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The Yuan versus the Dollar: Showdown in the Global Financial Arena

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At the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, the United States laid the foundation for the U.S.-centric international monetary system, thus ensuring the dollar’s status as the key reserve currency for the next 75 years. The fact that other countries accepted the dollar as the main currency of international payments, loans and investments allowed U.S. transnational corporations to dominate global markets in the post-war period quickly. However, if we are to proceed from the development patterns of the international monetary and financial system, then it follows that the dollar will eventually be replaced by the yuan, the currency of the new global economic and financial leader (China). Will Beijing manage to build its own system of global institutions, one that is capable of internationalizing the yuan and competing against the U.S. currency when it comes to servicing global flows of commodities and finance? In order to answer this question, we need to look at the trends of the global financial architecture as it stands today and identify the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. and Chinese financial systems.

The Global Financial Architecture

The global financial architecture (GFA) is the combination of institutions involved in the regulation of global finance. It consists of a model for organizing international financial relations, institutional mechanisms for managing these relations, and the principles underlying the participation of countries in decision-making processes. The GFA model is based on the competitiveness and openness of global financial markets. The institutional mechanisms include fiat (intrinsically valueless) money, the free trans-border movement of capital and a system of floating exchange rates. The influence of individual countries on the development of the GFA depends on the size of their quotas and votes within the Bretton Woods institutions of the IMF and the World Bank.

One feature of the current transformational processes as applied to the GFA is the concentration, in individual countries, of financial assets that exceed the size of their economies by tens, hundreds and even thousands of times. For example, the financial assets controlled by Luxembourg exceed its GDP by 248 times, and those of the Cayman Islands exceed its GDP by 1861 times. These imbalances are caused by the fact that the modern GFA is formed not along the lines of the formal Bretton Woods institutions, but rather informally, via the offshore financial system.

It is in offshore jurisdictions, i.e. outside the national borders of the countries that issue international currencies, that the bulk of global monetary liquidity is generated. For example, in 2007–2008, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York opened temporary dollar swap lines for the central banks of 14 countries worth over $10 trillion to refinance the dollar liabilities of lending institutions operating out of those jurisdictions. The swap lines were discontinued in February 2010, but were reinstated three months later in a different format between the Federal Reserve System (FRS) and five key central banks that are closely linked to the United States: the European Central Bank, the Swiss National Bank, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Bank of Canada. These C6 swap lines were made permanent and unlimited in October 2013. It is thanks to these currency swap operations that the U.S. FRS can create euros, pounds and yen in offshore jurisdictions. The other countries involved can participate in the creation of offshore U.S. dollars. The massive swap agreements involving the most significant central banks undermine the importance of the Bretton Woods institutions as the providers of global liquidity and make it difficult to record and control global capital flows at the intergovernmental level.

The U.S. Financial System

The main strength of the U.S. economy is that it issues the key global currency, as well as the fact that it has created the world’s biggest stock market, in which more than half of all U.S. households participate. The United States has the most liquid bond market, which means that the dollar is the international benchmark for value and the main reserve asset for the rest of the world (its share in the international reserve portfolios of central banks exceeds 60 per cent). Over 50 per cent of all international deposits, loans and promissory notes are nominated in U.S. dollars. Washington is home to the headquarters of the Bretton Woods institutions, which are responsible for macroeconomic oversight and addressing structural imbalances in the 189 member nations. Three U.S. rating agencies account for 96 per cent of all credit ratings assigned in the world, U.S. investment holdings manage more than 50 per cent of global corporate assets. These and other factors explain the dominant role of the United States in the formation and development of the GFA.

The main weakness of the U.S. financial system is that the country’s economy is based on debt and is extremely dependent on bank lending terms and the dynamics of stock market operations. A sharp increase in interest rates or a decline in demand as a result of economic overheating leads to a nosedive in share prices, which, in turn, leads to a depression, as was the case in 1929 and 2008. One other vulnerability of the U.S. financial system is its dependence on external financing, which is due to the status of the dollar as the key reserve currency. Should the international demand for dollars decline, U.S. funding from external sources may also decrease.

