MOSCOW — To many Russians the withering ruble brings back bad memories of the 1998 financial crises when, in less than six months, the national currency wilted from a rate of six to the U.S. dollar to a rate of 21. On Wednesday, it fell to another record low exchange rate of 54.8 to the dollar. Altogether, the ruble has lost more than 40 percent of its value this year, pushed down by plunging prices for oil, which is Russia’s biggest export, and stiff international sanctions imposed to punish Moscow for carving off chunks of Ukraine.
Inflation is up, recession looms, and on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual speech to the Federal Assembly, warned that hard times are ahead. But what, if anything, does he plan to do differently?
A few days earlier, the daily newspaper RBK predicted that Putin would “declare a moratorium on increasing taxes for business and offer liberalization of the economy.” And in fact the speech did have a liberal tone in the free-market sense.
An estimated $100 billion has bled out of the country this year, and he’d like to bring it back, so Putin promised an amnesty for all money returning to Russia. “Let us put this page in our history behind us. Do it once, but right,” Putin said. He also promised not to raise taxes and to give a three-year tax holiday to small businesses with good reputations. But businesses, especially big businesses with big money, want clear laws and predictable policies, and those have been in short supply.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin advisor in Putin’s first term, thinks Putin’s moves toward freer markets and limited taxes will do little good at this point. “Liberalization of the economy could have helped a few years ago, but now nobody among the elite or investors trusts what Putin says,” Belkovsky told The Daily Beast. “He completely discredited himself this year.”
There are signs that Putin’s underlings are getting restive, Belkovsky suggested.
On Tuesday, two senior Kremlin officials, Vladimir Avdeyenko and Boris Rapoport, quit their jobs. Avdeyenko was in charge of economic cooperation with the separatist regions in Ukraine, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (DPR and LPR); and Rapoport was responsible for ideological agendas there.
According to Belkovsky, both officials got out in time to escape new Western sanctions. “They could see that the West imposed sanctions against most of the DPR and LPR leadership, so the two Kremlin officials were next to be punished,” Belkovsky told us Wednesday.
Earlier that morning, another Moscow analyst, the head of the Center for Political Technologies, Igor Bunin, held a meeting with colleagues about the current situation in Russia and Ukraine. “The approach to managing the breakaway republics has changed, since the rebels demonstrated nothing but drunken behavior in Donbass,” said Bugin. “Now the Kremlin will assign more loyal people to rule the region, mostly military leaders.”
In Putin’s speech, he said that Russia had “enemies abroad,” and that the United States and its allies were behind the conflict in Ukraine. He warned that they, not he, risked raising a new “Iron Curtain” around Russia, and sanctions are nothing but a “nervous reaction” to his country’s assertiveness. But the president promised that Russia “would never take the route of self-isolation, xenophobia, of being suspicious, seeking for enemies.”
Putin also blamed “speculators” for the collapsing ruble. “Everybody knows who these speculators are; the government and Central Bank have their ways to influence them,” Putin said. When the Central Bank has moved to support the currency by pumping in over $700 million, however, it’s had little effect on the ruble freefall.
In Moscow, many people have grown cynical about the money evaporating in their pockets. They say the currency devalues a few points just in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette. They joke about “Putin’s unstable stability.” And even those who consider themselves great patriots prefer to keep their savings in foreign currency.
If the Russian Central Bank estimate of capital outflow of over $100 billion this year proves true, it will beat all records, and commercial banks have reported a rush to exchange rubles and to carry out international transactions.
Some Russian banks stopped selling more than $10,000 per person, Izvestia reported on Monday. Rosbank made the limit $1,000; Citibank sold currency only to its clients and Alfa Bank decided to close its exchange services entirely, Izvestia said.
Bad news continues to pile up. The capital of Chechnya, Grozny, was attacked Thursday by insurgents who may have sworn allegiance to ISIS. Corruption schemes in the construction contracts for the Sochi Olympic Games were worth about $15 billion, according to independent investigations, and helped to push Russia down on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, from the 127th to 136th position. (There are only 175 countries on that list, which puts Russia on a par with Lebanon and Nigeria.)
Yet in the midst of all these troubles, Putin still manages to present himself as the only man who can guarantee stability, and if the polls are to be believed his popularity remains high. In the United States, people used to warn against taking wooden nickels. But in Russia, the wooden ruble seems to be widely accepted.