High energy prices bring export-led growth to Russia’s resource-based economy. Central Bank figures show that oil and gas now account for over half of Russia’s export earnings, which were nearly $50 billion in the first six months of this year. That is 50 percent more than a year ago. With the ruble still weak, imports grew by only 5 percent, to just over $20 billion. The trade surplus of almost $30 billion in just six months financed a recovery of foreign-exchange reserves (up $14 billion to $26 billion) and built the dollar-denominated assets of the banking system to almost $16 billion. As of October 1, gross domestic product was up 7 percent over 1999 levels, and the federal budget was in surplus.
Can economists find a cloud for this silver lining? Of course they can. Many successful developing countries–China for example, or Brazil–import more than they export, while foreign investment finances the deficit and supports new business. The opposite is happening in Russia. Its big trade surplus finances capital outflow, which totaled over $13 billion in the first half of this year. Economy Minister German Gref says capital flight is “one of the negative factors in Russia’s economy and an indication of its poor health.”
Russia’s trade surplus also complicates negotiations on the foreign debt. Before oil prices rose last year, Russia’s private creditors, eager to clean up their own balance sheets, agreed to reschedule $38 billion, including a write-off of almost $14 billion. Russia hoped for a similar deal on the $43 billion in official debt, but the creditors–mostly governments and government agencies–balked. They saw political risks in bailing out Russia while IMF loans were not accounted for and while the Russian treasury financed a brutal war in Chechnya. Now those creditors see the oil and gas dollars rolling in and wonder why they can’t get paid. The issue is sharpest in Germany, Russia’s biggest official creditor and a major importer of Russian natural gas.