China’s Place in the GFA

China leads the world in terms of monetary aggregates (in the dollar equivalent), purchasing power parity GDP, production and exports, and the labour force size. However, China’s economic growth continues to be largely dependent on imports of foreign investments and technologies.

China’s leading positions on a number of economic indicators still has a negligible effect on the country’s ability to influence international financial relations. As before, the head of the IMF is a European citizen and the head of the World Bank is an American. Unlike other international organizations within the UN system, which make decisions based on the “one vote per country” principle, the IMF and the World Bank are stock companies whose capital is owned by the member nations. Decisions on the most critical issues on the agenda of the Bretton Woods institutions are made by a qualified majority of 85 per cent. Following the reform of the IMF quota and voting system in 2010–2016, the BRICS countries failed to gain the minimum number of votes (15 per cent) to obtain veto power and assert the multipolar principle within the organization. Just like before the reform, the United States continues to be the only IMF member nation that has the power veto.

China certainly owes much of its global economic achievements to its membership of international financial and economic organizations that the United States was instrumental in founding and running. That said, in order for China to protect its economic interests in an effective manner and exert tangible influence on decision-making processes in the global economy, Beijing needs to participate in those international institutions in which its vote has a decisive role. In this sense, China has high hopes for its recent initiatives to create pan-Asian institutions for monetary policy, finance and economics, such as the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation, the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The opening of the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (where transactions are carried out in Chinese yuan) on March 26, 2018, was a particularly significant event. This was China’s first step towards the formation of a “petroyuan” pricing system on the global energy resources market. The Shanghai Futures Exchange has begun trading in new oil futures, known as INE, which are expected to compete against British Brent and U.S. WTI contracts. The pricing of oil in yuan is an important component of the drive to internationalize the Chinese currency and lessen the global economy’s dependence on the dollar.

By late 2017, the People’s Bank of China had signed 37 swap agreements with different countries worth more than 3 trillion yuan. The agreements were aimed at facilitating the use of the yuan in doing business with foreign banks and companies, so that the central banks receiving liquidity in yuan can act as lenders of last resort after the activation of currency swap lines. However, the agreements have not resulted in a significant increase in the global use of the yuan, which is what was originally expected. Since the 2008 initiation of the swap agreements, the share of the Chinese currency in the denomination of international promissory notes has stood at roughly 0.3 per cent, whereas the share of the U.S. dollar has grown from 47 per cent to 63 per cent.

In addition, currency transactions involving the yuan are mostly done via London, not Beijing. The United Kingdom accounts for 33.79 per cent of all global currency operations involving the yuan. Hong Kong remains the largest clearing centre for international transactions in yuan, serving 76.36 per cent of all such global operations (the United Kingdom is second with 6.18 per cent). Thus, most international transactions involving the yuan are performed outside continental China.

One more obstacle to the faster internationalization of the yuan is China’s preoccupation with domestic problems stemming from the rapid growth of debts (especially in the property market), the growth of the shadow banking system and the disproportionate allocation of loans to large and small businesses. In its attempts to conduct a softer monetary policy, the Chinese government is facing a difficult choice between supporting short-term growth and countering unfavourable external shocks. A monetary easing could increase the vulnerability of the Chinese economy, because continued lending growth is capable of slowing down or complicating the restoration of banks’ balance sheets and aggravating the existing imbalances in the allocation of loans.

University of California professor Barry Eichengreen, who is one of the most respected experts on the development of the international monetary system, says the yuan does not qualify as an international currency for three reasons: 1) the high costs of financial transactions involving the acquisition and distribution of information; 2) China’s great dependence on Hong Kong as a regional offshore centre; 3) China’s inability to exert political pressure on the other global economic centres, primarily the United States and the European Union. At the same time, according to Eichengreen, there are four factors indicating the growing status of the yuan as a regional currency: 1) the potential growth of incomes in Asian countries, which results in increased demand for Chinese commodities; 2) the implementation of multilateral projects as part of the Belt and Road initiative, which results in the growing use of the yuan in Central and Southeast Asia; 3) the development of the Asian bond market, which leads to the standardization of international promissory notes nominated in yuan; 4) the growing demand for yuan on the part of commercial banks and companies in swap transactions between central banks as part of the Chiang Mai Initiative.

