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EEU: An Irrelevant Anachronism or a Growing Digital Enterprise Dynamo?

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A commonwealth of interests

The search for a stable Eurasia depended on the effectiveness of a durable system for the post Soviet space which could easily descend into an arc of instability if was not properly managed. Moscow had to be careful not to view these ex Soviet countries as its natural hinterland to be taken for granted and to upgrade its relations with each of them to preserve a communality of interests that had eluded it in Ukraine. The world of the command economy centred on Moscow would be made over on an entirely new basis that reflected the fast moving 21st century digital economy. Where common standards and freedom of movement of people and capital was meant to create a climate of openness and facilitate cross border business not to seal off Eurasia from the outside world. The fragile nature of post Soviet identities meant that a sense of commonwealth and common citizenship rooted in an overarching Eurasian identity would be more appealing to a growing entrepreneurial class disillusioned with the results of narrow ethno- nationalism as a ruling idea. The danger was that the more the Eurasian Union grew in stature it would have to navigate roadblocks deliberately placed there by powerful nationalist interests who perceived it as threat to their power base. And by stoking tensions with Russia periodically these former Soviet states could remind the outside world that they were not tame satellites of Moscow or artificial constructs but were free to decide their own destinies.

The path to some kind of durable Eurasian concept was obstructed by the reluctance of many Eurasian states to give up on the idea that eventually find a place in the west. The Eurasian union might be a useful stopgap while they waited to the privileged world of the west where they felt they ultimately belonged. Even though the chances were slim that it would ever happen. The Russian view of the Eurasian Union was that it would be a modernizing force which would have the express aim of bringing the region closer to the world and transforming it into a forward thinking technological giant. It would not be a repeat of the “Soviet experiment” which was a parallel universe closed to outsiders with information tightly controlled. And with the official version vastly at variance with the grim reality. Its core vision this time around was to effectively connect the region to the outside world and be at the forefront of new innovation. It would not depart from international standards and go off on its own tangent or conduct its affairs with guarded secrecy. But happily embrace new ideas and fresh thinking. Russia’s objectives were to circumvent parochial state leaderships and local bureaucracies and create a global brand that would capture the imagination of high net worth investors and provide a real alternative to pro western orthodoxy. With first class transport, logistics and a digital economy that would be the envy of the world, it would be first and foremost technocratic and meritocratic and not so much ideological in nature.

The Russian leadership concentrated on achieving maximum consensus in decision making and adopting policy positions where the weaker states would not be unfairly disadvantaged. While Russia would be providing the bulk of the digital infrastructure and at its own expense it would be considered common property of the Eurasian economic union in many ways. Russia’s contribution was based on a more generous model than its Chinese partner which took the form of loans that could result in forfeiture of assets if loan payments were not met in time.

Digital future

Thus Russian prime minister Mihail Mishustin recommended at a meeting of the inter Government commission implementing a “digital project” across the whole Eurasian union. This would provide a “specialist information system” in the sphere of “migrant labour” that would better serve the needs of business and the migrant communities. These measures would seek to gradually phase out and replace the patchwork, confusing system of regulations with a common framework. So for example in future the EEU would receive powers that would promote standardization. The Eurasian commission adopted a new technology based system of labelling products that “would apply in future in relation to new categories of labelled products.” The prime ministers of the EEU states approved a document that would “establish a time limit by which member states would be notified of the intention to introduce labelling on their territory.” And would give them a “period of nine months to outlaw unlabelled products.”  The new system should eventually be incorporated fully at the national level so that business could “escape unnecessary burdens” caused by “different systems of control.” and gradually filter out bureaucratic anomalies.

The priority was to create a level playing field so that the EEU was not perceived as just an exclusive club for Government connected state companies. But that it would also create conditions for small and medium enterprises to thrive and expand and ease substantially the costs of doing business. As well as reversing the favouritism traditionally shown to large companies by making the ability of SME’s to operate in an environment that was transparent and equitable more concrete. For example the prime ministers of the EEU states agreed to a “unified ecosystem of digital transport corridors”. The total cost of the scheme would be around 10 billion roubles. The cost divided between the union and the member states. It would provide a “service for the access of electronic route maps, international transport charging rates” as well as electronic protocols that would give updated information on interior ministry regulations etc. This unified system was especially useful to SME sector who were often reliant on “outside platforms” which were often “not connected to each other” and ” the absence of coordination added to their logistical costs.”

