Authors: Dr. Matthew Crosston , Andy Deahn
Russian President Vladimir Putin has loudly projected that his nation and the other Caspian nations will leave the dollar behind. Mr. Putin has exclaimed that the United States runs a “Dollar dictatorship” when it comes to global market oil prices and affirms that his nation’s currency will not become a victim subjected to its rule.
In order to combat this “dictatorship” attempts have been made to enhance relations with China in order to integrate both the ruble and the yuan into the global market more dominantly. His belief is that in doing so he will weaken the dollar while strengthening both national currencies. However, Mr. Putin is potentially committing a mistake, as he is generally associating a strong currency with national strength and views the decline in the ruble’s value as an offense against Russia’s prowess. These are clearly political statements used to project an aura of strength that disregard the economic realities facing the Kremlin. Rather than take meaningful counter-actions so as to create positive momentum and strong economic stimuli, Putin sometimes seems more focused on capitalizing on his celebrity status to ‘tweak the American eagle’ as it were. Putin’s “projection” as stated above can thus be observed as an attempt to manufacture a sense of Russian exceptionalism that will counter the ‘insult’ that he considers as a constant American exceptionalism on the global stage. However, these geopolitical playground battles do not outweigh the realities of the world economy and how Russia needs to create serious policies to deal with sanctions and weak oil prices.
While China is Russia’s largest trading partner and has become the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels — a vital aspect to Russian economic health — the Chinese financial crisis that occurred in August 2015 has weakened the Yuan, consequently placing increased pressure on the Russian economy as well. The Chinese economic meltdown and the resultant devaluation of the Yuan held global implications. From Wall Street to Venezuela to Saudi Arabia, economic downturns were observed. On Wall Street the drop in the stock market created panic among brokers/investors and in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela a drop in oil prices impacted their economies rather severely, given both have bet some of their financial futures on China’s continual thirst for commodity imports. Russia, however, which exports approximately 14 percent of its annual oil production to China, has a lot more to lose from the Chinese economic decline. This is because oil and natural gas are at the heart of the Russian economy. These commodities account for over 75 percent of export revenues and over 50 percent of government budgetary resources. The Russian ruble, which is directly linked to global oil prices, has been steadily decreasing in value throughout the last 12 months. This direct link is identified through the correlating data of the market price for oil and the value of the ruble to the U.S. dollar. For example, the market price for oil dropped from $104 USD per barrel to around $50 USD per barrel from September 2014 to September 2015. At the same time the value of the ruble, which in the beginning of September 2014 was 36 RUB to 1 USD, had slipped by September 2015 to 68 RUB to 1 USD—a steep devaluation rate not seen since the 1997 global financial recession.
In addition to having the value of its currency decline, for every dollar that global oil prices drop Russia loses an estimated $2 billion a year in revenues. When combined with other harmful realities like Western sanctions, Russia’s relative dependence upon a singular commodity market, and lavish spending rather than modernizing its energy sector during high oil prices, it is clear that Russia pontificating about a ‘dollar dictatorship’ should not be its focus. Indeed, there is something of a flawed logic in the premise: why does President Putin believe he can leave the dollar behind by tying the punished ruble with the declining Chinese yuan? In the near-term at least this strategy is destined to fail.
One regional influence Russia is also somewhat disregarding (or making too many positive assumptions) in this endeavor and that will potentially become of greater geopolitical importance is the Islamic Republic of Iran, now that the new nuclear accord has been struck and many sanctions lifted. By hedging their bets too heavily on China and disregarding up-to-the-minute regional economic shifts, Russia is possibly inflicting its own monetary wounds while uselessly blame-shifting on America for its economic woes. The lifting of Iranian sanctions would mean that Russia could face a newly invigorated, oil-producing, heavyweight regional competitor, one that could reshape the power balance in the Caspian Sea Region and may not necessarily be willing to be as close an ally to Russia as Russia assumes it will be.
A more economically and politically independent Iran, and its ability to influence regional power shifts, would allow for the other Caspian states to modernize and diversify their economies. This would mean that Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan may finally be able to break free of the Russian influence that has basically engulfed them since the Soviet era by building the Trans-Caspian pipeline. Likewise Kazakhstan, a nation whose economy is also built upon the same commodity market as Russia, may finally be able to lessen the havoc that the Russian currency decline is playing within its own borders. Right now there are few analysts seriously considering these potentialities, both here in the West and within Russia. This is an error. Russia clearly thinks the new nuclear accord will lead only to improved ties and deeper economic prosperity for both itself and Iran. But there is ample historical evidence to consider that an emboldened and newly stabilized Iran simply might not need Russia as much as Russia needs it. This future reality could signal a dramatic change in the Russian-Iranian relationship, and not to Russia’s favor. The longer Moscow assumes this is a geostrategic impossibility and that its only concern is battling the ‘dollar dictatorship,’ then the Kremlin only creates more danger for itself.