Points of Conflict between the United States and China

Unlike the Cold War era, which was characterized by the polar confrontation between two systems, today the United States and China are members of the same international financial organizations, they both interact in the uniform global capitalist market and follow the same principles of competition, effectiveness and profit maximization. For this reason, the main point of conflict between the United States and China concerns mutual restrictions when it comes to allowing the other country’s finished products and services onto their national markets.

Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recipient Joseph Stiglitz believes that the United States stands to lose more from its trade war with China than China does, as the Chinese authorities have far greater opportunities to restrict the operations of U.S. corporations working in China than the U.S. authorities do when it comes to Chinese goods imported into the United States as part of international trade. In addition, raising the prices of Chinese commodities on the U.S. market may cause dissatisfaction among end customers.

Another point of conflict between the two countries is connected to China’s limited ability to influence major international organizations. Despite the IMF reform, China did not secure a tangible increase in its influence within the organization, with its quota only growing from 4.0 per cent to 6.41% per cent. We should note here that when the IMF began operating in 1947, China’s quota was bigger than it is now, at 6.56 per cent (even though the country was the world’s fifth-largest economy at the time, not the second largest as it is today). The formal inclusion of the yuan in the special drawing rights (SDR) basket (the IMF’s cashless reserve asset) in 2016 was largely symbolic, because the use of SDRs has no effect on the actual balance of forces in the GFA. The value of the SDRs in circulation stands at $204.1 billion, or under 4 per cent of the international currency reserves calculated in dollars. The share of the yuan in the structure of international currency reserves and international transactions stands at approximately 2 per cent, which does not reflect China’s global role as the largest manufacturer and exporter.

One more potential point of conflict is the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. In accordance with the Made in China 2025 plan to develop strategic technologies, the country expects to have assumed global dominance in the world in the field of AI by 2030. The financial sector has high hopes for AI in terms of its potential to increase effectiveness and profitability, much like the effect that the introduction of information technologies had on financial services. China has already outstripped Europe in the number of AI-related startups and is gaining ground on the global leader in AI, the United States.

Conclusions

Experts view pan-Asian financial institutions as an instrument used by China to establish its status as the leading Eurasian and global power. Chinese officials repeatedly stress that the newly established institutions aim to compete with the Bretton Woods institutions, not replace them. In other words, at the current stage in the development of the GFA, China has no intention of changing the neo-liberal principles of its functioning.

Despite the significant increase in China’s influence on the global economy and the addition of the yuan to the SDR basket, the dollar continues to play the key role in the global financial market and in servicing international trade in commodities and services. China’s growing influence on the GFA thus depends on strengthening the global role of Sino-centric financial institutions and on the broader use of the yuan in international payment systems and in transactions on the global financial market. At the same time, the active creation of offshore dollars that are not controlled by the U.S. regulators increases the risk of the dollar-centric currency system collapsing.

It is obvious that the current GFA configuration is not likely to undergo any significant changes in the foreseeable future (unless another global financial crisis breaks out) because the United States has a significant number of institutional instruments and mechanisms for influencing the global economy at its disposal. In the long run, however, any growth in China’s actual role in the international financial system will depend on the successful promotion of a conceptual alternative to the current GFA model for the purpose of overcoming global imbalances between the financial sector and real economy.

From our partner RIAC

Doctor of Economics, Senior Research Fellow and Professor in the Department of World Economy and World Finance of the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert

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GCC Countries Back on Path to Economic Growth after Contraction Due to the Pandemic

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Following a year of economic distress, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies are expected to return to an aggregate growth of 2.2% in 2021, according to the latest issue of the World Bank Gulf Economic Update (GEU) titled “COVID-19 Pandemic and the Road to Diversification”. This growth is buoyed by the global economic recovery, projected at 5.6% and the revival of global oil demand and international oil prices.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the decline in global oil demand and prices dealt the GCC countries a health crisis and a commodity market shock causing a GDP contraction 4.8% in 2020.  

