Foreign Economic Relations

Russia Table of Contents

Integrating the Russian economy with the rest of the world through commerce and expanded foreign investment has been a high priority of Russian economic reform. Russia has joined the IMF and the World Bank and has applied to join the World Trade Organization (WTO--see Glossary) and the OECD. It also has been included in some functions of the Group of Seven (G-7; see Glossary).

Foreign Trade

By the end of 1993, the Russian government had liberalized much of its import regime. It eliminated nontariff customs barriers on most imports, although it still requires some licenses for health and safety reasons. In mid-1992 the government took control of imports of some critical goods, including industrial equipment and food items, which it sold to end users at subsidized prices. In the early 1990s, government-controlled imports constituted about 40 percent of total Russian imports, but by 1996 most such controls had been phased out.

Russia also established a two-column tariff regime in harmony with the United States and other members of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which in January 1995 became the WTO. Russia differentiates between those trade partners that receive most-favored-nation trade treatment and, therefore, relatively low tariffs, and those that do not.

Although Russia has eliminated many nontariff import barriers, it still maintains high tariffs and other duties on imports of goods to raise revenue and protect domestic producers. All imports are subject to a 3 percent special tax in addition to import tariffs that vary with the category of goods. Some of the high tariffs include those of 40 to 50 percent on automobiles and aircraft and 100 percent on alcoholic beverages. Excise taxes ranging between 35 and 250 percent are applied to certain luxury goods that include automobiles, jewelry, alcohol, and cigarettes.

The Government has used licensing and quotas to restrict the export of certain key commodities, such as oil and oil products, to ease the effect of price differentials between controlled domestic prices and world market prices. Without such restrictions, Russian policy makers have argued, the domestic market would experience shortages of critical materials. The government finally eliminated quotas on oil exports in 1995 and export taxes on oil in 1996. In addition to customs restrictions, the government imposes other costs on exporters. It charges a 20 percent VAT on most cash-transaction exports and a 30 percent VAT on barter transactions. It applies additional tariffs on the exports of industrial raw materials. By the mid-1990s, much of Russia's foreign trade, even that with the former communist countries of Central Europe, was conducted on the basis of market-determined prices. Immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet-dominated Comecon in 1991, the Soviet Union sought to maintain commercial relations in Central Europe through bilateral agreements. But as market economies developed in those countries, their governments lost control over trade flows. Since 1993 Russian trade with former Comecon member countries has been at world prices and in hard currencies.

In the mid-1990s, Russia still maintained hybrid trade regimes with the other former Soviet states, reflecting the web of economic interdependence that had dominated commercial relations within the Soviet Union. The sharp decrease in central economic control that occurred just before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union virtually destroyed distribution channels between suppliers and producers and between producers and consumers throughout the region. Many of the non-Russian republics were dependent on Russian oil and natural gas, timber, and other raw materials. Russia bought food and other consumer goods from some of the other Soviet republics. To ease the effects of the transition, Russia concluded bilateral agreements with the other former Soviet states to maintain the flow of goods. But, as in the case of the Central European agreements, such arrangements proved impractical; by the mid-1990s, they covered only a small range of goods. Russia now conducts trade with former Soviet states under various regimes, including free-trade arrangements and most-favored-nation trading status.

The volume of Russia's foreign trade has generally declined since the beginning of the economic transition. Trade volume peaked in 1990 and then declined sharply in 1991 and 1992. Between 1992 and 1995, however, exports rose from US$39.7 billion to US$77.8 billion, and imports rose from US$34.7 billion to US$57.9 billion. Many factors contributed to the decline of the early 1990s: the collapse of Comecon and trade relations with Eastern/Central Europe; the rapid decline of the domestic demand for imports; contraction in foreign currency reserves; a decline in the real exchange value of the ruble; the Government's imposition of high tariffs, VATs, and excess taxes on imports; and the reduction of state subsidies on some key imports. Russia's declining production of crude oil, a key export, also has contributed significantly. Until 1994 Russia's arms exports declined sharply because the military-industrial complex's production fell and international sanctions were placed on large-scale customers such as Iraq and Libya (see Foreign Arms Sales, ch. 9).

