionary strategy for the complete reconstruction of the economic arrangements of a country” (Murrell, 1993). The shock therapy approach called for “rapid decontrol of prices and freeing of markets, accompanied by rapid privatization of industry” (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, p. 8). Specific measures to be put in place including among others “the removal of the old supply system, the complete liberalization of imports, a thoroughgoing change in the tax system, a rapid closing of the budget deficit” and “a stringent tightening of monetary policy” (Murrell, 1993, p. 134).

A lofty set of ambitions to say the least, doubly so when taken into consideration the perceived necessity of speed of execution in determining the success of the shock therapy programme. This logic was at least partly fuelled by political motivations with the ruling Yeltsin administration believing that reform measures must be implemented urgently in the face of strong political opposition. The strength of the anti-reformist presence amongst the Russian political class drove Western advisers and the Yeltsin government to hastily conclude that it was a case of now or never about privatisation and open market policy reform (Rosalsky, 2022).

Figure 4: Yelstin's time in charge was marred with controversy and featured some of the largest protests in the history of the state

The Voucher System

The central feature of Russia’s post-Soviet march toward privatisation would be the implementation of a voucher-based auction system. In a process comparable to the issuance of stocks in exchange for partial ownership of a firm, previously state owned enterprises were put up for auction with publicly issued vouchers serving “as the sole allowable means of payment”. In the interest of alleged fairness “every person in Russia was offered a privatization voucher for a small fee, and most people picked them up” (Boycko, Shleifer, Vishny, 1993, p. 150). Upon purchase, vouchers were freely tradable leaving them vulnerable to the volatile nature of market-based mechanisms. “Wide swings in the market price of the voucher” ensued (Boycko, Shleifer, Vishny, 1993, p. 155) echoing political developments of the time as widespread uncertainty raged in the aftermath of a truly seismic geopolitical shift.

With Russia experiencing high levels of inflation as domestic prices set to converge with those present internationally – a direct by-product of Russia’s transition to a market-based economy and Yeltsin's lifting of Soviet era price controls (De Masi and Koen, 1995), struggling everyday Russian citizens were often willing to sell and made for easy pickings for opportunistic industrialists seeking to obtain a greater stake in the Russian economy at large. Incumbent managers were particularly well placed to capitalise on the Russian public’s vulnerability, routinely funding voucher purchases “by illegally ‘privatizing’ company funds” (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, p. 10). Upon completion of the auction activities managers would often further strengthen their hand “by convincing or coercing employees to sell their shares". Other more novel methods employed in the manipulation of ownership auctions were known to include; last minute location changes, the selection of remote or difficult to reach locations, phone and air flight disruptions and in some cases even the presence of armed security personnel to keep out unwanted bidders (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999).

Figure 5: Anatoly Chubais was appointed as the primary politician in charge of Russia's ill-fated privatisation attempt

Not all state enterprises were made eligible for privatisation. “Some firms, including those involved in space exploration, health, and education, could not be privatized at all” while “major firms in most strategic industries, such as natural resources and defense, could only be privatized with the agreement of the entire government” (Boycko, Shleifer, Vishny, 1993, p. 149). The presence of a strong anti-reformist faction in the Russian government at the time rendered the privatisation of these firms a practical impossibility. Depending on whom you ask, however, this has not necessarily proven to Russia’s long-term gain. Anders Åslund, a highly regarded Russian policy specialist who served as an adviser to the Russian government between the years 1991-1994 (Atlantic Council, 2022) offers a particularly damming assessment of the later condition of many of Russia’s public institutions “All state systems are in crisis: health care, education, law enforcement, and the military” citing “corruption and vested interests of the bureaucracy” as the reigning impediments (Åslund, 2008).

Figure 6: Voucher Privatisation was supposed to offer equal opportunity to all members of the public but predictably did not turn out that way

The Oligarchs

The voucher system also served as a key mechanism in the creation of Russia’s now infamous oligarch class – described by Åslund as “pioneers who bought hundreds of thousands of privatization vouchers that they used at voucher auctions to buy whatever stocks they could get” (Åslund, 2007, p. 161). With a great many of the formerly state enterprises available for auction at a significantly undervalued price – a function mandated by the necessity of auctions appearing as genuinely viable to members of the public, individuals who succeeded in making large scale auction purchases were presented with the opportunity to “became fabulously wealthy in a very short period of time” (Rosalsky, 2022).

Russia’s new elite would push this advantage further in 1995 through the establishment of the loans for shares scheme. Through a rather unique set of political circumstances, the Russian government lay in dire need of funding. Incumbent leader Boris Yeltsin’s popularity was at an all-time low with polls indicating a mere six per cent approval rating as of January 1995 (Treisman, 1996). Having auctioned off many valuable state assets at what may be regarded as significantly below market value and with the sale of certain key state enterprises a political impossibility, an alternative approach was required (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999). The solution Yeltsin’s government arrived upon would come to be known as the loans tor shares scheme.