Fiscal deficits are projected to persist for most over the forecast period, however.  The three countries with the largest deficits in 2020 – Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman – are projected to remain in deficit throughout 2021-23, but at narrower ratios to GDP in 2023 than during the economic downturn in 2020.  

According to the GEU, the oil supply cutbacks and the four-year-low average oil price of US$41.30 per barrel slashed the group’s goods and services exports by 8.1% in real terms and turned the current account surplus of 6.8% of GDP in 2019 into a deficit of 2.9% of GDP in 2020.  

Non-oil GDP is proportionately larger now in all the GCC countries than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but much work remains to be done.  Many are still highly reliant on oil and gas exports, which remain over 70% of total goods exports in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and on oil revenues, which exceed 70% of total government revenues in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain. 

“While the GCC has done a lot in the last year to contain the effects of the pandemic on their economy, including procuring vaccinations early on, they must continue to reform their public sector finances,” said Issam Abousleiman, World Bank Regional Director of the GCC Countries. “The region needs to strengthen their competition policies to harness the benefits of telecommunications and the digitalization of economic activity.

The sixth issue of the GEU focuses on fiscal revenues and structural reforms including strategic investments in digitalization and telecommunications, which can help enable more economic diversification. 

Promoting private sector development remains at the core of national and regional economic diversification efforts. The GCC managed to complete only two state-owned enterprise privatization transactions and only two public-private partnership (PPP) agreements in 2020, but it was a difficult year for commerce and investment anywhere.  

Also, advancing the telecommunications frontier is a strategic investment sector for diversification and post COVID-19 recovery, that will serve the GCC well.  Past investments in the sector accorded the GCC sizable benefits during the pandemic as quarantines, lockdowns, and restrictions forced public health surveillance, wholesale and retail commerce, public and private education, banking and financial services, and private and government office work onto digital channels. Strategic investment in advanced telecommunications technologies, including 5G, is underway in the GCC. But beyond capital spending on infrastructure, the telecommunications sector would benefit greatly from improvements in the legal, regulatory, and competition frameworks under which service providers operate.

GCC Countries Outlook

Bahrain: Bahrain will continue to rely on fiscal support measures in 2021 to overcome the economic contraction in 2020. GDP growth is expected to reach 3.3% in 2021 and remain at the same pace during the medium-term. 

Kuwait: Oil exports will continue to drive Kuwait’s growth dynamics. Economic growth is forecast to rebound to a moderate 2.4% in 2021, before ramping up to an average 3.2% in 2022-23.

Oman: Oman’s economy is forecast to recover in 2021, albeit at a moderate 2.5% growth rate as a sizable infrastructure investment program gains momentum. Medium-term growth is projected to average 5.3% over the forecast period.

Qatar: Qatar is forecast to post a strong growth rebound with LNG demand in South and East Asia underpinning medium-term prospects. Qatar’s economy is projected to grow by 3% in 2021 before accelerating to 4.1% in 2022 and 4.5% in 2023. 

Saudi Arabia: Firmer global oil demand will support Saudi Arabia’s economic recovery in 2021 with GDP growth expected to reach 2.4% in 2021. Medium-term growth is projected to average 3% over the forecast period. 

United Arab Emirates: The UAE is expected to swing back to growth in 2021, estimated at 1.2%, before accelerating to 2.5% in 2022 and 2023 driven by government expenditures and the staging of Expo 2020 in October 2021. 

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Passing the Test of the Covid Pandemic

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For love of domination we must substitute equality; for love of victory we must substitute justice; for brutality we must substitute intelligence; for competition we must substitute cooperation. We must learn to think of the human race as one family.– Bertrand Russell

The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.– Bertrand Russell

The COVID pandemic delivered a blow to the world economy through multiple channels. The labour supply was adversely affected by record high mortality rates, which may also deliver longer-term effects. With respect to economic policy, rather than stimulating greater cooperation the pandemic resulted in additional restrictions and greater proclivity towards self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Another channel was the negative impact on travel and labour mobility, as well as services and small business development.

