BRICS, Columns/Op-Eds

Article in “Russia & India Report”: Putin 3.0: Creating hedges for the next decade?

Is Putin going to lessen the Russian dependence on stagnant European demand for oil and gas despite the favourable terms of trade and rely on the hard-bargaining China?

May 17th 2012, New Delhi
Please find here the link to the original publication

The Kremlin has recently announced that Vladimir Putin will be skipping the upcoming G8 meeting in the US sighting domestic concerns and will be visiting China on June 5-7 as his first foreign trip since being inaugurated as President. It is clear that Putin views Chinese demand for Russian oil and gas as a hedge against stagnant Western demand, particularly European demand for Russian exports which showed a huge 47% negative year on year variation in 2009 and is unlikely to grow at rates that will sustain the Russian economy for too long. However, China drives a hard bargain and its quest for energy security through import diversification and oil equity means that it will not accommodate for more than a minimum amount of dependence on Russian raw material linkages.

While his predecessor and protégé Dmitry Medvedev repeatedly emphasised the need for Russia to diversify away from its “primitive” focus on the oil and gas sector, Putin seems to be doggedly set on continuing his outlined profit maximisation doctrine by largely relying on the sector to fulfil social spending promises made during his election campaign. Russia recently surpassed Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of crude oil, and holds the world’s largest natural gas reserves.  Approximately 40 percent of the Russian Government’s tax comes from oil and gas related businesses. While Putin has been able to successfully leverage Russia’s natural resource endowments in the past, he is now faced with burgeoning structural problems including huge manufacturing sector inefficiencies, negative demographic trends, deepened socio-economic inequities and populist rebuttals to alleged systemic corruption under his oversight.

The European Union (EU) is Russia’s biggest market and the EU also accounts for around 75 percent of FDI into Russia. According to the European Commission, Russia accounted for 47 percent of overall trade turnover in 2010; a trend which has normalised after the brief disruptions caused by the global financial crisis. However Russia’s competitive advantage with the EU is largely restricted to the trade of fuels and minerals. Even with its massive oil reserves, Russia has lagged behind in the production of petrochemicals and refined oil. While the margins earned on refined oil based products in a globally integrated oil market may not justify expansion of production facilities and there is a distinct competitive advantage in favour of the “Global South” in terms of labour costs and environmental tariffs there are few explanations for the lack of emphasis on developing a profitable export oriented petrochemicals sector in the country. It doesn’t help that the recent socio-political turmoil adds to the disincentives created for any FDI investment flowing into the country.

Indeed Russia exhibits many of the symptoms of the “Dutch Disease”, a term that broadly refers to the deleterious effects of large asymmetric increases in a country’s income, most commonly associated with discovery of natural resources such as crude oil. While there is no consensus about whether the country suffers this affliction and indeed there have been significant per capita income gains as a result of exploitation of raw material wealth, there are real and palpable threats to sustained growth that need to be proactively mitigated by the establishment. A 2007 IMF Working Paper found that some of the exhibited symptoms included a slowdown in the manufacturing sector, an expansion of the services sector and high real wage growth in all sectors. Simultaneously, oil exports have increased by close to 70 percent over the last decade and the value of exports has gone up by around 620 percent during the same time span. Russian crude oil production recently hit an all time high, and Putin is determined to maintain production levels above 10 million barrels per day (about a third of OPEC’s total production) for a “fairly long time”.

In many ways, resource based linkages have guided and defined Russian foreign policy since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Resources have also dictated Russia’s economic fortunes, which have traditionally fluctuated with the price of crude oil. Crude oil has quadrupled in value since the early 2000s, and at the same time, Russia has transitioned into becoming a Middle Income Economy with an incredible number of superrich. It is interesting to note however, that despite the asymmetric dependence on raw material exports, Russia’s currency has been depreciating. Due to the underinvestment in the manufacturing sector and the overall lack of competitiveness of the domestic goods, import growth has tended to outpace export growth. The current account balance as a percentage of GDP has declined substantially since the mid 2000s and with structural production ceilings being hit in the oil and gas industry, there is uncertainty about where the additional export growth is going to be generated. Putin seems certain that recently announced tax breaks for upstream oil and gas exploration projects and fiscal incentives for M&A activities will help fuel this production growth. Tax breaks have been provided for offshore energy projects with Western companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., Eni SpA and Statoil ASA.  Simultaneously he also plans to raise extra revenues from the resources sector to pacify some of the populist anger that is brewing through increased government spending, in particular by significantly increase extraction tax on gas suppliers.