Figure 7: Vladimir Potanin the architect of the Yeltsin era Loans for Shares scheme

Prime Minister between the years 1996 and 1997 - (Åslund, 2007) "the Government auctioned its shares in a number of major oil, metals, and telephone companies in return for loans, giving the shares (and accompanying voting rights) as security to whomever would loan it the most money" (Black, Kraakman & Tarassova, 1999, p. 14). Potanin also happened to be the leader of Russia's then largest private bank - Oneksimbank, and a member of a newly emerged class of 7 highly influential oligarchs, a term given to a select group of individuals who achieved extraordinary wealth in the post-Soviet era. Each were more than willing to lend to the desperate Yeltsin administration under these highly fortuitous circumstance. Given the precarious position of the Russian government's finances it was a given that the loans would not be paid back within the specified lending period of one year, at which point the ownership shares listed as collateral for the loans in question would default to Potanin and company as payment for the outstanding debt obligations (Åslund, 2007).

The agreement effectively amounted to a cut-price sale of major and highly lucrative state assets to a minute but highly politically privileged set of individuals. The true legacy impact of the loans for shares agreement however – beyond the considerable monetary gains made by the individuals in question, was the redistribution of power that it represented. The previous attempts at privatisation had resulted in much of the previously held state assets remaining in the hands of prior incumbents. “Loans-for-shares was revolutionary because it…took companies away from their red directors and gave them to a handful of thrusting entrepreneurs”, (Freeland, 2000, P. 170 as cited in Åslund, 2007, p. 163).

Figure 8: Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured with one of the new era Oligarchs Roman Abramovich (center left)

Rock Bottom: The Currency Crisis of 1998

The early to mid-90s had proven a traumatic time for the Russian economy. The Soviet Union’s sudden disbandment and Russia’s harried transition to a solitary state operating under a hybrid economic model had been poorly planned and even more poorly executed. “Seven years of continuing decline resulted in a cumulative drop of GDP by more than 40 per cent between 1989 and 1996” accompanied by “several outbursts of near-hyperinflation” (UNCTAD and UNECE, 1998, p. 1). Lacking the institutional framework to implement the drastic changes required for the Russian economy to function successfully under this new model, years of fiscal imbalance (government overspending relative to revenue received) followed, compounded by a culture of “low tax collection which caused the public sector deficit to remain high” (Chiodo and Owyang, 2002).

A stabilization agreement reached with the IMF in 1995 mandated “tight monetary control and nominal exchange rate targets” (UNCTAD and UNECE, 1998, p. 1) including the formal setting of a fixed exchange rate or “peg” between the ruble and the US dollar (Odling-Smee, 2004). While this policy succeeded in reducing the rampant inflation the Russian economy had been experiencing, it also served to undermine the Russian government’s ability to meet its widespread fiscal obligations. This necessitated extensive borrowing with the IMF insisting on the opening of access to Russian domestic treasury bills to foreign investors “attracted by the abnormally high yields” (Åslund, 2007).

Figure 9: The war in Chechnya served as the historical backdrop to the Russian economic crash of 1998

While this provided some short-term relief it also led to an immediate overreliance on volatile foreign capital. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 prompted a host of wider economic uncertainty resulting in a severe hit to the valuation of the ruble and a significant fall in both the value of and demand for key Russian exports such as oil and “nonferrous metals” (van de Wiel, 2022). Total Russian government revenue was recorded at a mere “15% of GDP in 1997” while only “40% of the workforce was paid in full and on time” (van de Wiel, 2022, p. 4). With a costly war in Chechnya serving as the backdrop to Russia’s economic disarray, investor confidence in Russian markets was heavily shaken leading to fears of a capital exodus and a “generalized debt run” (UNCTAD and UNECE, 1998).

With the Russian economy under severe pressure on multiple fronts the Russian government was forced to abandon the “pegged” or fixed-exchange rate previously agreed against the US dollar. This move was accompanied by a formal “default on its domestic debt and a 90-day suspension on payments by commercial banks to foreign creditors” (Coyle, 2022). The ruble suffered a sharp and immediate decline losing almost two thirds of its value against the dollar within 3 weeks of its fresh market flotation (Kharas, Pinto & Ulatov, 2001). In spite of an extreme initial rise in inflation – measured at a staggering 84 per cent in 1998 (Coyle, 2022) and continued decline in output, the Russian economy soon began to respond with the currency devaluation proving a necessary step to revive demand in the struggling Russian export sector (Kharas, Pinto & Ulatov, 2001). Having fully bottomed out the Russian economy would go on to recover relatively quickly thereafter recording growth rates of 6.4 and 10 per cent for the years 1999 and 2000 respectively (Coyle, 2022).