More generally, the Covid pandemic proved to be a major test for the national, regional and international systems of governance. The international system as well as regional institutions proved to be unprepared and ill-equipped to address the blows of the crisis. At the national level the economic system was tested with respect to the governance system, the resiliency of the health care system as well as the trust of the population in the policies of the authorities (in particular the receptiveness of the calls for vaccination).

In the sphere of international cooperation the shortcomings of the current framework are illustrated by the lack of common efforts across countries in developing and providing vaccines to the global community. A straight-forward and sensible solution in the context of the current crisis would have been to widen the possibilities for the population to get access to a greater array of vaccines – this would in turn raise the participation rate of the population in vaccination. Equally as sensible would be joint efforts across countries in working on more effective vaccines. Instead, there is the intensifying “vaccine protectionism” and efforts to undermine trust in the vaccines created in “competitor countries”.

There is also a lot more that the international community could do to provide assistance to the least-developed economies. In 2020, official development assistance (ODA) by member countries of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) (comprises developed economies, including the EU and the United States) amounted to USD 161.2 billion, representing 0.32% of their combined GNI. Initial estimates indicate that within total ODA, DAC countries spent USD 12 billion in 2020 on COVID-19 related activities. As a result, ODA assistance in 2020 increased by 3.5% compared to 2019 and reached its highest level ever recorded. Such an increase, while important in view of the challenges faced by developed economies themselves, falls short of the rising needs of the least developed countries that were hard-hit by the sharp fall in FDI and remittance inflows due to the pandemic-induced restrictions. It has to be noted also, that ODA levels declined in 13 out of 30 members of DAC in 2020.

One of the key initiatives in the context of the assistance of the G20 countries to heavily-indebted developing economies was the provision of debt-relief to cope with the shock of the COVID pandemic. According to the OECD the total debt relief extended by advanced economies in 2020 amounted to USD 541 mn. At the same time, according to China’s Ministry of Finance, the Export-Import Bank of China as well as the China International Development Cooperation Agency have suspended debt service payments from 23 countries totalling more than USD 1.3 bn. Overall, the total debt relief provided by China to developing countries under the G20 framework reached USD 2.1 bn, which is the highest among the G20 members in terms of the size of the deferred funds.

Apart from ODA and debt relief there are also gaps in areas such as trade policy, most notably with respect to the lingering (and at times rising) protectionism affecting least-developed economies during the outbreak of the pandemic. The recent World Bank study of the implications of restrictive trade policies during the COVID crisis underscored that least-developed economies could be among the hardest hit. The response of the international community needs to be focused on improving developing countries’ market access, as well as the supplies from developed economies of medical equipment and technologies for national healthcare systems.

In the end, “enlightened self-interest” and “invisible hands” as guiding principles have not served the global community well. If the challenge of the current pandemic is ever to be decisively surmounted, it is going to be through a joint response. The hope is that this common effort will be transformational for the global community and will lead to emergence of new pathways and institutions for international cooperation. The changing “superstructure” of technological and material advances will necessitate an evolution in the “base” of human values. The effects of the current pandemic as well as the rising pile of other global imbalances and vulnerabilities are a reflection of the disconnect between the heights of the technical and material advances/ambition and the shaky foundation of the weakening values of international cooperation.

The important point to realize in the context of the current crisis is that it is not a one-off stumbling block on the road to greater prosperity in the future. There are just too many vulnerabilities and road-bumps along the current path that necessitate an outright rethink of the development itinerary. This relates in particular to risks such as cyber-security, inequality and environment/energy security. These fragilities are the opposite side of the advances made by the global community in areas such as computer-science, economic modernization and higher rates of industrialization in the developing world. Further ambitions along these important trajectories will increasingly call for ways to strengthen ethical standards and international cooperation.

From our partner RIAC

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Half a Decade On – Reflecting on Russia’s Unsung Successes

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In 2016, as the incoming World Bank lead economist for Russia, I started writing about Russian economic issues. It is now time to bid goodbye. As a professional analyst of the Russian economy over the last 5 years, I can summarize my experience in one sentence: things in Russia are never as bad as they seem, but they are never as good as they can be, either.

