Economic Conditions in Mid-1996

Economic Conditions in Mid-1996

As of mid-1996, four and one-half years after the launching of Russia's post-Soviet economic reform, experts found the results promising but mixed. The Russian economy has passed through a long and wrenching depression. Official Russian economic statistics indicate that from 1990 to the end of 1995, Russian GDP declined by roughly 50 percent, far greater than the decline that the United States experienced during the Great Depression. (However, alternative estimates by Western analysts described a much less severe decline, taking into account the upward bias of Soviet-era economic data and the downward bias of post-Soviet data.) Such a decline, however, was to be expected in an economy going through the transition from central planning to a market structure. Much of the decline in production has occurred in the military-industrial complex and other heavy industries that benefited most from the skewed economic priorities of Soviet planners but have much less robust demand in a freer market.

But other major sectors such as agriculture, energy, and light industry also suffered from the transition. To enable these sectors to function in a market system, inefficient enterprises had to be closed and workers laid off, with resulting short-term declines in output and consumption. Analysts had expected that Russia's GDP would begin to rise in 1996, but data for the first six months of the year showed a continuing decline, and some Russian experts predicted a new phase of economic crisis in the second half of the year.

The pain of the restructuring has been assuaged somewhat by the emergence of a new private sector. Western experts believe that Russian data overstate the dimensions of Russia's economic collapse by failing to reflect a large portion of the country's private-sector activity. The Russian services sector, especially retail sales, is playing an increasingly vital role in the economy, accounting for nearly half of GDP in 1995. The services sector's activities have not been adequately measured. Data on sector performance are skewed by the underreporting or nonreporting of output that Russia's tax laws encourage. According to Western analysts, by the end of 1995 more than half of GDP and more than 60 percent of the labor force were based in the private sector.

An important but unconventional service in Russia's economy is "shuttle trading"--the transport and sale of consumer goods by individual entrepreneurs, of whom 5 to 10 million were estimated to be active in 1996. Traders buy goods in foreign countries such as China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates and in Russian cities, then sell them on the domestic market where demand is highest. Yevgeniy Yasin, minister of economics, estimated that in 1995 some US$11 billion worth of goods entered Russia in this way. Shuttle traders have been vital in maintaining the standard of living of Russians who cannot afford consumer goods on the conventional market. However, domestic industries such as textiles suffer from this infusion of competing merchandise, whose movement is unmonitored, untaxed, and often mafiya -controlled.

The geographical distribution of Russia's wealth has been skewed at least as severely as it was in Soviet times. By the mid-1990s, economic power was being concentrated in Moscow at an even faster rate than the federal government was losing political power in the rest of the country. In Moscow an economic oligarchy, composed of politicians, banks, businesspeople, security forces, and city agencies, controlled a huge percentage of Russia's financial assets under the rule of Moscow's energetic and popular mayor, Yuriy Luzhkov. Unfortunately, organized crime also has played a strong role in the growth of the city (see The Crime Wave of the 1990s, ch. 10). Opposed by a weak police force, Moscow's rate of protection rackets, contract murders, kickbacks, and bribes--all intimately connected with the economic infrastructure--has remained among the highest in Russia. Most businesses have not been able to function without paying for some form of mafiya protection, informally called a krysha (the Russian word for roof).

Luzhkov, who has close ties to all legitimate power centers in the city, has overseen the construction of sports stadiums, shopping malls, monuments to Moscow's history, and the ornate Christ the Savior Cathedral. In 1994 Yeltsin gave Luzhkov full control over all state property in Moscow. In the first half of 1996, the city privatized state enterprises at the rate of US$1 billion per year, a faster rate than the entire national privatization process in the same period. Under Luzhkov's leadership, the city government also acquired full or major interests in a wide variety of enterprises--from banking, hotels, and construction to bakeries and beauty salons. Such ownership has allowed Luzhkov's planners to manipulate resources efficiently and with little or no competition. Meanwhile, Moscow also became the center of foreign investment in Russia, often to the exclusion of other regions. For example, the McDonald's fast-food chain, which began operations in Moscow in 1990, enjoyed immediate success but expanded only in Moscow. The concentration of Russia's banking industry in Moscow gave the city a huge advantage in competing for foreign commercial activity.

In mid-1996 the national government appeared to have achieved some degree of macroeconomic stability. However, longer-term stability depends on the ability of policy makers to withstand the inflationary pressures of demands for state subsidies and easier credits for failing enterprises and other special interests. (Chubays estimated that spending promises made during Yeltsin's campaign amounted to US$250 per voter, which if actually spent would approximately double the national budget deficit; most of Yeltsin's pledges seemingly were forgotten shortly after his reelection.)

By 1996 the structure of Russian economic output had shifted far enough that it more closely resembled that of a developed market economy than the distorted Soviet central-planning model. With the decline in demand for defense industry goods, overall production has shifted from heavy industry to consumer production (see The Defense Industry, ch. 9). However, in the mid-1990s the low quality of most domestically produced consumer goods continued to limit enterprises' profits and therefore their ability to modernize production operations. On the other side of the "vicious circle," reliance on an outmoded production system guaranteed that product quality would remain low and uncompetitive.

Most prices are left to the market, although local and regional governments control the prices of some staples. Energy prices remain controlled, but the Government has been shifting these prices upward to close the gap with world market prices.

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