We already know that a devalued yuan is further assisting oil prices to drop on a global scale, placing great strain on the Russian economy as well as on some bordering Caspian states. Historically, when the Kremlin feels threatened, it shifts blame to other scapegoats rather than seriously tackling its problems. The current sharp slowdown of Chinese economic growth has already impacted multiple Russian economic sectors, including energy, metallurgy, timber, and agriculture. The future alliance with Iran is not an automatic guarantee. Western sanctions still grind along. The Caspian littorals may see opportunities to loosen Russia’s economic grip over their local economic standings. Clearly, plenty of ‘real’ problems exist. So it would behoove Russia to stop spending time on economic fantasies of ‘dethroning the dollar dictatorship.’ That seems to be the least of its real problems.
Turkey and Trump’s sanctions-based “political economy”
By the end of last year, the Turkish economy had slipped into a technical recession, boosting in 12 months by only 2.6%, despite the fact that a year ago the government expected GDP to grow by 3.8%. The slowdown is particularly striking against the background of sustainable development over the past seven years: in 2010, the country’s GDP grew by 8.5%, in 2011 – by 11.1%, in 2012 – by 4.8%, in 2013 – by 8.5%, in 2014 – by 5.2%, in 2015 – by 6.1%, in 2016 – by 3.2% and in 2017 – by 7.4% This trend has turned Turkey into one of the fastest developing economies, earning it 17th position worldwide in nominal GDP and 13th in the GDP value regarding purchasing power parity.
The situation changed by the middle of 2018, when relations with Washington deteriorated to the point of a trade war. The Trump administration resorted to the much-practiced method of targeting the “dissenters”: it raised drastically customs duties on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey (which, however, did not prevent the United States from becoming the second buyer of Turkish metallurgical produce by the end of the year). On August 1 the US introduced sanctions against Turkish Interior and Justice Ministers. At that time, the main stumbling block (at least on the surface of it) was Turkey’s refusal to release American priest Andrew Brunson who was detained in 2016 on charges of espionage and links to Fethullah Gulen’s movement along with the Kurdistan Workers ’Party. For some time Donald Trump’s propaganda slogans were dominated by the maxim “to save rank-and-file pastor Brunson”.
Turkey responded by slapping import duties on American goods: cars, alcohol, tobacco, cosmetics. And, of course, it put two US ministers on its sanctions list.
But the forces were clearly far from equal. As a result, the Turkish lira collapsed. At the beginning of 2018 one dollar traded for 3.8 liras, whereas by the end of the year it sold for 5.3 liras. Moreover, at the peak of the weakening of the national currency, the dollar cost almost 7 liras. The Central Bank of Turkey was forced to raise the interest rate, even despite opposition from the country’s omnipotent president. Today, the rate has climbed up to the red level of 24%. Consequently, there has been a drop in the sales of real estate, cars, and a number of other industrial goods. Prospects for inflation have materialized too – in October, inflation hit a fifteen-year high, exceeding 25 percent.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan put the blame for the crisis on Turkey’s foreign ill-wishers. This time – with a lion’s share of truth.
In October, the court sentenced Branson to imprisonment for exactly the time he had already served. The pastor returned home, mutual sanctions were lifted, which partly calmed the markets. But only partly.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TSI), the country’s GDP increased by 2.6% by the end of the year. At the same time, the service sector grew by 5.6%, agrarian – by 1.3%, industrial – by only 1.1%. Exports, compared to the previous year, increased by 7% – to 168 billion dollars (a record figure in the entire history of the Turkish Republic). Foreign trade deficit, amid a boost of imports prices, decreased by 28.4% to $ 55 billion, while imports proper dropped by 4.6% to 223 billion dollars. Tourism revenues increased by 12.3% to 29.5 billion
At first glance, the situation is far from critical, but, according to the TSI, over the year, per capita GDP dropped from $10,597 to $ 9,632; household expenditures, although going up by 1.1% on the year, went down by 8.9% in the fourth quarter. In December unemployment rate among the able-bodied population reached 13.5% – more than 4.3 million people.
