Russia close to economic collapse as oil price falls, experts predict
Russia faces possible devaluation of the rouble and a severe drop in living standards next year
Luke Harding in Moscow
November 20, 2008
Russia is now lurching towards a major economic crisis, experts predicted today, following news that the price of oil had slumped to under $50 a barrel.
The collapse in the value of oil was likely to have several catastrophic consequences for Russia including a possible devaluation of the rouble and a severe drop in living standards next year, they warned.
With oil prices tumbling, and his own credibility at stake, Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin today insisted that the country's economy was still robust.
Speaking at a meeting of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, Putin told delegates in Moscow the country would survive the current global financial turmoil - which he blamed on the US.
But the Kremlin is acutely aware that any loss of confidence in the Russian economy could lead to a loss of confidence in Putin and his ally Dmitry Medvedev, who took over from Putin as Russia's president in May.
Medvedev's biggest initiative so far has been to float an extension in the presidential term from four to six years - a proposal that entrenches the current Kremlin's grip on power, and which Russia's loyal Duma is likely to approve on Saturday.
Putin today said his administration would do everything it could to prevent a recurrence of Russia's last oil-related financial crash in 1998 - which saw the savings of many ordinary Russians wiped out. But the plummeting oil price leaves him little room for manoeuvre. Experts suggest that Russia's economy is now facing profound difficulties, despite two massive stabilisation funds accumulated during the booming oil years.
The fall in oil prices from $147 this July to below $50 today has blown a gaping hole in the government's budget calculations. It is now facing a $150bn shortfall in its spending plans - and will have to slash expenditure in 2009.
Today Putin sought to assure hard-up Russians that their social benefits would not be affected, promising a $20bn assistance package. "We will do everything, everything in our power ... so that the collapses of the past years should never be repeated," he said.
The oil slump, however, exacerbates Russia's already severe economic problems. Since May Russian markets have lost 70% of their value. Russia's central bank, meanwhile, has been spent $57.5bn in two months trying to prop up the country's ailing currency.
"If the current trend continues with the government supporting the rouble, oil prices falling and a slowing economy we are going to have a major crisis," said Chris Weafer, an analyst with the Moscow brokerage Uralsib.
He added: "There will be more pressure on the rouble and an extremely difficult first quarter next year." Russia was more vulnerable than other countries because it was still an oil state, and had failed to diversify its economy, Weafer added.
Both Putin and Medvedev have blamed the Bush administration for the current financial mess. Putin today accused the US of recklessness. "Cheap money and mortgage troubles in the US have caused a real chain reaction, [and] paralyzed the global financial market," he complained.
Russia's state-controlled TV has also sought to portray the crisis as an American problem, largely ignoring its impact at home. This strategy was not very sensible, analysts suggested today, since job losses and salary cuts in Russia were beginning to mount.
"In terms of the trigger Putin is correct. The bomb came from the US," Weafer said. He added, however: "The shockwaves have hit a much weaker structure than the [Russian] government has acknowledged. The economy is going to hell in a handcart."