The geographical distribution of Russian foreign trade changed radically in the first half of the 1990s (see table 21; table 22, Appendix). In 1985 some 55 percent of Soviet exports and 54 percent of Soviet imports were with the Comecon countries. By contrast, 26 percent of Soviet exports and 28 percent of Soviet imports were with the fully developed market economies of Western Europe, Japan, the United States, and Canada. By the end of 1991, Russia and its former allies of Central Europe were actively seeking new markets. In 1991 only 23 percent of Russian exports and 24 percent of Russian imports were with the former Comecon member states. In 1994 some 27 percent of Russian imports and 22 percent of exports involved partners from Central Europe, with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic generating the largest volume in both directions. Western Europe's share of Russian trade continued to grow, and in 1994 some 35 percent of Russia's imports and 36 percent of its exports were with countries in that region. Germany was by far the West European leader in exports and imports, and Switzerland and Britain were other large export customers. In 1994 the United States accounted for US$2.1 billion (5.3 percent) of imports and US$3.7 billion (5.9 percent) of exports; however, United States purchases of Russian goods had increased by more than 500 percent between 1992 and 1994. The total value of trade with the United States in 1995 was US$7 billion; trade for the first half of 1996 proceeded at virtually the same rate (see table 23, Appendix).

Russian trade with the so-called near abroad--the other former Soviet states--has greatly deteriorated. This trend began before the final collapse of the Soviet Union as Russian producers sought hard-currency markets for raw materials and other exportables. As Russia raised fuel prices closer to world market levels, the other republics found it increasingly difficult to pay for Russian oil and natural gas. The RCB extended credits to these countries to permit some shipments, but eventually the accumulation of large arrearages forced the Russian government to curtail shipments. At the end of 1995, Russian trade with the near abroad accounted for 17 percent of total Russian trade, down from 59 percent in 1991. Belarus, Kazakstan, and Ukraine remained Russia's largest partners, as they had been in the Soviet era. The failure to restore inter-republic trade was an important factor in the economic collapse that gripped the region around 1990.

Raw materials, especially oil, natural gas, metals, and minerals, have dominated Russia's exports, accounting for 65 percent of total exports in 1993. Exports as a whole are heavily concentrated in a few product categories. In 1995 ten commodities, all of which are raw materials, accounted for 70 percent of Russian exports. By contrast, for the United States the top ten export commodities account for only 37 percent of its exports.

The lack of diversity in Russian exports is a legacy of the Soviet period, when the central planning regime called for production of manufactured goods for domestic consumption with little consideration for the export market. Given this priority, most of the Soviet Union's consumer goods were of low quality by world standards. Post-Soviet concentration of Russian exportables in a few categories restricts Russia's potential sources of foreign currency to a few markets. And the frequent price fluctuations typical of world raw materials markets also make Russia's export revenues vulnerable to unforeseen change.

Manufactured goods dominate Russian imports, accounting for 68 percent of total imports in 1992. The largest categories of imported manufactured goods are machinery and equipment (29 percent of the total); foods, 16 percent; and textiles and shoes, 13 percent.

Foreign Investment

Foreign investment is the second major element of Russia's reform strategy to strengthen international economic links. From the late 1920s to the late 1980s, the Soviet government prohibited foreign investment because it would have undermined the state's decision-making prerogatives on investment, production, and consumption.

The perestroika economic reforms of the late 1980s permitted limited foreign investment in the Soviet Union in the form of joint ventures. The first joint-venture law, which went into effect in June 1987, restricted foreign ownership to 49 percent of the venture and required that Soviet administrators fill the positions of chairman and general manager. By 1991, however, the Soviet government allowed foreign entities 100 percent ownership of subsidiaries in Russia.

Although limited in scope, the joint-venture law did open the door to direct foreign investment in the Soviet Union, which provided Russia's economy wider access to Western capital, technology, and management know-how. But the overall limitations of perestroika hampered the joint-venture program. The nonconvertibility of the Russian ruble was an impediment to repatriation of profits by foreign investors, private property was not recognized, government price controls remained in effect, and most of the Soviet economy remained under state control.

The Yeltsin government's commitment to foreign investment has been hampered in some cases by Russia's ongoing debates about the appropriate relationship with the West and about the amount of assistance that Russia should accept from the capitalist countries. Substantial political factions view the infusion of foreign capital as a device for Western governments to intrude on Russia's sovereignty and manipulate its economic condition, and they advocate a more independent course.