Open banking

Similarly the five member states of the EEU have agreed to form a common financial market by 2025. A key role in this is played by financial technology which will be deployed to make financial services “more accessible, cost favourable and safer”. Private and business customers can expect “financial services of higher quality and greater choice to be available”. And with such a hi tech financial monitoring tool at the authorities disposal “credit and financial institutions will have to reveal the origin of their capital”. An important element was the Application Programming interface which gave the programme the capacity to conduct biometric identification and to connect IT systems together so “they can exchange information between themselves.” Also a pilot project was launched which the AFT system together with 13 Russian banks were undertaking. “The aim of it is to improve automated online credit lending for small and medium businesses.” And create a level playing field. This was another example of how the Eurasian Union was preparing the ground for a greater role for the more dynamic and innovative SME sector in anticipation for a shift from a resource based economic model to a more diverse demand and consumption one.

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Russia’s ‘Growth-Stability’ Dichotomy

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Russian economic growth has underperformed the global average almost every year since the 2008-09 financial crisis. But it’s far from a homogenous pattern: in fact, since 2017, there has been a pronounced trend toward increasing divergence across the main sectors of the Russian economy. This has been significantly accentuated by the Covid crisis. The sectors exhibiting the highest growth appear to be those that benefit from Russia’s relative macroeconomic stability and are less sensitive to the country’s lack of growth momentum. This rising differentiation in growth across sectors has important implications for investment strategies, as we expect growth in sectors such as IT, agriculture and financials to continue to outperform the rest of the economy.

Since the 2008-09 financial crisis, Russia’s economic growth has underperformed the world’s average almost every year, with notable gaps observed versus the rest of EM and the CEE region throughout the past decade. The sluggish growth performance was partly attributable to the structural deficiencies, external factors, but also in no small degree to the macroeconomic policies that favoured the maintenance of macroeconomic stability over attaining high growth rates. The priority accorded to securing macroeconomic stability was in particular embodied in the operation of the fiscal rule within the fiscal policy framework, as well as inflation-targeting in the monetary sphere.

Indeed, the growth-stability dichotomy in Russia’s economy is a feature that has persisted for an extended period due to the frequency and intensity of crises erupting over the course of the past decade. After a period of attaining high growth rates in 2006-07, the paradigm of Russia’s economic policy shifted towards prioritizing macroeconomic stability after the global financial crisis of 2008-09. The geopolitical perturbations of 2014 and the most recent Covid crisis have served to reinforce this policy focus. While Russia has certainly had its periods of strong growth in the past several decades, the intensity of the external headwinds over the past 12-13 years has tilted the balance between pro-growth and pro-stability policies in favour of the latter.

Another dimension to the “growth-stability” dichotomy in Russia is the significant emphasis placed in economic policy on securing high levels of reserves. The lack of conversion of these sizeable reserves accumulated by Russia into boosting economic growth has been due to a number of factors. One was the lack of institutional capacity to ensure an efficient spending of fiscal reserves on large-scale infrastructure projects. This in turn was compounded by the pre-cautionary motives associated with concerns regarding the effects of economic crises (2008-2009 crisis) and geopolitical shocks (2014 crisis episode). As a result, Russia stands out across EMs as an economy with among the lowest fiscal deficits and government debt levels, while at the same time exhibiting a combination of high reserves but low economic growth. This pattern contrasts with the one observed in some other emerging economies during crisis periods, at which time greater efforts were made by EMs to boost growth at the expense of higher deficits and debt levels.

During the Covid crisis this pattern was yet again replicated as Russia exhibited greater caution in unleashing anti-crisis measures compared to many developed and emerging economies.

But while Russia’s overall economic growth has been rather modest in recent years — particularly since 2014 — there has been a rising asymmetry in the growth across Russia’s sectors. Over 2012-16, the divergence in growth across sectors was stable or gradually declining (except in 2015-16, when the economy was hit by the drop in oil prices and sanctions). However, the divergence began to grow markedly in 2017, and was later on significantly magnified by the Covid crisis.

