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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

War and sanctions threaten to thrust Russia’s economy back in time

A pro-war Z sign at the theater in Kaluga, Russia says, “We don’t leave our own behind,” on Dec. 3, 2022.

By Valerie Hopkins and Anatoly Kurmanaev

Valery Volodin, a welder at a sprawling Volkswagen plant in western Russia, relaxed for most of the summer at his dacha, or weekend house, planting his garden and looking after his children. Volodin, 41, had little choice: The car factory closed down in March, joining more than 1,000 multinational companies that had curtailed operations in Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, he has been sitting at home while Volkswagen looks for a buyer. He goes into the plant, in Kaluga’s industrial zone, once a month to collect 50,000 rubles, about $800, a payment required by Russian labor law that is the equivalent of two-thirds of his previous salary.

“We go into work, but the plant stands empty,” Volodin said in an interview. He does not mind a temporary break from the physically demanding work, but he is not sure how to plan for the future.

“We live day to day, for now,” he said.

His experience is playing out across Russia for hundreds of thousands of workers after the West imposed sweeping economic sanctions that were intended to hobble Moscow’s ability to wage war and to undercut public support for President Vladimir Putin.

More than nine months after the invasion, neither the war effort nor the economy has collapsed, and the economic pain is still limited for many Russians. Putin has avoided any substantive domestic pressure that would threaten his leadership. But the impact of what some have described as the most coordinated and deepest economic sanctions in modern history is evident in communities across Russia — and the worst may be yet to come.

The sanctions have stymied Russia’s faltering attempts to modernize its economy along Western lines and to catch up to European living standards after the fall of the Soviet Union, said Vladislav Inozemtsev, the Washington-based director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, a Russian research group. That has dimmed the hope that the country could become a modern, prosperous nation in the near term.

“The slogan now is ‘Keep things from getting worse,’ and that’s an important shift,” Inozemtsev said. “Even the government has stopped betting on national development.”

Beneath the veneer of normalcy, he said, key drivers of growth, like technology transfer and investment, are eroding. “It’s like a cake that was dropped on the table and it looks more or less fine, but inside it’s all blown up,” Inozemtsev said.

Russia’s government was better prepared to withstand the sanctions than many in the West expected.

Since the start of the war, the International Monetary Fund has revised its economic outlook for Russia upward twice and is forecasting a 3.5% decline in gross domestic product this year, similar to the government’s projections. This decline, while a major reversal from prewar growth expectations, stands in sharp contrast to the double digits collapse of Venezuela’s economic output after a wave of American sanctions in 2019.

“Sanctions have not destroyed the resilience of the Russian financial system, nor have they impacted macroeconomic stability,” Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said last week during a government meeting.

A combination of high oil revenues, large currency reserves and an expert team of economic officials has allowed Putin to soften the blow — much to the frustration of some Western leaders who had hoped the sanctions would have more bite by now.

But the loss of investment, technology and skills caused by the sanctions is likely to echo across generations, depriving many Russians of a chance at a better economic future, experts said.

In 2009, when Volkswagen launched full production cycles in Kaluga, Volodin not only got a job, but also unexpected support.

“I got paid to get trained for my job,” he said, still impressed. When a robot replaced him, he was retrained.

Those were boom times for Kaluga, an industrial region about 120 miles south of Moscow. The former governor actively courted Western investors, learning English and building a modern airport with several flights a week to Germany. He transformed a regional economy that had been 80% oriented toward the Soviet military industrial complex into one connected with the West. Pharmaceutical companies flocked to the Kaluga region, which has a population of 1 million, and so did auto manufacturers.

Volkswagen hired about 4,200 workers. Volvo and Stellantis, which produced and sold the Peugeot, Citroën, Opel, Jeep and Fiat brands in Russia, also established operations in the region. An ecosystem of suppliers and related industries sprang up to serve them, employing at least 25,000 people, according to Dmitry Trudovoy, chair of the Independent Workers’ Association trade union. Courses in German and other foreign languages at the local university were a pipeline to an office job with the companies.

It seemed as if a new, modern business model was being constructed step by step in the region, a hint of how Russia’s economy might evolve.

By 2020, Volkswagen’s output alone represented about 13% of the Kaluga region’s entire industrial production.

Now, most of the carmakers in the region have halted operations, and Trudovoy said the workers had no idea who might take over the Western factories and whether they would keep their jobs.

“They are nervous and scared for their future,” he said.

Kaluga’s industrial output fell 30% between February and July this year compared with the same period the year before, according to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency, becoming among the regions hit hardest.

Russian state firms and the government have vowed to replace the lost output with local brands. But there have been multiple signs of regression. In June, AvtoVAZ, which makes Russia’s best-known domestic car brand, the Lada, announced that its new cars would meet only 1996 emissions standards and have no passenger-side air bags.

In a symbolic move, an AvtoVAZ affiliate, Kamaz, announced that it would use a Moscow plant vacated by Renault after the invasion to relaunch the production of a Soviet-era car brand, Moskvich, or Muscovite, which had long been an almost comical byword for the deficiencies of communist consumer goods.

The slowdown in auto manufacturing also means that even Russia’s police will have a hard time acquiring new patrol cars. The Interior Ministry has been unable to find a supplier for the 2,800 new vehicles required for the traffic police, according to the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

Kamaz claims it will produce 50,000 “modern, comfortable, high-quality and safe” cars in the plant next year, including many with electric motors. To aid these efforts, the Russian government plans to channel about $500 million to domestic carmakers.

But modern history offers few examples of successful attempts to replace imported Western technology with local substitutes, said Inozemtsev, the economist. Russian companies lack the know-how and skilled workers to replace Western capital in technology-intensive sectors. Relying on homegrown substitutes will result in “primitivization,” Inozemtsev said.

Production will not disappear, he said, but it will gradually degrade, resulting in lower quality and quantity of products that will progressively reduce the standard of life of Russians.

In Kaluga, the collapse of the auto industry is having wide-ranging collateral effects. The real estate market ground to a halt after the war started, said Kirill Gusev, editor of the online real estate site Kaluga House. It started improving over the summer as people got used to a new normal, but then collapsed after Putin announced a military call-up of hundreds of thousands of men in September.

“Real estate is essentially long-term planning, but right now we are in a place where you can’t do that at all,” Gusev said. “We all saw how easy it was for normality to collapse.”

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