Nevertheless, Berat Albayrak, Minister of Treasury and Finance of Turkey, sounded optimistic: “The worst days for the economy are over. The government is confident that the growth of the Turkish economy in 2019 will match the forecasts laid down in the New Economic Program. ”
In general, the above-mentioned program envisages the implementation of reforms that will protect export-oriented small and medium-sized enterprises, strengthen their competitiveness, stimulate the economy to secure a high level of added value. An important part of the document is a clause that stipulates cutting government spending on expensive infrastructure projects, often designed to foster the image rather than the economy.
Specialists differ in assessing the prospects for the Turkish economy: forecasts vary from a slight increase to a further decline. In particular, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “Economists expect the cooling to continue. The OECD forecasts a further reduction in the economic growth of (Turkey-author) for 2019 to minus 1.8 percent.” So far, the trend is as follows: industrial production, for example, in January 2019 fell by 7.3% against January last year.
Among the chronic illnesses of the Turkish economy is a deficit of the balance of payments, which the government traditionally tries to compensate with foreign loans and foreign investment – these primarily provided economic growth in previous years. Now this source seems nearly exhausted as investors worldwide are growing increasingly wary of developing markets. The position of Turkey is aggravated by the uncertainty of foreign capital about the independence of the Central Bank, its concerns about the unpredictability of the country’s policy and the adequacy of its economic course (first of all, its adherence to ambitious projects with questionable economic efficiency).
Also, potential investors are deterred by the strained relations between Ankara and Washington. For many, President Trump’s recent treat to “ruin” Turkey for its policy on Syrian Kurds and his recent decision to abolish customs preferences for a number of Turkish goods came as signaling the continuation of a trade war. Significantly, these statements were made after the Turkish leadership confirmed its determination to acquire Russian air defense systems, thereby making it clear that pursued a course towards independence in strategic decision-making.
For Turkey, the United States is a fairly important trading partner, which in 2018 accounted for almost five percent of Turkish exports ($ 8.3 billion) and more than five percent of imports ($ 12.3 billion).
The recession in the Turkish economy has a certain negative impact on Russian-Turkish economic results. Last year, Turkey became Russia’s sixth largest trading partner. In particular, it accounts for a considerable share of Russian exports of metals, grain and, most importantly, energy carriers (the second, after Germany, importer of oil in the world). In February, according to Gazprom, the export of Russian gas to non-CIS countries decreased by 13% in annual terms. The company said the main reasons behind the decrease were the warm weather in Europe and the crisis in Turkey.
The Russian economy has succeeded in adapting to the extensive sanction pressure from Washington and, it looks like the Trump administration has now chosen to “attack from the flank”, targeting one of Moscow’s major foreign economic partners. It would not be a mistake to assume that the ability of the Turkish leadership to resist pressure from its “strategic ally” and NATO partner in the near future will largely determine not only economic, but also political relations between Moscow and Ankara.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Ambiguity in European economic leadership
Europe’s economic situation remains uncertain! The European economic crisis and austerity policies remain in place. On the other hand, there is no sign that the EU is passing through the current situation. Two conservative /Social Democrats in Europe have not been able to effectively counteract the economic crisis over the last few years.
This same issue has led to anger by European citizens from traditional European parties. Subsequently, the trend of European citizens to nationalist and extremist parties has increased in recent years.
The events that have taken place in France in recent months have led to disappointment with the eurozone leaders over the current deadlock.The most important point is that Macron was planned to assume the title of the Europe’s economic leader in the short term, and that was to be after succeeding in creating and sustaining economic reforms in France and the Eurozone.
Meanwhile, European citizens expressed their satisfaction with the election of Macron as French President in 2017. They thought that the French president, while challenging austerity policies, would strengthen the components of economic growth in the European Union. Moreover, EU leaders also hoped that Macron’s success in pursuing economic reforms in France would be a solid step in pushing the entire Eurozone out of the economic crisis.
In other words, in the midst of anti-Euro and extremist and far-right movements in Europe, Macron was the last hope of European authorities to “manage the economic crisis” which was raising inside the Eurozone: the hope that has soon faded away!
The main dilemma in France is quite clear!”Failing to persuade French citizens” on his economic reforms, and Macron’s miscalculations about the support of French citizens for himself, were among the important factors in shaping this process. Macron had to give concessions to protesters to prevent further tensions in France.