Indeed, the Covid crisis generated notable differentiation across sectors as some were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and quarantine measures (tourism, travel), while others were given a major boost (telecommunications, IT and computer services). Russia’s macroeconomic policy, including sectoral taxation patterns, may have contributed to the differentiation patterns observed throughout the economy. Apart from Russia-specific factors, global sectoral factors may have also contributed to the patterns observed in Russia — in particular the rising dichotomy between manufacturing and extraction industries on the one hand and the services sector on the other.

As a result, sectors such as financials and IT have been increasingly diverging from the lacklustre performance in the transportation, construction and public sectors. The oil and gas and agricultural sectors have occupied the middle ground, broadly reflecting industry-specific and global factors. Overall, services such as finance and IT exhibited improved growth performance in 2016-19 compared to the 2011-15 period, while extraction of raw materials and transportation were among the sectors with deteriorating growth dynamics.

One of the best performers in recent periods has been the financial sector, which benefited from the organic growth in the sector via increasing financial penetration, as well as the significant expansion in the array of services offered to the population. Most importantly, however, the high real interest rates sustained by the CBR to maintain macroeconomic stability resulted in the greater attractiveness of investment in financial instruments than capital investment. The high real rates incentivized investment in financial instruments at the expense of the real sector.

The above observations concerning sectoral growth patterns suggest that greater differentiation across Russia’s sectors may be warranted in devising top-down investment strategies. If the current prioritization of macroeconomic stability were to persist, sectors such as IT, agriculture would be well positioned from a top-down perspective. Finally, it is important to note that the outperformers from the services sector that benefit from Russia’s growth-stability dichotomy also exhibit relatively good scores in the ESG ratings, most notably compared to the natural resource sectors. As investors increasingly focus on ESG issues, the longer-term implications for sectoral growth performance may prove significant.

From our partner RIAC

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Virtual-Reality Leaderships Await Digital-Guillotines

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When national leadership starts acting more as if Virtual-Reality based illusionary leadership games, it calls immediate testing to ensure digital future of the virtualized economies of the nation. Just as billion mile highways need cars, trillion-node digital highways need smart digitized enterprises. Just as highways and transportation need qualified Ministries dedicated to control national mobility, similarly digital platforms economies need virtualization; layers of platforms, hyper-interactive, live in action, motion and execution, floating on global digital arenas and creating mini-micro-mega trade opportunities and serving the common good of the world. Futurism demands futuristic literacy.

If there are some 200 nations outside a miniscule number, most nations along with their ministries and government departments already crushed under the weight of their own bureaucracies. Translated into simple language; when a single piece of urgent and serious business-trade query enters any government office building, decked with thousands desks and many thousands of filing cabinets, expecting quick response within a few days, if lucky may get some broken answer in many months. Those who slowly circumnavigate the world, require no proof on this, those educated exclusively on social media allowed screaming in denial. There are many such office buildings, each with many floors, in each city, in each nation. Some billion people occupy such global bureaucracies, strangling their own nations and stealing their own future from their next generations. Visible in open daylight, the barren landscapes, untapped resources, wasted talents lingering as wasted over a century. Today, against tidal waves of almost free technologies and digitalization, we need quick do or die solutions.

The cruelty of incompetence fermenting on mahogany furniture in dark offices now needs digital-guillotines.

The Paper-Processing-Age created Bureaucracies, Rubber-stamps glorified and corner offices mesmerized the fermentation process of incompetency and guaranteed permanence of seniority as gold standard. Like a tsunami, “digitization” is now bureaucracy free, office-free and tantrum free, only measured precisely in right columns with right amounts and ‘true’ numbers to evaporate filing cabinets and desks. Productivity, performance and profitability are what have been missing the last few decades bringing nations to their knees. The future of governments now measured by meritocracy will rule and manage future economies; the rest will stay hidden in the fog of confusion.

Over a century ago, H.G. Wells wrote about aircrafts and Jules Verne, the submarines. Now, we live in a time where digitally floating enterprises and virtually accessible national economies must thrive. Now, is the turn of our times to optimize our ‘mental powers’ functioning way above automation, performing our intellectualism over mechanical robotization and achieve superior commercialization while considering diversity, tolerance and common good? Now is the time to claim our rights, design our economies and better sustainable lifestyles. A brighter future waits.