Putin has an uphill task, to reassure foreign institutional investors of the legitimacy and stability of his political apparatus. In order to achieve competitive advantage in the export of petroleum related products, the Russian Government has ambitious goals to create six regional clusters of world class ethylene (the world’s most widely produced organic compound) production facilities and expects production capacity to reach 11.5 million tonnes per annum by 2030. This projection assumes a fundamental amount of investments and supporting infrastructure capacity building in the form of product pipelines, road and rail links. Distribution and feedstock concerns already plague the industry.

The seemingly irreversible economic meltdown in Europe must act as a trigger to stimulate new ideas and a break out of the traditional resource centric growth mindset in the Kremlin. Developing and emerging countries account for around 50 percent of global GDP in purchasing power parity terms and Russia must look to deepen integration through trade with these markets. China is but one of these and its sino-centric economic startegy may soon be an albatross around its neck. Moreover trade must be on the basis of a diversified basket of products on offer with emphasis on value addition.

The East Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline which is now operational has enabled Russia to bring oil to its remote eastern coast, from where it supplies to China, Japan and South Korea. The Chinese have been actively lobbying to get all of the oil transported through the ESPO, but Russian oil companies are naturally hesitant as they are unwilling to forgo the higher margins they receive by selling to Western countries. The Russian experience with the hard bargaining Chinese must not colour their prospective engagements with other emerging and developing countries. In the next few decades, global growth will be a function of how such economies in Asia and Africa perform, and in turn, so will Russia’s economic fortunes. Putin would do well to hedge away from dependence on European demand even though terms of trade may be favourable and fall in the comforting squeeze of the Chinese option.

Samir Saran is Vice-President and Vivan Sharan an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

BRICS, Columns/Op-Eds

Article in “Russia & India Report”: BRICS for a new world

by Samir Saran and Vivan Sharan
March 12th, 2011
Please find here the original article

The 4th BRICS Academic Forum recently concluded in New Delhi. Over 60 delegates representing academic institutions, think tanks and expert community from the member countries participated in substantial debates that covered virtually every challenge and opportunity of contemporary times. The debates were intense, sometimes combative but almost always conducted among friends. This was the key takeaway from this meeting. The community is strong, it is aware of the differences, eager to resolve those and is comfortable with the irresolvables. The skeptics of BRICS for four years, would now need to rethink, this group has evolved, this group sees potential in greater and deeper engagement, and this group is capable of proposing bold and visionary ideas at the New Delhi Summit later this month and in the other interactions before and after.

This was not always the case and we only have to recall the early days of the relationship. To anyone witnessing one of the early Track 2 interactions on a cold day in Moscow in 2008, it would have seemed improbable that the grouping would come this far. There was early hesitance and unformed agendas among each of the experts gathered from the four countries (at that time BRIC). The Brazilian experts were unsure of their being there in the first place. A very prominent diplomat from Brazil saying, “why are we here, why do you need us, you are all neighbours and should talk amongst yourselves”. The Russians at that time, and who must be credited for the inception of the BRIC idea, saw in it a political opportunity to create a grouping of that could counter the Atlantic alliance and the Western economic and political weight. They were to be dissappointed, India and China were already deeply integrated with the US and EU in the arena of trade and economics and would not play ball. The experts from China liked the BRIC idea, which could be another instrument for projecting their growing pole position in world affairs and India was beginning to manage the nuances of diverse relationships in multi-polar world. It had also learnt from the SCO experience and this time it would not demur.

However, the early days of the conversations amongst experts and indeed among the policy makers from these countries lacked detail. This has changed, from the macro discussions on global governance, financial architecture, security and greater coordination, the discussions today focus on the substantive, on experince sharing, on creating institutions and linking up existing ones. In the fourth year of the BRICS (South Africa joined last year), the group has come of age. This is attested to by two facts. First, the experts from the four countries have signed an agreement to step up their interactions which till now have been sporadic and on the sidelines of the Leaders Summit and two, the wide ranging recommendations that the experts forum has submitted for the consideration of the Leaders at the summit in New Delhi demonstrate the limitless possibilities for the grouping.

The Forum’s recommendations to the 4th BRICS Leaders Summit to be held in New Delhi on March 29th are relevant and actionable. They are the result of intense discussions, debates and negotiations between the delegates on common challenges and opportunities faced by BRICS members, as they seek to set the global agendas for governance and development going forward. The theme for this year’s Academic Forum was “Stability, Security and Growth” – all common imperatives for the emerging and developing BRICS nations.

