Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 168

Preliminary figures released by Goskomstat in mid-August show that Russia posted a whopping $28.4 billion trade surplus during the first half of the year. When matched with preliminary output data for the same period, this surplus translates into 27 percent of Russia’s first-half GDP. In dollar terms, this is more than double the US$13.4 billion surplus reported at mid-1999, and is not much less than the record US$34.9 billion surplus (19 percent of GDP) reported for all of 1999. The August 1998 financial crisis was behind the 1999 trade surplus, with Russia’s loss of external creditworthiness causing imports to fall by nearly a third last year. By contrast, this year’s surplus is due to rapid growth in Russian exports, which are surging–thanks to both high prices and growing export volumes.

Statistical reporting of Russia’s foreign trade leaves plenty of room for disagreement. Significant differences have traditionally been noted between the trade data reported by the Russian Customs Committee–which does not track smuggled or otherwise undeclared goods–and the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), which monitors trade flows through Russia’s balance of payments accounts and bank transactions. The Customs Committee data traditionally show smaller amounts of exports and (especially) imports than the CBR figures, and the task of reconciling these different estimates falls to Goskomstat. The final figures released by Goskomstat are almost always quite close to the CBR numbers, and therefore include estimates of undeclared trade not captured by the customs data.

While the different agencies may quibble about the figures, there is no disagreement about Russia’s export boom. According to Goskomstat Russia’s exported US$49.1 billion in the first half of 2000, half again as much as the $32.5 billion in export revenues recorded at mid-1999. Because sales of crude and refined oil products generally account for at least 40 percent of Russia’s export revenues, high oil prices had a lot to do with this export growth. According to the Goskomstat data, the average price of a barrel of crude oil exported during the first five months of 2000 had risen to US$22.6, compared to US$9.6 during January-May 1999. Large price increases were also reported for exports of raw nickel (prices doubled), natural gas (prices rose 49 percent), and aluminum (prices rose 25 percent). Russia’s exports would have been even higher were it not for government taxes and limits on crude oil exports. Thanks to these controls, the volume of crude oil shipped abroad did not grow at all during the first five months of the year. Russian oil companies were much more successful in evading controls on refined oil products, as these grew by 12 percent in volume terms. Double-digit volume growth was also reported for exports of raw nickel, timber and wood pulp (Sotsial’no-Ekonomicheskoye Polozhenie Rossii, May, June 2000).