Nevertheless, within the coming years, elimination of bureaucracies, digitization of enterprises and virtualization of economies will quadruple performance on a national basis for most nations; unfortunately, getting this thinking may take another decade for many other nations. Observe their starving children.

 As a crude and only available measurement, amongst the 190 nations of the world, there are only top 20 nations where *GDP Per-Capita-PPP is about USD$50,000 and more. Everyone else is lower, as an example, a sample of 50 nations, where their per capita is USD$5000 or $13.00 per day. Now observe their governments, their Ministries, Institutions, Trade Associations, Chambers and various government agencies are deeply stuck in the last century, robbing their own future. Disconnected with global age, now clearly visible all across their front line teams points to continued financial calamites.  Any 10% to 90% elimination of bureaucratic ponderings, indecisive floor-by-floor rubber stamp approval dances will quadruple their national performances. Nation-by-nation, strangulations due to the lack of decisive skills now make bureaucracies the most backward frontier left in critical need of upskilling and reskilling realignments, to stand up to global standards of productivity. Therefore, across the board, national economies must qualify at specified speed and accuracy with due diligence to attract FDI, collaborations and alliances to survive in global-age. Local political parties scared of their own re-elections will never tackle such issues. Immediate testing of any frontline management team of any top departments will expose the gravity.

The biggest tragedy is that all of these nations have unlimited talents, great minds and great skills potential, but crushed by bureaucracies, in darkness mode, where sun never rises, where digitization is feared for fears of exposing competency levels. The Covidians of the new post-vaccinated world with new thinking now have a real chance to ride out the storms, bring mega changes, and create highly efficient economic models. No country without national mobilization of hidden talents of entrepreneurialism on digital platforms of upskilling to foster exportability and outbound exposure will survive. This is what Silicon Valley did; study slowly to deeply appreciate the process.

Upskilling as a mandatory testing requirement drowning in crypto-economies and fictionalized as success ignoring tent cities, nation’s biggest losses hidden in the untapped entrepreneurialism of the national citizenry. Study more on Google, how business education actually destroyed businesses across Western economies.

Rules of economic revolutions:

Do not fix, just break it, and start on a new page.
Do not fire, upskill them, bring a brighter future closer.
Do not fumble, upskill yourself, become a lifelong learner.
Do not fail, there is no plan B, economic damage now commonplace.
Do not runaway, take a stand; there is no other way out.
Do not deny the bright future to your next generations.

There are some 100 national elections scheduled within the next 500 days… national leadership must demonstrate their literacy to read futurism. Identify their local teams with the right expertise to address national challenges, urgently respond with right answers, and develop clear narrative to address realities. Expothonis tabling a new agenda, in a global debate series with global experts on such bold issues to advance the discussions on such mega-change processes.

The strategy: The Covidians, survivors of bankruptcies, body bags have little or no tolerance for bureaucracies and with free rains of technology have no patience for paper-based-sluggish and dysfunctional economies. Citizens will vote for real and pragmatic truth. National leadership must face the music and learn to tango: Eliminate bureaucracies, virtualized economies and carve straight paths for climate control protocols.

Is this a perfect storm in the making or a new sunrise of the early spring?

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Suez Canal Shutdown revealed the importance of the Middle Corridor

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On March 23 of 2021, a container ship called the “Ever Given” ran aground in Suez Canal, one of the most important waterways in the world, and blocked other vessels from using it. This human-made waterway is one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes, carrying over 12% of world trade. This canal is also responsible for the transportation of 7% of the world’s oil and 30% of daily container shipments.  Therefore, the blockage of the canal has considerably affected global trade.  According to Lloyd’s List, a London-based shipping news journal, the estimated daily value of cargos passing through the canal is $9.7 billion, with $5.1 billion traveling westward and $4.6 billion traveling to eastward directions. The incident forced some ships to use the alternative route around Africa’s southern tip, which is dangerous and increases the transportation costs and time.

Shipment delays because of the incident in the Suez Canal also negatively affected the already-disrupted global supply chain. Since the start of the pandemic, shipping delays and shortages have considerably strained the global supply chain. As the commodities become increasingly difficult to obtain and produce for the companies, customers face limited options and higher prices. Several big companies such as Nike, Honda, and Samsung have already expressed that supply-chain issueshavesignificantly impeded production volumes. Thus, the blockage of the canal made the supply chain crisis even worse.