17 policy recommendations were carefully crafted by the Forum and are centred on key priorities for BRICS within the aegis of governance, socio-economic development, security and growth. The mandate of the Forum was to provide concrete policy alternatives to BRICS Leaders and to the credit of the delegates this year, the recommendations may have lived up to the mandate. The Forum deliberated context specific micro debates embedded within larger narratives. Varied and significant themes were addressed including the articulation of a common vision for the future; a framework to respond to regional and global crises; climate change and sustainable resource use; urbanization and its associated challenges; improving access to healthcare at all levels; scaling up and implementing new education and skilling initiatives; the conceptualization of financial mechanisms to support and drive economic growth; and finally sharing technologies, innovations and improving the cooperation across industrial sectors and geographies.

The Forum deliberated upon two distinct sets of engagement. One set of engagements is through research and initiatives that are “Intra-BRICS” in nature. These involve experience sharing across social policy, resource efficiency, poverty alleviation programmes, sustainable development ideas, innovation and growth. Each of these themes can be effectively mapped to help tailor policy within BRICS. The recommendations highlight the possibilities for enhancing such engagements through exchange of institutional experiences and processes, free flow of scholars and students, joint policy research, capacity and capability building for facilitating such interactions.

The second set of engagements and outcomes pertain to interaction of BRICS with other nations,  external actors and groupings at various multi-lateral forums and institutions. These are reflected in the recommendations pertaining to climate policies, Rio +20, financial crisis management, traditional security threats, terrorism and other new threats and global challenges around health, IPR and development.

The Forum provided a valuable platform for exchange of perspectives between delegates without adhering to national positions or party loyalties. There were heated debates on issues such as the possible institutionalisation of a BRICS Development Bank and an Infrastructure Investment Fund that could assist in the development aspirations of the BRICS and other developing countries. The discussions on the setting up on new, credible institutions to initially supplement and eventually substitute existing financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF reflect the strong desire of BRICS to move ahead and away from the traditional development agendas of 20th century institutions that are today incapable of empathising with some of the realities and aspirations of the 21st century. This is perhaps a reflection on the way Bretton Woods Institutions are managed and governed and indeed to their legitimacy itself.

The recommendations reveal that BRICS view the sustainable development agenda through the lens of inclusive growth and equitable development primarily. The recommendations have also clarified that BRICS will continue to focus on achieving efficiency gains in resource use. Both these outcomes point towards resolute and far sighted policy guidance by the Forum. Climate change mitigation debates which have become a proxy for “Promoting Green Technology” and indeed are an outcome of “re-industrialisation policy” of some EU countries were conspicuous by their absence from the debates. Instead, with “plurality in prosperity” as a common ideal, the outcomes also signify that the research community within BRICS want the sustainability discourse to shift from one that emphasises common responsibility to one that emphasises common prosperity. This means that BRICS must attempt to reorient consumption patterns and energy use globally, towards sustainable trajectories. The BRICS Leaders would do well to replicate the cohesiveness of the BRICS academics in the articulation of their vision for creating sustainable economies, ecologies and societies. Similarly the promotion of cultural cooperation, establishing innovation linkages, sharing pathways to universal healthcare and medicine for all, strenghthening indigenous knowledge are all recommendations that are timely and appropriate.

The gradual transition process of BRICS becoming the global agenda setters has been one of the more exciting developments to watch and study. While sceptics may still dismiss the possibility of BRICS being “rule-makers”, it is unlikely that they will not influence “rule-making” processes. The experts at the forum were unambiguous in their vision for the grouping. While recognising that in many instances BRICS might eventually yield to sub optimal policy formulations due to national agendas and geo-political constraints, they were determined that the incubation period is over and now the bar must always be set high and the leaders must be ambitious. In the words of one of the delegates at the 4th BRICS Academic Forum, BRICS have indeed created a “new geography of cooperation” and opportunities are boundless.

Samir Saran is Vice-President and Vivan Sharan an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. The foundation hosted the 4th BRICS Academic Forum. 

Columns/Op-Eds, Politics / Globalisation

Column in Russia & India Report: Return of Putin? India hedges bets

Published on February 1st, 2012
by Samir Saran & Jaibal Naduvath
specially for RIR 
Please find here the link to the original article.
The mass protests in Moscow last December have had little resonance in India due to a limited media obsessed with defence and energy aspects of the India-Russia relationship. However, India will be watching closely the agenda of the new team that Putin, if he is elected, puts together as it will impact the trajectory of what could be a crucial partnership of the 21st century, say Samir Saran and Jaibal Naduvath. 

