Russia’s Constrained Economy

How the Kremlin Can Spur Growth

Money for nothing: at a market in Stavropol, southern Russia, January 2016. Eduard Korniyenko / Reuters

In recent years, many discussions of the Russian economy have opened with an old joke. In the mid-1990s, John Major, the British prime minister, asked Russian President Boris Yeltsin to characterize Russia’s economy in one word. “Good,” Yeltsin said. Major, seeking more detail, asked him to elaborate in two words. Yeltsin replied: “Not good.”

The joke was prescient. Over the past 25 years, Russia’s economy has alternated between “good” and “not good.” In the 1990s, Russia’s GDP declined by some 40 percent, and in 1998, Russia suffered a major financial meltdown. Then, from 1999 to 2008, Russia’s GDP grew by roughly seven percent per year on average, almost doubling in nine years. In the past few years, however, Russia’s economy has taken a decisive turn for the worse.

In early 2013, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev sought to push beyond official projections of four percent annual GDP growth. Yet by later that year, the Russian Ministry of Economic Development had revised Russia’s growth forecast downward to between two and three percent. Now, even projections of two percent growth are considered optimistic. In 2015, Russian GDP actually shrank by close to four percent, and the International Monetary Fund’s January 2016 World Economic Outlook Update projected a further one percent decline in 2016. Meanwhile, in 2015, inflation reached 13 percent, real wages (adjusted for inflation) fell by 9.5 percent, and real incomes dropped by four percent. The ruble’s exchange rate with the dollar is now roughly half of what it was just two years ago, and RTS, Russia’s primary dollar-denominated stock market index, has fallen to just over one-quarter of its 2008 peak.

Russia may not be doing as badly as it was in the 1990s, but it is certainly doing worse than at any time since then. Even the fall of Russia’s GDP in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis was short lived: the Russian economy contracted in 2009 but began growing again just one year later. Today, a confluence of factors—corruption, low

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