Figure 10: Vladimir Putin is sworn in as President of Russia for the first time in the year 2000

Enter Putin

Having hit rock bottom with the economic crash of 1998, the Russian government were finally able to put in place the policy reforms necessary to generate sustainable economic growth for the first time in the post-Soviet era. “From 1997 until 2000, the government slashed public expenditures by 14 percent of GDP”. With any alternative strategy raising the spectre of hyper-inflation once more “all arguments about the impossibility of reducing public expenditures fell by the wayside” (Åslund, 2008, p 16). Upon assuming the Presidency in the year 2000, Vladimir Putin’s timing could not have been better. Putin’s first term in office was hailed for its highly progressive economic reform agenda which included a “comprehensive, radical tax reform”. Key features of which included the instalment of a flat personal income tax rate of 13 per cent alongside a cut in social security contributions. Taxes on corporate profits were also reduced while “small-scale tax violations were decriminalized” easing the threat posed to businesses by government tax collectors (Åslund, 2008, p. 17).

Putin would dramatically change course upon commencement of his second term in office in 2003. The high profile renationalisation of the privately owned Yukos oil company – an alleged response to the rumoured political ambitions of Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Rutland, 2009) – sparked a “wave of renationalization” (Åslund, 2008). During this period Putin’s government specifically targeted “the renationalization of Russia’s most successful private companies” (Åslund, 2022). A policy which would see a continued rise in Russian state business and property ownership throughout the early to mid-2000s marked by a “specific trend towards a quantitative expansion of the public sector” (Abramov, Radygin & Chernova 2017, p. 20). From 2008 onward the number of public sector companies in operation would in fact decrease, though the level of state involvement in the economy would remain high.

This change of strategic approach marked a progression toward a more targeted or “qualitative” role for the Russian state in the management of its economy. This was demonstrated by an increased state presence in “the distribution of financial resources and in control over economic agents” greater regulatory involvement “in a number of industries, state corporations and other development institutions; the transfer of non-public state-owned company property into capital” alongside “‘pseudo-privatization’ processes; and the expansion of spheres (control areas) of government regulation rather than a simple increase in the shareholdings owned by the state in the capital of major public companies” (Abramov, Radygin & Chernova 2017, p. 21).

Figure 11: The ongoing war in Ukraine and the economic sanctions that have come with it have already had a significant impact on the Russian Economy

Summarising Putin

Russia’s economy under Putin is marked by a peculiar dichotomy. Small to medium sized enterprises have remained relatively immune to any kind of substantial government intervention, while large scale or highly influential companies tend to attract significant government oversight. A traditional economic perspective would argue that such a policy diminishes the efficiency and thus economic performance of such institutions, but Russia is not a traditional economy and the failures of the rushed reform attempts of the 1990s serve as a compelling counter-argument to calls for reduced state involvement in the commercial aspects of the Russian economy.

Much of the criticism directed toward Putin rests upon the alleged prioritisation of “security over economics” (McEvoy, Hyatt, & Durot, 2022) and self-preservation over the development of the nation as a whole. Accusations of cronyism (Tisdall, 2020) are longstanding and perhaps best evidenced by the presence of what Rutland terms “State Oligarchs” – “individuals who are government officials delegated to manage or supervise state-owned companies” selected on the primary basis of unquestioned loyalty to the Putin regime (Rutland, 2009). Similar arguments have been made regarding the decision to annex Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion of Ukraine (McEvoy, Hyatt, & Durot, 2022). Putin’s own recent rhetoric likening Russia’s actions to the historical conquests of Peter the Great amidst an increasingly worsening economic situation at home have done little to dispel this notion (Åslund, 2022).

Figure 12: In spite of almost universal international condemnation, Russian leader Vladimir Putin retains a huge degree of support domestically

Russia’s economy continues to find itself incredibly dependent on energy exports – principally oil and gas. It has failed to develop or diversify its technology and services sectors to an internationally competitive standard while it also lags significantly behind the world’s most developed nations in terms of labour productivity (Hanson, 2019). According to the IMF’s analysis of the contemporary Russian economy “Long-standing weaknesses include inadequate infrastructure, a large footprint of the state, lack of competition, excessive regulations, weak protection of property rights, corruption vulnerabilities, and adverse demographic trends” with the last point specifically relating to Russia’s aging population and a shortage of skilled labour coming through (IMF, 2019, p. 18).

Predictably given its grounding in Western free market economic philosophy the IMF advocates for a reduced state presence and increased competition across the commercial sector of the Russian economy at large. This analysis also notably predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the barrage of Western economic sanctions that have succeeded it. Though these events are likely to hasten the perceived urgency amongst Western economic powers of the need for change, Putin’s domestic popularity remains as entrenched as ever with recent polls indicating an approval rating of approximately 80 per cent (Levinson, 2022). Amid recent reports of the prospective seizure of assets and even nationalisation of Western companies departing the Russian market, the Russian state may in fact be about to become significantly more active in the private sector of its economy (Troianovski, 2022).

Figure 13: Russia finds itself locked in an ongoing holding pattern under Putin's continued stewardship

The Elephant in the Room

Whether Putin and Russia as a whole can successfully weather the storm generated by Russia's actions in Ukraine remains to be seen. Russia's economy had already come under significant pressure over the past several years as an inevitable result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the extraordinary economic disruption that accompanied it. The Russian economy itself benefitted from a relatively early roll back of Covid restrictions in late 2020 and early 2021 prompting a surge in consumer demand at a time when much of the world remained under heavy lockdown (World Bank Group, 2021). As a result of these controversial measures "Russia’s GDP fell by 3% in 2020 compared to larger contractions of 3.8% in the world economy, 5.4% in advanced economies and 4.8% in most commodity-exporting economies" (Sanghi, Freije-Rodriguez & Umapathi 2021). These gains were not made lightly however with Russia recording one of the highest covid-related death tolls in the world during this period (Reuters, 2021) and one of the highest rates of deaths per capita over the course of the pandemic as a whole ("Mortality Analyses, 2022). With vaccination rates remaining low amongst the Russian population the threat of a return to "COVID-19 control measures" remains prescient and could serve as a further source of disruption to Russia's future economic growth outlook (World Bank Group, 2021).

Figure 14: Current Russian economic data makes for nervous reading for all parties involved

Of more immediate concern is the wave of punitive measures the Russian economy finds itself under and the "mass corporate exodus from Russia" that has accompanied them (Sonnenfield et al., 2022). A recent study carried out on behalf of Yale University by Sonnenfield et al. indicates that things may be far worse than previously indicated by both the Russian government itself and other high profile international institutions such as the IMF ("World Economic Update" 2022). Amongst the myriad issues outlined are the loss of foreign companies representing approximately 40 per cent of Russia's GDP, dramatic reductions in difficult to replace imports such as automobile manufacturing components and semiconductors and a high profile "brain drain" as many of Russia's most talented and highly educated citizens "flee the country in droves" (Sonnenfield et al., 2022).

Russia's inability to compensate for the loss of key import materials and production components has already led to a host of domestic supply shortages with this situation likely to significantly worsen in the short-term as Russia struggles to find willing trade partners in the face of unified Western trade opposition. A mooted "pivot to Asia" is complicated by China's heavy economic reliance on the USA which remains its number one trading partner in spite of increasingly fraught relations between the two (Sonnenfield et al., 2022). Russia's best hope for a sustainable economic future should it elect to continue its Ukrainian campaign may be for a continued deterioration in relations between the world's two leading economies. This may in turn prompt a genuine reshaping of the existing global economic order, paving the way for Russia to operate as one of the key players in a new 21st century Eastern Bloc.

Figure 15: Modern Russia very much remains very much Vladimir Putin's World

One Step Forward

The future of the Russian economy remains shrouded in doubt raising far more questions than answers. The failed reforms of the 1990s have left a residual trauma upon the Russian nation and a reluctance at a state and individual level to fully break from the authoritarian governing structure which has for so long dominated Russian society. Russia’s increased isolation in the aftermath of its actions in Ukraine and the sanctions levied against it could prove devastating to the future development of an economy already desperately struggling to match the weight of its own vaunted ambitions. The loss of so many key trade partners, inputs and technologies further necessitates the need for domestically driven innovation. This ambition is complicated by the sorry state of Russia's antiquated technologies sector and furthermore by the growing exodus of foreign talent and investment alongside a significant portion of its best and brightest inhabitants. Many of whom may logically have been expected to be at the forefront of Russian innovation for decades to come. Beyond the current crisis and the imminent threat of recession, the biggest question surrounding Russia’s economic future is with regard to its leader Vladimir Putin. The prospect of true economic reform under Putin’s stewardship appears an impossibility at this point while the ill-judged invasion of Ukraine has left Russia and its people in a highly precarious position, locked in a well-established holding pattern until a successor emerges.

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Visual References


Roxana Bîrsanu
Roxana Bîrsanu

Another one of the extremely well-documented, in-depth economic analyses signed by James Duggan. Using language that reveals good familiarisation with the topic, but also a desire to inform a lay target readership, he makes a pertinent analysis of the Russia's modern economic system.

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James Duggan

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