For over six decades, India’s relations with Russia and its predecessor, the erstwhile Soviet Union, have remained very cordial. From the heady heights of being “near allies” during the Cold War era to a brief pause in the 1990s as both countries recalibrated their own identities during a period of dramatic political transformation in each country, the Russia-India relations have endured dramatic shifts in global politics. Over the past 20 years though, there has been a pragmatic remoulding of the content of this engagement alongside an assured continuity on crucial areas of traditional cooperation like the defence sector. The non-continuance of the Indo-Soviet Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1971, seen by many as India’s security insurance during the cold war years, the subsequent Declaration of Strategic Partnership signed by the two countries in 2000, and renewed co-operation and strategic engagement at multilateral fora such as BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the UN reflects diplomatic maturity and political realism in equal measure. However, despite the long-standing bonhomie, close trade ties and multiple cultural and political exchanges, Russia has not managed to emotionally engage the Indian psyche as much as it should have, even though the very mention of Russia evokes feelings of great warmth among most Indians. However, meaningful interest in Russia remains confined to the foreign policy elite, emancipated urban dwellers and business and trade communities with interests in the opportunities that Russia offers. In the larger public discourse Russia continues to be viewed through the prisms of defence and strategic relationship and the ‘energy narrative,’ with media and polity both guilty of selectively amplifying developments that impact these aspects. As a result, the response on the Indian street often tends to be binary and simplistic to what is transpiring in contemporary Russia. Media reportage and public discourse in India on the upcoming presidential elections in Russia is prey to this myopic syndrome. Indeed, Russia accounts for a majority of all Indian military imports and the reliability of such defence sales is vital for India. A stable Russia and more importantly a political dispensation in Kremlin that supports this defence sector engagement is crucial. There is, however, an urgent need to widen the discussions and media narrative on Russia, if there is to be meaningful and contemporary appreciation of this most significant ally in India.

As things stand, very little is known of presidential candidates other than Valdimir Putin, who has visited India several times, and is considered sensitive to this country’s interests. However, there is also a tacit realisation that sweeping political changes globally and reverberations in Russia which culminated in highly publicised street protests in Moscow (albeit modest in size and scale) against allegations of vote rigging in the parliamentary elections have led to a decline in Putin’s standing, rendering him more vulnerable than before. There is also a feeling that Putin losing his aura of invincibility, and the possible devolution and decentralization of power in Kremlin, could actually usher in greater pragmatism into the Russian political ecosystem making it a lot more dynamic and democratic, and, easier for others to empathise with. Despite being challenged by sections of Russian civil society, Putin may not have lost much of his personal brand appeal in India yet, for two reasons. First, very little is known of the opposition within Russia and even less so is available in Indian media. Secondly, dissent, discord, rebellion are all part of the political landscape in India and the leadership is indeed defined by the ability of the leader to resolve and navigate such challenging terrain. India itself has been ruled by coalition governments intermittently for over two decades with arguably, reasonable success. From their own experience, Indians could relate better to Putin if he is able to manage and share political space and carve out a consensus. Putin, slightly vulnerable and in the need for reaching out, makes him more attractive to the Indian people and its enterprises than Putin the steely and authoritarian figure.

The feeling is that under his potential future presidency, Putin may have to cede at least some ground to factions within his United Russia Party. Who the factions are and what their dispositions and agendas would be are unknown. In the coming days, prior to the March elections and certainly, if voted to power, in the period after Putin’s election, the main interest in policy circles in India, would be the sort of ‘arrangement’ Putin may need to put in place to manage dissent and preserve his influence.

Who (all) he devolves power to and how that impacts Russia’s external engagement will be important to India. As a global military power, Russia affords great counterbalance for India vis-à-vis China. If a pro-China faction emerges at the Kremlin, it will have the potential to further fuel China’s own ambitions in Asia and may drive India to develop a deeper partnership with the United States and other Asian powers to offset it. On the other hand, if the new power structure allows greater Russian outreach to the US and the European Union, it would not only balance the rise of China, but also help India and Russia develop a partnership beyond defence sales, elevating their engagement to a wider set of issues including, on managing the global commons.

From an establishment standpoint, India has always accepted organic development of national political systems and hence is unlikely to be either unduly concerned or patronising as long as its core strategic concerns are not jeopardised. Muted media interest and public response to the Moscow street demonstrations, dramatic developments in a system with little tolerance for political dissent, needs to be seen in this light. Also, after having witnessed the upheavals in the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region, the media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street agitation and the highs and lows of the civil society movement against corruption at home, the larger Indian public is unlikely to be very taken in by the limited protests in Moscow.

The Indian public sphere is unlikely to engage comprehensively with the happenings in the run up to the Russian elections. On the other hand, the Indian establishment will keenly follow political developments in Russia as the importance of the election outcome and its impact on both the Asian strategic architecture and bilateral relations is not lost on them. The two countries have enormous potential for greater strategic convergence and a favourable political dispensation in Moscow could well catapult the India-Russia relationship into one of the defining global partnerships of this century.

Samir Saran is Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Indian policy think tank and Jaibal Naduvath is a communications professional in the private sector in India