After the country’s month-long demonstrations, Macron was forced to retreat from his decision on raising the fuel price. Besides, he had no way but to make promises to the French citizens on issues such as raising the minimum wages and reducing the income tax. This had but one meaning: Macron’s economic reforms came to an end. Right now, European authorities know well that Macron is incapable of regaining his initial power in France and the Eurozone by 2022 (the time for the France general elections).
Therefore, Macron has to forget the dream of EU’s economic leadership until the last moments of his presence at the Elysees Palace. Of course, this is if the young French president isn’t forced to resign before 2022! The European authorities and the Eurozone leaders have no alternative for Macron and his economic reforms in Europe. That’s why they’re so worried about the emergence of anti-EU movements in countries such as France and Germany.
For example, they are well aware that if Marin Le Pen can defeat Macron and come to power in France during the upcoming elections, then the whispers of the collapse of the Eurozone, and even the European Union, will be clearly heard, this time with a loud voice, all over the Europe.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Economic integration: Asia and the Pacific’s best response to protectionism
Deepening economic integration in Asia and the Pacific is a longstanding regional objective. Not an end in itself but a means of supporting the trade, investment and growth necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is a priority for all member states of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP). China has a valuable contribution to make so I am beginning 2019 with a visit to Beijing. One to discuss with Chinese leaders how we can strengthen our collaboration and accelerate progress.
The case for deeper integration in Asia and the Pacific is becoming increasingly apparent. Recent trade tensions highlight Asia and the Pacific’s vulnerability to protectionism from major export markets. UN ESCAP analysis shows how regional supply chains are being disrupted and investor confidence shaken. Export growth is expected to slow and foreign direct investment to continue its downward trend. Millions of jobs are forecast to be lost, others will be displaced. Unskilled workers, particularly women, are likely to suffer most. Increasing seamless regional connectivity – expanding the infrastructure which underpins cross border commercial exchanges and intraregional trade – must be part of our response.
We should build on the existing Asian transport infrastructure agreements UN ESCAP maintains to further reduce regulatory constraints, costs and delays. For instance, UN ESCAP members are working to improve the efficiency of railway border crossings along the Trans-Asian Railway network. There is great potential to improve electronic information exchange between railways, harmonise customs formalities and improve freight trains’ reliability. The recent international road transport agreement between the governments of China, Mongolia and the Russian Federation grants traffic rights for international road transport operations on the sections of the Asia Highway which connect their borders. We should expand it to other countries. There is also huge opportunity to develop our region’s dry ports, the terminals pivotal to the efficient shipment of sea cargo to inland destinations by road or rail. A regional strategy is in place to build a network of dry ports of major international significance. UN ESCAP is looking forward to working with China to implement it.
Sustainable energy, particularly cross-border power trade, is another key plank UN ESCAP member States’ connectivity agenda. Connecting electricity grids is not only important to meet demand, ensure energy access and security. It is also necessary to support the development of large-scale renewable energy power plants and the transition to cleaner energy across Asia and the Pacific. The fight against climate change in part depends on our ability to better link up our networks. ASEAN’s achievements in strengthening power grids across borders is a leading example of what political commitment and technical cooperation can deliver. At the regional level UN ESCAP has brought together our region’s experts to develop a regional roadmap on sustainable energy connectivity. China is currently chairing this group.
For maximum impact, transport and energy initiatives need to come in tandem with the soft infrastructure which facilitates the expansion of trade. UN ESCAP analysis ranks China among the top trade facilitation and logistics performers in our region. This expertise contributed to a major breakthrough in cross-border e-commerce development and ultimately led to a UN treaty on trade digitalisation. This has been adopted by UN ESCAP members to support the exchange of electronic trade data and documents and signed by China in 2017. Now, UN ESCAP is working to support the accession and ratification of twenty-five more countries who recognise the opportunity to minimise documentary requirements, promote transparency and increase the security of trade operations. Full implementation of cross-border paperless trade in Asia and the Pacific could reduce export costs by up to 30 percent. Regional export gains could be as has high as $250 billion.
As we look to the future and work to accelerate progress towards the
2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals, economic integration must remain a
priority. A strong UN-China sustainable development partnership is essential to
take this agenda forward and strengthen our resilience to international trade
tensions and economic uncertainty. Working with all the countries in our
region, we have a unique opportunity to place sustainability considerations at
the heart of our efforts and build seamless regional connectivity. That is an
opportunity, which in 2019, UN ESCAP is determined to seize.UNESCAP
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