Just in the last 6 years, Russia has managed to attain remarkable macro-stability. Inflation, which was in double digits, is in now in manageable territory. The country is less reliant on oil and gas today than 5 years back. These are no small achievements. On the other hand, as I – and many others have written – sagging potential growth holds progress back. But these issues are well-known. In this final column, I would like to recognize three lesser-known Russian developmental successes that often fly under the radar screen.

First is Russia’s increase in life expectancy – from 65.3 years in 2000 to 72.7 years in 2018. This has been mostly due to a drop in the number of deaths caused by non-communicable diseases (i.e. diseases that are not infectious or contagious such as heart attacks and stroke) and external causes (such as road accidents and homicides). Mortality rates for both adults and particularly children have also been decreasing since the 2000s. Even more recently, infant mortality decreased by 36 percent from 2011 to 2017 and maternal mortality decreased by 49 percent in the same period. While the pandemic engulfs us all, it is worth taking a longer-term perspective to recognize legitimate improvements in Russia’s life expectancy.

Second is Russia’s progress in financial literacy. Russia is no stranger to financial crises. While governments anywhere and everywhere have the primary responsibility in preventing and managing them, an important factor that is only being recognized is the need for individuals to become more informed about making financial decisions.

As an early adopter, Russia has recognized the benefits of financial literacy, and made remarkable strides in increasing literacy across both adult populations and school children. This is thanks to both top-down efforts by the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Russia, and bottom-up ones, which have included tapping into schools, libraries, and other community platforms to reach a large and diverse segment of the population. Indeed, Russia was ranked the first among 132 countries in the Child & Youth Finance International Global Inclusion Awards in 2016. It also ranks in the top 10 of G-20 countries for financial literacy.

Third is Russia’s progress in improving its tax administration. The history of taxes in Russia hark back to medieval times, with Prince Oleg imposing the first known “tribute” on dependent tribes. Catherine the Great is known to have said “Taxes for a government are same as sails for a boat. They serve to bring her faster into a harbor without flipping over by their burden”.

Building on lessons learnt over centuries, Russia today is at the global forefront of tapping technology and real-time source data and has managed to shift from a culture of tax evasion to tax compliance. Tax non-compliance, notably in value-added taxes, for instance, has shrunk from double digits a few years ago to less than 1 percent today, with minimal human involvement. Russia’s success in modernization of its tax services is not as well known as it ought to be, but global interest is slowly but steadily growing.

Surely, these achievements are not the end of the road. When it comes to life expectancy, male life expectancy is behind female life expectancy by almost 10 years, and this gap needs to be shrunk. Financial literacy, consumer protection, and safeguards for privacy and data protection need to keep pace as cryptocurrencies and digital fraud become more commonplace. And gains in tax administration may be washed out without complementary tax policies. Yet, these unsung successes deserve more recognition, both within and outside Russia.

One of the more unusual analysis the World Bank undertook was to figure out how wealthy is Russia. We found that Russia’s wealth lies not in its abundant natural resources (as important as they are), or its physical infrastructure (as mighty as some of it may be). Rather, Russia’s wealth derives from the ingenuity and creativity of its people. Indeed, almost half of all Russia’s wealth derives from its human capital — the cumulative experience, knowledge, and skills of Russians. Only then is it followed by physical capital (about a third), and natural capital (about a fifth). Anecdotally too, I can reaffirm that to be the case. In my interactions with students in various universities and high schools, I have witnessed their keen engagement, their sharp and pointed questions, their sense of humor, and above all, a passion to improve their country. I am indeed privileged to have played a small role in this journey.

PS: There is one other area I would like to draw your attention to, and that is climate change. While the politics are what they are, the science and economics are undeniable. In Russia, in addition to federal initiatives, it is encouraging to see positive signs emerging from within Russian regions, such as Sakhalin and Murmansk, which are vying to become carbon-free zones. As I had written earlier, the one mistake not to make about Russia is to treat it as a single unit of analysis. Doing so would be like being unaware that a Matryoshka doll is not empty! Indeed, Russian regions may be at the forefront of addressing climate change and we might be in for a (pleasant) surprise – this space is therefore worth keeping on an eye on.

First appeared in the Russian language on Kommersant.ru via World Bank

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