Almost a week after the “Ever Given” halted the canal, on March 29, it became possible to free the vessel and the Suez Canal opened for business again; tugboats managed to refloat the stuck vessel away from the canal’s sandy bank. During the blockage, at least 367 vessels were left waiting for the canal to be unblocked. However, it remains unclear when the traffic in the canal will return to normal, as it will take a couple of days to clear the backlog of ships. Some experts have estimated that it could take more than 10 days.

Despite the fact that the canal was freed, it has raised questions on the risks of the world’s overreliance on this route. The economic damage of the blockade of the Suez Canal proved the fragility of global transportation architecture. This in turn brought up the issue of the development of alternative land or maritime transport routes. Hence, after the incident, Russia and Iran have called for the need to find alternative shipping routes, especially recalling potentials of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and International North-South Transport Corridor (INST).By explaining the reasons for considering the NSR, on its official social media account Russian state company Rosatomflot declared that rapid melting of the Arctic and the existence of powerful Russian icebreakers improve the accessibility of the North Sea, which could become an alternative to the Suez Canal. Iranian officials, on other hand, called for the activation of the INSTC as a reliable and “low risk” alternative.

The other alternative route that has the potential to become one of the mainland routes for the transportation of goods between Asia and Europe is the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, shortly called “The Middle Corridor”. This corridor is considered as one of the most important routes in reviving the ancient Silk Road. The Middle Corridor begins in Turkey, passes through the territories of Azerbaijan and Georgia, crosses the Caspian Sea, reaches Central Asia, and extends to China through the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan routes. 

The formation and development of the Middle Corridor began after the November of2013, when as a part of the II International Transport and Logistics Business Forum “New Silk Road” in Astana, the leaders of JSC “National Company” of Kazakhstan, CJSC “Azerbaijan Railways” and JSC “Georgian Railway” signed the agreement on the establishment of Coordination Committee for the development of the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. In December 2016, the participants of the Coordinating Committee decided to establish the International Association”Trans-Caspian International Transport Route”, which started its activities in the following year. The main goal of this project is to increase the volume of freight transportation between East Asia, Central Asia, the Caspian and Black Sea basins and European countries by creating alternative or complement to the traditional land routes that go through the territory of Russia.

Middle Corridor has several advantages in comparison to traditional transportation routes. Compared with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which is also called the “Northern Corridor”, it is 2 thousand km shorter and has more favorable climate conditions. Compared with the traditional sea route, it shortens the travel time of goods between Europe and China by about three times, making it only 15 days. In 2015, the first pilot shipment took place and a container train, which started its trip from Western China reached Baku through Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea in 6 days. Besides, the Middle Corridor creates great opportunities for cargo transportation within Asia and to Africa. Using this corridor, cargos from east and south-east Asia could be easily transported to the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean regions using port infrastructures of participating states.

The Middle Corridor initiative is also supported by Afghanistan and Tajikistan as this route creates new transportation opportunities for them. By integrating the “Lapis Lazuli” corridor, an international transit route that links Afghanistan to Turkey, to the Middle Corridor, these countries could easily transport their goods in all directions in Asia. Integration of these corridors is also advantageous for the participating countries of the Middle Corridor. The agreement on the establishment of the Lapis Lazuli corridor was signed by Georgia, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey in November 2017, which added a new artery to the Middle Corridor in the southern direction.

Along with the mentioned advantages, the Middle Corridor also holds precedence in comparison to other proposed alternatives, which have obvious shortcomings. In the case of NSR, most of the year it is covered in snow and for transportation of goods through this road ships of special nature and capabilities are required. So, the competition of NSR with the Suez Canal could only be of seasonal nature. The INSTR on the other hand, despite its advantages, cannot become the direct competitor to the Suez Canal as it serves for the connection of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with Northern Europe, not for the connection of east and south-east Asia like the Suez Canal. It could compete with the Suez Canal only if it is integrated into the Middle Corridor. Hence, the advantages of the Middle Corridor and shortcomings of other alternatives reveal the importance of the Middle Corridor and make it the best alternative for the transportation route that goes through the Suez Canal.

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