The Foreign Investment Law of 1991 provides the statutory foundation for the treatment of foreign investment. The law provides for "national treatment" of foreign investments; that is, foreign investors and investments are to be treated no less favorably than domestically based investments. The law also permits foreign investment in most sectors of the Russian economy and in all the forms available in the Russian economy: portfolios of government securities, stocks, and bonds, and direct investment in new businesses, in the acquisition of existing Russian-owned enterprises, in joint ventures, in property acquisition, and in leasing the rights to natural resources. Foreign investors are protected against nationalization or expropriation unless the government declares that such a procedure is necessary in the public interest. In such cases, foreign investors are to receive just compensation.

In response to demands by foreign oil investors for stronger legal guarantees before making large capital commitments, in July 1995 the State Duma passed the Law on Oil and Gas. It provides a basic framework for other laws and regulations pertaining to exploration, production, transportation, and security of oil and gas. In late 1995, the Duma passed the Production-Sharing Agreement bill, which provides for foreign investors to share output with domestic partners. Among other things, the bill lifts many of the financial impediments by removing excise and customs duties on the exportation of oil by joint ventures, and it requires contract sanctity for the life of the project. But in a clause that drew criticism from the United States business community, the bill requires State Duma approval of new joint-venture agreements on a case-by-case basis. As of mid-1996, the United States Department of Commerce considered the Duma's veto power over such agreements a key obstacle to expanded United States investment in Russia.

By the end of 1995, foreign investment in Russia since 1991 had totaled an estimated US$6 billion, a small amount considering the size of the Russian economy. Of that amount, US$3.2 billion had been invested between 1991 and 1993 and US$1 billion in 1994. Of the approximately US$2 billion invested in 1995, about 28 percent came from the United States, 13 percent from Germany, 9 percent from Switzerland, and 6 percent from Belgium. By sector, 15 percent of 1995 investments went to trade and catering; 13 percent to finance, insurance, and pensions; 10 percent to the fuel industries; and 8 percent to chemical industries. Telecommunications, food processing and agriculture, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and housing are in particular need of additional foreign investment.

Russia's overall investment climate has not been robust because of high inflation, a plunging GDP, an unstable exchange rate, an uncertain legal and political environment, and the capricious enactment and implementation of tax and regulatory regimes. Nevertheless, experts predict that improvement in those conditions will bring a strong increase in foreign activity.

Foreign Debt

Russia inherited a large foreign debt burden from the Soviet Union that clouds its economic situation. Throughout its history, the Soviet Union was a conservative borrower of foreign credits. Its ability to manage international accounts allowed the Soviet Union to obtain both government-guaranteed and commercial credits on favorable terms. But, by the end of the 1980s, the Soviet hard-currency debt had increased appreciably. At the end of 1991, the debt was estimated at US$65 billion, an increase of over 100 percent since the end of 1986.

By arrangement with the other former Soviet states and its creditors, Russia accepted responsibility for repayment of the Soviet Union's entire debt, in exchange for control of some of the overseas assets of the other republics. In January 1996, Russia's total foreign debt was US$120.4 billion, including US$103 billion of the Soviet Union's debt that Russia assumed. Russia has been hard pressed to service that amount.

In March 1996, the IMF approved a three-year loan of US$10.1 billion to Russia. At that point, Russia already had US$10.8 billion in outstanding IMF debts. The first loan payment of US$340 million was paid almost immediately, and it helped Russia to overcome a large budget deficit that it had been trying to cover by issuing securities. The IMF made the early monthly payments of the loan during Russia's 1996 presidential election campaign, despite Russia's failure to comply with several loan requirements. However, once Yeltsin had been reelected, the IMF withheld the July payment because Russia's hard-currency reserves had been severely depleted during the campaign and the tax collection system remained unsatisfactory.

In April 1996, the Paris Club of seventeen lending nations agreed to the largest debt rescheduling procedure in the history of the organization by postponing US$40 billion of Russian debt in order to assist Russia in meeting its international debt payments. The agreement followed the November 1995 provisional accord with the London Club of international commercial bank lenders (which spread repayment of US$32.5 billion over a twenty-five-year period) and the IMF loan of US$10.1 billion in March 1996. The new schedule gave Russia a six-year grace period for repayment on the principal it owes.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress